Sex, Drugs, and Boredom

Why we should take entertainment more seriously than we do.

Psychological Anthropology II

The concept of person

These days it would be difficult for anyone to miss the fact that people in different cultures think about things in different ways. People have different religions and moral standards, different music and foods, different understandings of the very purpose of human life. Among these differences is how people think about people-what is a person? Why do people do the things they do? Do they have free will? What is the role of emotion in human life? And so on.

Some psychologists believe that we can discover the bottom-line truth about what a person is through well-designed experiments that gradually reveal the underlying characteristics of how our species thinks and behaves. While I agree that such work will enable us to learn much about human characteristics, I do not think that a "bottom-line truth" about people will ever be achieved, for the following reason: what people think about people-their "concept of the person" influences what they do. Human behavior always arises out of an interaction between the innate characteristics of the species and the unique ideas that different people have.

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A good example of how much conceptions of the person can differ was provided years ago by anthropologist Ruth Benedict in her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a description of traditional Japanese culture. At one point Benedict discusses understandings of the word "sincerity" to illustrate some of the differences between the conceptions of person in pre-war Japan and the contemporary West. To Westerners, one is acting sincerely if one's actions reflect their real feelings and convictions. To traditional Japanese, following your personal ideas and wishes is almost the opposite of sincerity. Rather, they thought of sincerity as zealously carrying out what is expected of you in your social role-as a soldier or teacher or wife or son. In this view, a person who is enthusiastically caring for an elderly relative who they personally cannot stand is being sincere.

The differences in the understanding of this one word illustrate some broader facts. The reason that traditional Japanese thought about sincerity in the way they did is that they thought of the person as a set of social expectations and obligations. Someone who does what is expected and fulfills their obligations is lining up what they really are as a person. For Americans, by contrast, the person is the unique characteristics of an individual, and someone is being sincere when their behavior lines up with those characteristics. Traditional Japanese, of course, recognized that people have unique desires and attitudes. They just didn't believe that putting these ahead of what is expected of you is anything to be admired, and it certainly wasn't being true to what you are.

These kinds of differences in conception of person can have very wide-ranging consequences for how people think and act, how they understand their desires and emotions, even for the character of mental illness in different places. Another example of this bears directly on the general topic of this blog: The culture of entertainment has had a considerable influence on our concept of person in contemporary society. I'll be returning to this point.

To learn more, please visit Peter G. Stromberg's website.

Peter Stromberg, Ph.D., is an Anthropologist and author of Caught in Play: How entertainment works on you.

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