Posted by: Geoff Wing | February 24, 2010

Does cultural cognition explain our climate change deadlock?

Senator Jim Inhofe mocks Al Gore

In early February, record-breaking snowfalls paralyzed the US East Coast. As cities stopped functioning, a strange thing happened: the climate change culture wars erupted. Republican Senator James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma made fun of climate change messenger Al Gore (the igloo picture is “Al Gore’s New Home”), writing that the snow proved that global warming science was wrong. His tribe of American global warming skeptics cheered. The scientific community reminded us that global warming is a long term effect not observable season by season, restating that this weird and wild weather was exactly what climate change would create as temperature rises changed historical weather patterns, and their tribe of  global warming supporters cheered.

How can the same facts be used to justify completely opposing conclusions? Why does scientific information get disputed and politicized so badly? Why, in a country so proud of scientific fact and rationality do we have have heated disputes about the truth of evolution, the existence of global climate change, the necessity of Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccinations, and the child-welfare effects of gay and lesbian parenting? Our polarized public debate has created national paralysis on these and many other issues.

As a young cell biology and genetics undergrad student, I thought the problem was about science education. I was certain that scientific truth was obvious to anyone who took the time to listen to or read about it. I was convinced that rational discussion of scientific findings would convince the entire world about the rightness of science. But after I graduated, I found out I was fundamentally wrong about human nature.

It turns out that we humans are driven to do strange things by our unconscious minds. We’re not the rational individualists we like to think we are. Instead, we’re emotional social animals who need to be liked, driven by our need to form kinships with the people we whose values we share and admire. So we filter the information we hear to reinforce our personal beliefs in ways that make us liked by those we admire. In other words, we feel kinship to a team, then listen to information and unconsciously filter it so the information confirms our belonging that that team. This is called “cultural cognition”, referring to the tendency of individuals to listen for what they want to believe in so it confirms their personal cultural identities. We believe in whatever helps us belong.

Who is uncovering this uncomfortable fact about us? It’s scientists again, a multidisciplinary group of social scientists, psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists and others leveraging the ideas of complex adaptive systems to explore how individual persons interact with each other to cause group behavior and beliefs that emerge in unexpected ways. Their study of cultural cognition describes the influence of group values on risk perceptions and related beliefs. The article by Dan Kahan below studies the cultural values of equality and authority versus individualism and community. Summarizing the cultural cognition mechanism behind the global warming debate:

  • People are disconcerted to believe that behavior they aspire to is detrimental to society while behavior they dislike is beneficial. Because accepting evidence about this could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional reason to reject it. Therefore, in the global warming debate:
  • People with individualistic values who aspire to personal initiative, and people with hierarchical values who aspire to respect authority tend to dismiss evidence of global warming because it would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, which they admire. These are the global warming skeptics represented by Republican Senator James Inhofe.
  • People with egalitarian and communitarian values are suspicious of commerce and industry, which they see as causes of unjust disparity. They tend to believe evidence that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted, so tend to accept evidence of global warming.

As a democratic society where consensus drives political change, it’s important that we acknowledge how cultural cognition makes us form belief-based teams around many important social issues that America faces.  Climate change is just one of them. Other hotly contested issues include health care, risk perceptions around nanotechnology, the use of deadly force in police work, risks of synthetic biology, risk perceptions around gun control, and risk perceptions around the death penalty. I believe that the risk of political paralysis is especially high for America because our two-party political system tends to divide us into two polarized teams: conservative versus liberal. Multiparty countries have more teams to belong to, creating a larger diversity of opinions and possibly causing less paralysis. Think about it. America is one of the very few places where the existence of climate change and evolution are debated.

Is cultural cognition driving us to political paralysis?


Posted by: Geoff Wing | November 8, 2009

Does our culture drive up the cost of our own health care?


(Download “This American Life” podcast below)

American health care costs have been rising for years and the situation is unsustainable, threatening the health of people and the economy. Why is it so hard for the players in the health care system to reduce costs?

