Wednesday, March 02, 2011

The Africa paradox?

While walking Mr. Tooty this morning Mrs. Angus and I were discussing why Americans visiting in Africa so often conclude that Africans are intrinsically more "joyful" and don't care about material things.

She suggested an analogy to the literature showing that people have a very hard time predicting the emotional consequences of being in unfamiliar, unfavorable situations.

For example, healthy people overwhelmingly say they'd be unhappy with their life if they lost a limb or were in a wheelchair, but people actually in those situations often report that they are happy. Here is a recent example regarding people with "locked in" syndrome. There is a term for this phenomenon; the disability paradox.

So maybe, when rich Westerners visit in Africa, they project their expectations of how happy they would be if they lived in the situations they see onto the local people. When these local people demonstrate that they are actually happy, it causes cognitive dissonance and the westerners attribute the paradox to some intrinsic otherness or lack of materialism, rather than recognizing that external circumstances do not determine happiness.

I am NOT saying poverty is a disability, I AM saying that the phenomenon of inaccurately predicting happiness in unfamiliar, adverse situations may apply more broadly than just to cases of physical disabilities.


Hasdrubal said...

I'm sure a lot of the surprise at people living in poverty and not also being horridly depressed is due to projection of how we think we would feel. But I wonder how many of those "happily poor" Africans (or anyone else) are also putting on a brave face for outsiders?

I'd imagine that even people who live in dirt floored shanties clean up as best as possible when they have company over. That doesn't mean that they don't complain and worry when only family is around.

emerson said...

Note: A straw man was harmed in the making of Angus' argument. Who ever said Africans "don't care about material things"? People might say that they don't do it to the same degree as Americans do, and that might be true. It might not.

But I'll ask it again, Angus:

"Would you say anyone's culture is more joyful than another's? Is Brazilian culture more joyful than Japanese? Is the reverse true? Are they equally joyful? Or are people just people?"

I'm not sure Zambians are more or less acquisitive or status-obsessed than Americans. Or more joyful. But maybe they are. Can't you admit that some cultures MIGHT BE less focused on getting and acquiring stuff than America is?

BR said...

This could be fun, Angus. You've visited a lot of places and talked to a lot of people... how about the Angus Awards? Kind of like the Oscars, but given to cultures for joyfulness. For example: Most Joyful 3rd World Dictatorship, Best Exhibition of Joyfulness by an Island Nation, Display of Joyfulness by a Female Prime Minister, etc.

Tom said...

"...external circumstances do not determine happiness." Usually. For most, life is 10% what happens to you and 90% what you do about it. The exceptional folks in Darfur and North Korea do get bitching rights.

As to "dirt floors," didn't all of humanity have dirt floors for hundreds of thousands of years before we learned how to do something better? I'd hate to think there was no happiness in all that time.

On that same theme, I quite sure something will be invented in the next century that, 50 years hence, will seem such a necessity that anyone [us] who has none will be objects of pity.

Anonymous said...

Africans know that they are fundamentally incapable of achieving the kind of material success that Westerners enjoy, so they embrace the cultural paradigm that works for them. The problem here is that the naive Westerners who go to these countries project their own capabilities on the natives, and then try to transform the native societies without any understanding of their limitations.

TGGP said...

As Robin Hanson put it, Poor Folks Do Smile. I believe in development economics there's also the Easterlin[?] paradox.