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Who’s In Charge? Hey – I am!!!

What We in the West Can Learn from the East

By Shlomo Maital

   Why is Asia, in general, doing so much better than the US and South America, in battling the pandemic? I found a possible answer in an old American Psychologist article, published 36 years ago. *

     In times of enormous uncertainty, as today, people grasp at straws. They try to re-establish control of their lives, when they feel it has slipped away.

       According to Weisz et al., there are “two general paths to a feeling of control”: Primary control, and secondary control.

   * Primary control:   “individuals enhance their rewards by influencing existing realities (i.e. other people, circumstances, symptoms, or behavior problems).” In the US South and West (Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Arizona), people take control by saying, who are you, Governor, Mayor, to tell me to lock down, stay inside, wear a mask??!! Nuts to that. I’ll do what I wish. I am a free person. I have First Amendment rights. Who’s in charge here? I am!!!

     This is primary control. And – it leads to disaster, as we are seeing now. Because it focuses on the wellbeing of me, the individual, and the hell with everyone else. And it denies reality, even when spoken by those who know.

   * Secondary control: “Individuals enhance their rewards by accommodating to existing realities and maximizing satisfaction or goodness of fit with things as they are”.

     Primary control is highly valued in the US, for example. Secondary control is far more highly valued in Japan – and other Asian nations. China, for instance, has a 5,000-year-old tradition of “the greater good”. This is the basis of ‘secondary control’. Accommodating to existing realities.

   Primary control people seem to deny the pandemic; there have been COVID-19 parties in the US — where a person with novel coronavirus is invited to a party, as a sign of defiance, a belief it’s all a hoax. Recently, according to news reports, “a 30-year-old dies after attending ‘Covid party’ in Texas. Patient said: ‘I think I made a mistake, I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not’. He paid a heavy price.

     I believe that in general, if you drew a color map of the world – color countries with “primary control” red, color countries with “secondary control” green – you will get a fairly close match with the coronavirus hotspot countries today, with a few exceptions.

     It sounds very extreme but – I believe we are seeing a global drama of social evolution. A black-swan pandemic event occurs that kills people. Nations try to adapt. Some have cultures that kill many people, rather than save them. Other nations have cultures that save people’s lives rather than kill them. And out of this mess, emerge nations whose culture is better adapted to the environment, stronger and fitter.  

   It’s not too late. We in the West can learn from the nations in the East. After decades of arrogance and alleged superiority, it is now time to become very very humble. The East knows something. We can learn from them, before it’s too late.

* “Standing Out and Standing In: the Psychology of Control in America and Japan.” John R. Weisz et al.   American Psychologist, September 1984. Pp 955-969.



Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital