Kein Systemvergleich

Kein Systemvergleich means “comparison between systems is forbidden.”  It is written here in the imperative, as an order. I don’t want to sound shrill, but I have to say this once in a while to the people in my environment.  Sometimes I have to say it to myself:  No comparing the university system of Country X with the system of Country Y, for instance.  Sure you can do it among yourselves, but not in front of people from Country Y (the loser in this example).

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Why not?  Well, first, there is the problem of sounding stupid.  As I have written, it takes years to understand your own system.  Then it takes many more years to learn about another.  And then, when you know enough to compare them, you are a biased bystander. You were raised in one culture that favored some things more than other things.  Or you or your brother or your cousin had a bad experience in one system, and you can’t seem to get distance from that single experience.  Your judgment is forever sullied. 

A European living in the US told me several years ago that she had had a bad time at the University of Delaware when she was on a study abroad program.  Based on that experience, she planned to suggest to her own children not to go to university in the US, where you have to pay for those bad times.  (Why not have bad times for free?) That stunning generalization made her sound stupid (see my post, “Happy Halloween.”).  But this stupidity is not unique to people from her country; it is universal. The problem is, as we know in psychology, human beings are not good intuitive scientists.  That is why everyone should all learn about sampling methods, sample size, generalizability, and other statistical concepts early on in life.  But they don’t.

Instead, they are not only biased by single, non-representative personal experiences (or worse: second hand experiences), such as a bad year at the University of Delaware, they also transmit these biases with wanton disregard for others.  A European friend living in the US told me recently that another person from Europe, but married to an American man, asked her, with her American husband standing right there next to her, “Have you made any friends in the US yet?  It is pretty much impossible because Americans are all so superficial.”  What was the husband was thinking there so passively: “Uh oh, if I defend myself, I won’t get any sex for two weeks”?  Maybe.

And what would my German husband think if I told someone in front of him that it must be hard to live in Germany because you have to live with the Germans?   If I thought such a stupid thing, why would I say it in front of him?

I reflected on this when living in France for 14 years because indeed Europeans have often said very hurtful things about Americans.  In front of me or to me.  (In case you are wondering, and as I already said, I believe that this behavior is universal.  However, in my entourage, the judgmental tone of clichés is asymmetrical: Educators in US higher education tend toward believing that France is better in many ways than the US.  This Systemvergleich is typically as naïve as believing the opposite. I am conscious enough to know that my American entourage only represents Paula Niedenthal’s entourage, and not the whole of the US).

There are a number of mental processes that account for the act of saying wildly mean comparative statement of the type I illustrate here.  The most obvious is the problem I have already mentioned: people think their own teeny experience is generalizable to regions, countries, the world.   So, they think they have the “facts.”  The second is that saying such things comes from a deep belief that everyone else shares the same opinion.  This faulty thinking has been called the “false consensus bias.”  Demonstrations in social psychology show that if we enjoy fixing rototillers or believe in space aliens, we are certain that many others do too.  So why not mention, since we all believe it, that Americans are _________  (fill in the blank)?  It is just stating the obvious.

But probably, the issue isn’t that people can’t reason correctly or use statistics. What is the real purpose of Systemvergleich?  It is most likely the evacuation of hatred.  So then the question is, why so much hatred?

Paula NiedenthalComment