“You’ll never plumb the Oriental mind / And even if you did it isn’t worth the toil.” That was how Rudyard Kipling, in his 1888 poem “One Viceroy Resigns,” imagined the feelings of Lord Dufferin, the departing administrator of the British Raj. “Oriental,” in this case, refers to the inhabitants of what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Today if a white guy in a Whitechapel Road pub started talking to you about, say, the Bangladeshi mentality, you might brace yourself for some racist remarks. Much of modern liberalism is an exercise in empathy, asserting that beneath any exotic surface qualities, “they” are just like 'us' (whoever “they” and “us” may be). But a growing body of science has found that there really is such a thing as an “Oriental” mind, and it is definitely worth the toil to plumb it. The differences aren’t racial — genetic variation among races is now known to be pretty trivial — but cultural.
In 2010, Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan published a paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences called “The Weirdest People in the World?” — as in WEIRDest. The paper pointed out that “a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4,000 times more likely to be a research participant than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.” For decades, psychologists have been generalizing their results from American undergraduates to the entire species. But American undergraduates aren’t even representative of other Americans, let alone humanity in general.
That may seem pretty obvious, but the field of psychology desperately needed the point to be made. For instance, various U.S. studies have shown that most people think they’re better looking and more talented than most other people, even though that is statistically impossible. This is called self-enhancement bias, and for decades it was held to be inherent to us all. The prizewinning psychologist Roger Brown once wrote that the desire to maintain unwarranted self-esteem is an “urge so deeply human, we can hardly imagine its absence.” And yet it is easy to imagine its absence. All you have to do is run the same experiment on some East Asians, who demonstrate no such urge.
“Japanese psychologists couldn’t replicate the things they’d been reading about in textbooks,” Mesoudi said. “And that led to the cross-cultural revolution.” Then, with the publication of “The Weirdest People,” a revolution took hold across English-speaking psychology departments. “That paper was a landmark in the history of psychology.”
After the University of Exeter sent out a press release about the study, he said, “we were called by a couple of national newspapers, and the questions were all along the lines of, ‘Can these tests identify jihadists or people who are likely to go off to Syria?’” And as soon as I made it clear that we didn’t look at terrorism or extremist views and these kind of tests can’t be used for anything like that, the interest from the journalists dropped off rather rapidly.” However, just because second-generation Bangladeshis become more Westernized according to the metrics of his study, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less likely to become radicals. Imagine a boy from Tower Hamlets making the decision to defy his parents and offer his services to ISIL despite a lack of training. Arguably, a Western ego would only make that decision easier.
Abdul Shohid didn’t dispute the effects of what Mesoudi calls horizontal cultural transmission — meaning that Tower Hamlets schools shaped him into a very different person from his father. But ethnicity, he argued, “is a red herring.” Class, for him, is overwhelmingly more important. A few years ago, he did an internship at a think tank where all his colleagues had studied at Oxford or Cambridge. “I felt like they weren’t grounded in the real world. They didn’t know how to engage with other people. Whereas I used to work in Iceland, the supermarket, and there we had a mix of black African, black Caribbean, white working class, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, and we just got along really well.” For him, if there is a problem with integration in British society, it’s not between immigrants and natives but among social classes, regardless of race.
This point — that the study’s focus on psychology may come at the expense of a more realistic social understanding — was also made by Delwar Hussein, a writer and anthropologist who collaborated on with Mesoudi on the research, recruiting participants and distributing questionnaires in Tower Hamlets. “What I found most interesting,” Hussein said, “was that there was a psychological way of being able to explain that I had always understood as sociological phenomena — economics, politics, power, gender.”
He suggested perhaps too much sociology had been jettisoned. “Bangladeshis have been part and parcel of British society for close to a hundred years, four or five generations. My grandfather came in the 1930s as part of the war effort.” Editing categories down to first generation and second-generation, he said, “limits our understanding of how much older this community is.” Furthermore, it fails to acknowledge that each wave of immigration is coming from a different Bangladesh. “Everything is always in transition in Bangladesh, as it is everywhere else. To say that there is a fixed terrain of collective thinking in Bangladesh — or whatever the sending country is — doesn’t make sense.”
Mesoudi's Thinking Styles Project is still in its earliest phases. Last year he released an iOS app, Global Village, which allows users to test whether their thinking is Western or non-Western, and if funding permits, future research will be both broader in purview and finer in detail. Mesoudi is well aware of the particularity of every single immigrant experience. “My dad came from Morocco in the ’70s. My mum’s Welsh. So I’m a rare Moroccan-Welsh hybrid. I think me and my sister are the only ones,” he said. In his first book, “Cultural Evolution,” he argued that human culture, from arrowheads to politics, can be understood in Darwinian terms. Whereas it takes thousands of years for animals to evolve new characteristics, culture mutates and splits and recombines with every generation. The result, in Tower Hamlets and elsewhere, is a scintillant chaos. “We’re very good at acquiring local norms and customs and thinking styles of whatever society we find ourselves in,” he said. “After all, we’ve been coming out of Africa and moving around the world for the last 200,000 years. Humans are a migratory species.”