The fascinating  podcast  from NPR’s “This American Life” downloadable above (episode 391, one hour, program details here) explains it well: it’s the complex interaction of emotions, ideas, values, and economic incentives within the system that keeps pushing up cost and preventing systemic reform.

The podcast is about our health care culture, which I define as the deeply embedded and sometimes invisible ways of thinking that affect our behavior, expectations, and aspirations about healthcare. Although the word “culture” barely mentioned, the concept of “our current ways of thinking” pervades the entire podcast. When one faces an inexplicable situation, it’s helpful to look underneath the behaviors to look for the cultural ideas and values that drive them.

When thinking of the whole healthcare system, it makes sense to prevent unnecessary procedures. In other words, less is more.

However, from the perspective of each of the players in the system, their values and their economic needs demand that more procedures are done. More is more.

As I heard the podcast I listened for cultural elements. Here’s what I caught:


  • Are paid by “fee for service”. The more tests and procedures they do, the more they get paid.
  • Have an incentive to protect themselves from lawsuits by doing more tests as a “cover your ass” activity.
  • Have a taboo about talking about money, preventing discussion of how to reduce costs.
  • Are often driven by “more is more”.


  • Expect that more treatment and more tests are better for them because they are unaware of the complex risks that medical procedures expose them to.
  • Value the relationship they have with their doctor above cost and other factors.
  • Want emotional support from friends and family when they are ill, even though this might not be cost effective.
  • Are often driven by “more is more”.

Insurance providers:

  • Are paid by the total volume of medical spending that doctors order. There is no incentive for them to reduce costs.
  • Anger patients and hospitals when they try to reduce medical costs by asking patients to switch doctors and hospitals.
  • Are often driven by “more is more”.


  • Is reluctant to change doctor’s “fee for service” model of compensation because this is politically difficult.
  • Cannot openly address the idea that less medical procedure might be better for everyone because it’s political suicide.
  • Can’t get support for “less is more”.

When viewed as a whole, the health care system seems badly broken. But when viewing the behavior of each individual player from their own perspective, each is responding with their values and their economic interest to the incentives the system offers them. The podcast shows how culture works: many individuals interact in ways consistent with with their personal viewpoints, values and needs to create a system or society that works in mysterious ways.

Culture is complex. It doesn’t always create the systems or societies that are best for all. It doesn’t always create sustainable systems or societies either.

Posted by: Geoff Wing | October 14, 2009

Culturally Intelligent Movies

Planet B-Boy

Planet B-Boy

Living in a different culture is the best way to gain cultural awareness, but can you also get it while eating popcorn? Sure, if you choose the right movies.

I’d say that culturally intelligent movies are those which represent the target culture or subculture in an authentic light. Some are created by cultural insiders, like Japanese director Hidekazu Koreeda’s movie about Japanese families, “Still Walking (Aruitemo, aruitemo)”. Others are created by perceptive and empathetic outsiders, like Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee and female author Annie Proulx’s movie about gay ranch-hands in Wyoming in the 1960’s, “Brokeback Mountain”.

Here’s some of my favorite culturally authentic movies listed by category. I’ll explore others in future posts.


Up the Yangzhe: From Canada, a documentary on social and economic change in China following the massive Three Gorge’s dam project. Economic changes cause culture changes, and this film is masterful for illustrating how families adapt to that economic change. More than other documentaries, this shows how cultural change really starts from people change.

Afghan Star: A decidedly neutral documentary following the Afghan Star reality TV show’s three winning contestants, complete with death threats against a female singer. The widely different ethnicities, social differences, and social change within Afghanistan are on full view here. If culture is as invisible as the air around us, then culture is most interesting when it changes like the air whipped into an unpredictable windstorm.

Pray The Devil Back To Hell: How a multi-faith woman’s movement ended Liberia’s bloody civil war by demanding the removal of  President Charles Taylor, the warlords engaged around him, and the culture of fighting.


