Domestic Affairs

Are Westerners in China more socially virtuous than Chinese?

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2011-06-18 10:35
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If you haven’t already read Liu Shinan’s opinion on the editorial page of Wednesday's China Daily, give a look (Recovering a long-lost social virtue).

Whether you agree with Liu Shinan or not, he broaches a compelling topic. Liu supposes that Chinese can learn from Westerners how to better safeguard social order and justice. As an example, he cites the case of the expatriate stopping a car that was going the wrong way on a one-way Guangzhou street.

To buttress his supposition, Liu cites a personal example of a foreigner who had yelled at him many years ago when Liu’s reckless driving nearly caused an accident.

Liu’s conclusion is that Westerners have developed a stronger sense of civic duty while Chinese have “become inured to petty violations of the country’s rules and regulations.”

As a Westerner, I would like nothing more than to ride in on my high horse and slip on a hero’s white hat. I’m just not quite sure it fits.

Here’s my own example. This past weekend my wife and I were about to board a bus in our Haidian neighborhood when we noticed a commotion between a young man and a young woman. He was grabbing her roughly. She was trying to get away and he threw a giant suitcase at her. Other people were watching. I intervened and stepped between the two individuals.

Okay. So far we have the white knight hero scenario Liu describes. But the young man didn’t react the way a Westerner would have (nor at least the way I think most Westerners would have) reacted. Rather than turn his anger upon me (Western response), the young man tried to explain that this was his girlfriend and that they were perfectly capable of working things out. He was able to compartmentalize and direct his anger at his girlfriend while simultaneously addressing me respectfully.

I still thought the young woman was in danger and urged her to get away but she stayed close by and continued to take guff from him, though less physical stuff. I backed off the scene.

Now here’s the thing. I completely agree with Liu that all of us need to take more responsibility for enforcing social norms. I did the right thing by intervening and I also agree with Liu that none of the Chinese witnessing the events were likely to get involved. I just don’t happen to think Westerners do interventions any better than Chinese but psychological science may explain why they appear to- at least in China.

First, one of the most researched and best understood phenomenon in psychology is bystander apathy or the bystander effect. The preeminent research on the topic was done by Princeton psychologist John Darley and his colleague Bibb Latane. Following in the wake of the Kitty Genovese murder case in New York City in which a young woman was stabbed many times while numerous neighbors watched but failed to intervene, Darley and Latane conducted laboratory experiments to understand why.

What the researchers found was that the chances of someone being rescued in Genovese situations or indeed in more mundane situations like the one I faced this weekend, is inversely proportional to the number of bystanders- i.e. the more people watching the less chance of intervention. The explanation is that people’s sense that they need to do something, even in situations of peril, decreases with more people because we take our social cues from the inactivity of others.

Responsibility is diffused and as Darley and Latane concluded: There is peril, not safety, in numbers. Now, I’m no hero but I am familiar with the bystander effect which makes it more likely that I will intervene and also makes me a bad subject from which to draw a more general conclusion.

There is also a second, less-well understood phenomenon, that might suggest why a Westerner would enforce a rule or law in China whereas Chinese would ignore petty violations.

We are all subject to powerful situational factors that largely control our behaviors. Americans are no different than Chinese in wishing to fit in, i.e. not stand out, even though Westerners give lip service to individuality. In a situation that calls for an intervention, the more powerful situational command is to do nothing so as not to draw attention to oneself.

However, Westerners in China stand out anyway. We therefore don’t experience that “fit in” commandment the same way a Chinese person does. That may make it easier for Westerners in China to yell at someone going the wrong way down a one-way street or intervene in a fight.

Finally, next week I will be in San Francisco meeting with Dr. Phil Zimbardo, America’s most famous scientific psychologist. Zimbardo is best-known for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment in the early 1970s where he demonstrated how powerful situational forces could cause normal boys to act abhorrently.

Zimbardo’s current research focuses on advancing everyday heroism by ordinary people. I’m pretty sure he’ll have some ideas about ways to develop a stronger sense of our civic duties in China too.

Patrick Mattimore is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism, a former high school psychology teacher, and an adjunct instructor of law at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.