Still Walking (Aruitemo, aruitemo): From Japan, a portrayal of family dynamics exceptional for its realistic acting and authentic storyline. Although the setting is Tokyo, the emotional and communication barriers are universal, as is the habit of waiting until it’s too late. Japanese-speaking viewers will revel in how polite self-effacing social manners slowly reveal themselves as relationship-limiting complaints.

Amreeka: Warm and dark at the same time, this captures the adjustments that a Palestinian family faces as they settle in the US. Cultural mutual incomprehensibility is illustrated through the comical misunderstandings that one has in a foreign culture, plus the dark, disguised distrust that might lurk underneath.

The Kite Runner: Afghanistan, the Taliban, and the Afghan-American experience from a writer with firsthand experience. A remarkable illustration of the how civil unrest causes one’s neighbors to  become enemies, and how ethnic identities are perpetuated.

The Year My Parents Went On Vacation: A Brazilian film focusing on a very diverse multicultural neighborhood in the city of Sao Paulo in 1970. A Brazilian friend of Japanese ancestry who was raised in that same neighborhood at that time marvels at the realism of the film. A warm illustration of life as the child of a Jewish political dissident in a very diverse city.

Alice’s House: From Brazil, an understated observation of the clash of gender roles in a Sao Paulo household. My Brazilian friend is impressed by the film’s authenticity.


Planet B-Boy: Documentary filmakers follow finalists in an international break-dancing competition. Moving from country to country, we see wildly different approaches in how they prepare to win. Because the director is Asian-American, the cultural challenges the Korean and Japanese teams face in Europe are shown with accurate sensitivity.


Young@Heart: A US documentary follows a group of the very elderly who extend their spirits and lives by doing lively and challenging rock and roll concerts.

Cloud 9 (Wolke Neun): from Germany, a hyper-realistic and powerful treatment of love, longing, and sex after 70.

danone yogurt

From today’s Wall Street Journal, “Danone to Exit Joint Venture With China’s Wahaha”:
Cultural intelligence failures in business repeat themselves. This time it’s between a French yogurt giant seeking entry into the Chinese market through a joint venture with a Chinese milk giant. I am sure that nobody involved wants to admit that it happened because both sides failed to be aware of how their own culturally specific values and assumptions about relationships, business, and power caused each to behave in ways mutually incomprehensible to each other. As the impending divorce escalated and the French and Chinese media and governments got involved, the stakes got higher and the gap of mutual incomprehension grew to create angry accusations between countries, not just companies.

I said that history repeats itself. Read this article from about 1998 about an American firm entering the Japanese market, written by Christopher R. Keener.
The place, time, and details are different but the business failure and the mutual lack of trust comes from a similar lack of cultural self-awareness. Being culturally aware is about knowing yourself first, so you may know and engage the other better.

Posted by: Geoff Wing | September 23, 2009

Can couchsurfing improve your cultural intelligence?

Can couchsurfing improve your cultural intelligence?

…. says that it does (when you travel). A real cool concept: locals meeting travelers by helping them.

Meeting local folks is the most rewarding part of travel for me. Experience is the best way to learn about a culture, and to see how my own culture shapes me. looks like one way to do it.

I learned about the group from “Us Now”, a fascinating film about the power of collaboration, government, and the internet. Have a look at

I’ve not used yet. Please let us know if you have.

In Afghanistan, the US Army counterinsurgency operations are facing cultural intelligence challenges even within their own organization. Interpreters are considered key to building US Army cultural intelligence, but a lack of trust between military personnel and military interpreters is creating problems.

Let’s discuss: how and why does this happen?

Posted by: Geoff Wing | September 14, 2009

Make this foreign

We created foreign versions of software. They came back to bite us in unexpected places.

Our company was European. We had just opened an office in Japan to start our Japanese operations. Our most important client was an American consumer software developer, and the new service we offered them was multi-language software localization: simultaneously creating the French, German, Spanish, and Japanese language versions of their software. I was the project manager and main client contact, a role that put me in the front lines of the troubles that were to come.

Our client came to us because although the usual industry practice was to outsource European and Japanese versions to separate vendors; we managed all languages in the same project, creating cost savings and making each version consistent with the US original. Everything seemed fine until our client used their local offices to sign off on project release: their French, German, Italian and Spanish offices would approve our European products quickly with none or few corrections, but the Japanese offices would drag things out, complaining about our quality and demanding corrections and corrections of corrections until the Japanese product was delayed months after the rest. This caused chaos as everyone played the blame game: the US office would accuse their Japanese office of foot-dragging; the Japanese office would accuse us of poor quality, but when we defended our quality the Japanese offices would accuse their US head offices of neglecting the Japanese market’s quality requirements. In this game, everyone was at fault, and at its worst it degenerated into stereotypical accusations of American sloppiness versus Japanese political maneuvering. As the project manager, I had to discover the roots of the real problem.

Investigating the problem required input from our team and our client’s teams in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan. By Japanese market standards, we really did have quality problems, but neither we nor our US client knew this because we both used European standards as our benchmark. By Japanese standards, even many aspects of the original US product (which we faithfully reproduced into all languages) were substandard. Discussions about the printed manuals was most revealing, uncovering cultural differences that formed the foundation of customer expectations: American users didn’t use manuals because they were proud to “plug and play” on their own. Germans wanted perfect grammar in their German translations, showing concern about what regional dialect was used but perceived manual appearance as unimportant, expecting them to be made from recycled materials. The Italians didn’t care much about manual quality because after years of enduring English-only manuals they were satisfied by the mere existence of Italian manuals. In contrast, the Japanese wanted the tone and register of the translations to match their Japan office corporate image, and wanted absolute translation terminology consistency between all of their products. They rejected much of the original English source text, rewriting the Japanese manuals to explain things in a more detailed step-by step manner.They demanded higher paper and printing quality than the original English because the look and feel of the manuals and packaging affected quality perceptions of the product and company. They rejected the original spiral binding in favor of a more expensive and neater paperback-book binding. Although these talks seemed like the setup for a joke about national stereotypes, they were a useful discovery tool that created a conversation about country-specific use cases and customer expectations

Delving into country-specific customer behavior, values, and expectations helped us uncover deeper cultural differences that our client had not fully appreciated when they approached the project from the world of “every country gets the same as the original US product”. Understanding true customer requirements required a deep probe of customer’s expectations, and a culturally aware discussion of the philosophies behind how a product and its user are supposed to interact with each other.

Posted by: Geoff Wing | September 14, 2009

Unlearning a foreign culture

This is a story about one of my more humiliating career experiences. I was living in Tokyo and had just joined a new foreign company expanding around the globe, and was conversing with one of its executives. He asked me what I thought its main sales challenge would be in the USA. I said that the location of their head office – in a former Soviet “eastern bloc” country, was going to be a problem for Americans who remembered the1960’s Cold War. He agreed, saying that perception is everything in business. Little did I know that my perceptions about that country and the Soviet Union would impair my own ability to work with that company.

My childhood taught me everything I knew something about the country. When I was young, it was called “Czechoslovakia” and they were fierce international hockey opponents. I knew they came from an evil Communist place owned and operated by the Soviet Union. I knew they were sad losers during World War II, and remembered reading Franz Kafka’s depressing and bizarre novels about stifling bureaucracy (The Trial) and human cockroaches (The Metamorphosis) while in high school.

With this information, I set to work. In my first week, I already faced several setbacks, so I knew I was dealing with rulebound bureaucrats working according to communist ideas that were going to be completely impossible. I regretted that I had joined the firm.

Fortunately, company executives sent me to their headquarters for several weeks of training and familiarization. Reading, talking to people, and making friends made my head spin – I had been unaware of even the most basic facts about the country: it had returned to being a liberal democracy in 1989 after liberating itself from the Soviets, and became the “Czech Republic” in 1993. I learned that my assumptions about the place were ridiculous. Because it was Catholic country, I expected the influence of the church to be strong, but was completely wrong. I expected to see Soviet-style crumbling infrastructure, and strong Soviet-style social conservatism, but was mistaken. I realized I was in serious culture shock, that my assumptions and misunderstandings were warping my perceptions so badly that everything I experienced became a validation of my negative ideas about the country and its social system. I needed to be completely reprogrammed – to forget what my childhood years had taught me.

I was humbled by this experience because as a Canadian-born person who had moved to Japan 11 years earlier, and with my decade of international business experience, I was proud of my multi-national experience and my ability to  work across cultures and countries. I had happily adapted to Japan. But I completely failed to see within myself  the deep distrust and negative beliefs about Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that I had accumulated since childhood. It took several weeks on Czech soil with Czech friends, plus my determined efforts to identify and purge my inaccurate beliefs and assessments, for me to understand that my anti-communist upbringing had completely blocked me in evaluating a country, a society, and my daily experiences for what they really were.

All of this taught me the importance of unlearning everything I think I know when faced with new and unusual situations. It taught me to distrust many of the beliefs and perceptions that I carry inside me. It taught the importance of asking questions and cultivating a curious mind – one that starts empty so it can be filled with the knowledge that one learns from experience.

Posted by: Geoff Wing | September 14, 2009

When those foreigners just don’t get it…

Working with overseas offices can be hard. In addition to the the usual problems of incompatible time zones, remoteness, and possible language issues, it’s too common that the foreign office just doesn’t get it. I’ve been both the source and the recipient of crazy requests when I managed the newly established Tokyo office of a Czech company. The business and cultural differences between these locales were large, making work challenging when the mutually incomprehensible issues appeared. This taught me the importance of relationship building and how to do it across cultures, so I’ll share it here.

One incomprehensible request I made was my travel expenses for train fare as I visited prospective suppliers and clients around Tokyo. The Czech accounting team requested that I stop taking trains, find a cheaper way to travel, or conduct the business by phone. In Tokyo, this request caused instant resentment because the business culture required personal relationship-building office visits, and the cheapest way to travel was by train. After several e-mails and phone calls and waiting a few days for tempers to settle, the Czech team finally agreed to allow the expenses, since they now had a greater appreciation of Tokyo’s high transportation costs and understood that taking a trip on Tokyo’s trains (used for convenient local transportation) was not the same as getting on board a Czech train (often used for cross-European holiday travel). Of course, this was just the beginning of our misunderstandings.

As I set up our operations in Tokyo, our mutually incomprehensible exchanges got even more interesting. From the Czech side there were issues of “terrible” consistency and attitude problems from our Japanese vendors, issues of “prima-donna control freak clients”, and general feelings that Japanese vendors and customers were afraid and distrustful. From the Japan side there were discussions about the nonsensical policies coming from the Czech head office, and a deep distrust that any of the Czech business expectations would work in Japan. In a way, both sides were right. Unfortunately, as the Tokyo office’s first employee, I had to resolve these issues fast.

I worked remotely with five of the Czech office’s senior directors, and had regular phone calls with each of them. I hoped that the calls would resolve our problems, but soon discovered  that our structured meetings didn’t work. Talking to the Project Management Director about project status, the Vendor Management Director about vendor status, or the Language Translation Director about translation quality did not let us get to the heart of our problems. So I told each one that we would drop the structured format and  have open-ended discussions about problems, and that I would talk about cross-departmental matters. That changed the conversation dynamic completely so we could now talk freely about the deeper issues: the foundational business culture differences that made many of the Czech practices and expectations irrelevant in Japan, and vice versa.

These open-ended discovery conversations let us learn a lot from each other. Fundamental differences in the Czech versus Japanese concepts and and execution of quality was one lesson. Basic differences in how each culture creates and maintains business relationships was another. And we learned about our organizational culture differences too: the weeks-old “do it now” Tokyo office culture versus the decades-old “do it like we’ve always done it” Czech head office culture. Of course, it was essential that I had personally met with each of the Czech managers at their head office when I first started the job, because communication about deep issues like these can only happen when managers know and trust each other.