Do different generations of immigrants think differently?

A new study of London's Bangladeshi community finds that cultural assimilation changes how people engage with the world

The Tower Hamlets neighborhood in London, the focus of Alex Mesoudi's study, has one of the highest concentrations of Bangladeshi immigrants in the UK.
Alex Segre / Alamy

“When I was growing up, a lot of people would come over to visit my father who I thought were relatives, but I found out later they were just friends,” Abdul Shohid recalled. “Friends from his village, from work, stuff like that. They would bring their kids with them and I made friends with their kids.'” His father immigrated to London from rural Bangladesh in the 1960s, and in England he maintained the kind of domestic social life that was common in his village in Sylhet — generous, inclusive, mutually supportive. Shohid, 36, misses it. “I don’t have that like my father did.”

Part of the reason his parents put so much emphasis on conviviality around the dinner table was that they were less comfortable beyond their front door. “The U.K. was a mysterious place,” he said. “They didn’t know how to access services. They didn’t feel like they were part of society. And they experienced a lot of racism. So for them, it was all about family instead.” Shohid, by contrast, is not only a user but also a provider of social services. He works with young offenders in the London borough of Tower Hamlets, where he has spent nearly all his life.

The Bangladeshi presence in Tower Hamlets goes back at least to the end of the 18th century, when sailors employed by the East India Company sometimes remained near the docks of the East End if they couldn’t find a berth on a ship going back to India. Larger numbers began to arrive in the 1960s looking for work, including Shohid’s father, who moved to Brick Lane after a stint in a brickmaking factory in the eastern town of Bedford. Today, Bangladeshis make up 32 percent of Tower Hamlets. “At my school there was one white lad and a couple of black guys, but the rest of us were Bangladeshi,” Shohid said, at a greasy spoon on Cambridge Heath Road that could have been a stage set for a play about Cockney London. But you only have to stroll across Weaver’s Fields, a park named for the Huguenot silk weavers who preceded the Bangladeshis there, and you soon find yourself in Banglatown.

Thousands of members of the UK's Bangladesh community celebrated Bengali New Year in Tower Hamlets
See Li / Demotix / Corbis

Although ethnic tensions in Tower Hamlets are not as fraught today as they were in 1993, when the far-right British National Party won its first council seat in history there, the area is a battleground in the contemporary immigration debate. In December, when Donald Trump claimed that there are “places in London … that are so radicalized that the police are afraid for their own lives,” he didn’t specify which neighborhoods, but he was presumed to be talking about Tower Hamlets and Newham. To some, the Bangladeshi population of Tower Hamlets represents a sort of undigested bezoar in the stomach of London’s capital — a rebuke to the left-wing dream of universal welcome.

“I consider myself British, not Bangladeshi,” Shohid said. “I pay my taxes. I have a stake in society.” But the data that fit on a census form or a tax return provide only a narrow account of second and third generation migrant life. Moreover, his wistfulness about his father’s social habits says at least as much about the changing character of London. Shohid has several nieces and nephews, and he said, “Maybe by the third generation, they’ll be even more different from my father … By being immersed in this neoliberal, individualistic culture, maybe by the time they get married, they’ll have become a lot more atomized rather than community driven.” For better or worse, shifts of this kind are part of the process of integration. But they’re not often invoked in the immigration debate because they seem so personal, so subjective, so impalpable.

A study published in January in the open-access journal PLOS One offers what may be the most systematic approach yet to understanding how immigrants and their children have their thinking shaped by the culture in which they’ve settled. Alex Mesoudi is the primary author of that paper, “How Do People Become WEIRD? Migration Reveals the Cultural Transmission Mechanisms Underlying Variation in Psychological Processes” — “WEIRD” being short for “Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic.” He is an associate professor of cultural evolution at the University of Exeter. His Thinking Styles Project, funded by the U.K.’s Economic and Social Research Council, is an appropriately rootless undertaking, with scattered investigators working together mostly by email and Skype.

The study entailed giving 13 pages of questions to about 300 residents of Tower Hamlets. Some were first-generation British Bangladeshis, born and raised in Bangladesh at least until age 14; some were second-generation, born in the U.K. to first-generation parents; and some were nonmigrants, born in the U.K. to parents born there too. In one section, they were asked to sketch a landscape with a house, a tree, a river, a person and a horizon. In another, they were asked to guess at the motivations of Ben Johnson, the Olympic sprinter who abused steroids, and Gang Lu, the Chinese-American physics student who committed a mass shooting. They were also asked whether they thought they were more attractive than other people. None of these questions have any conspicuous connection to the topic of urban cohesion. But Mesoudi specializes in cross-cultural psychology, the study of how the culture a person comes from can fundamentally affect the way he or she processes the world.

It’s no great shock to hear that the children of immigrants have one foot in each culture. What makes this study important is that now we can put numbers on an something that seemed ineffable.

“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.”

Alex Mesoudi

Self-enhancement bias is just one of a number of differences in thinking that have been identified so far. Others are even more fundamental, reaching deep into perception and ontology. For instance, imagine a cow, a chicken and some grass. Which of those two go together? People from the U.S. tend to pair the cow and chicken because they’re both farm animals, whereas people from China tend to pair the cow and the grass, because cows eat grass. In the crudest terms, Western thinking can be described as individualistic and analytical, while Asian thinking can be described as collectivistic and relational. (One theory is that this all goes back to the different crops that are cultivated in different parts of the world; rice farming requires a lot more cooperation than wheat farming.)

This understanding of thinking styles was the basis for Mesoudi’s study in Tower Hamlets. “How Do People Become WEIRD?” reports that the second-generation subjects are positioned about halfway between the first-generation subjects and the nonmigrant subjects, particularly with regard to collectivism versus individualism in response to questions such as “Family members should stick together, no matter what sacrifices are required — agree or disagree?”

It’s no great shock to hear that the children of immigrants have, like Abdul Shohid, one foot in each culture. What makes this study important is that this is a mode of assimilation so ineffable that you might never even think to look — and yet now we can put numbers on it. “If these characteristics were hard wired or genetic, then we wouldn’t expect to see any such rapid shift,” Mesoudi said. “Or if they were just parentally taught, then, again, you wouldn’t see that kind of shift. But these results implicate what we call horizontal cultural transmission, meaning things like education and the mass media.”

Does it really make any difference whether your neighbor thinks the cow goes with the grass or with the chicken? There is evidence to suggest that harmony in thinking styles may make at least some contribution to harmony in real life. This field of inquiry is still nascent, but multiple studies have found, for instance, that immigrants who retain Asian thinking styles have briefer and less effective conversations with their doctors — suggesting that the problems that Shohid’s parents had accessing services may have had other causes apart from inexperience and language barriers.

Mesoudi chose the Bangladeshis of Tower Hamlets in part because he believed them to be, he said, “the hardest test case,” given their high concentration and robust culture. Although there is considerable evidence of immigration’s benefits, it’s sometimes suggested by critics of immigration that these benefits will halo some ethnicities much more than others. “Our study, I think, speaks to that point,” he said, “by showing that Muslim British Bangladeshis are no different from other migrant groups in showing rapid acculturation.” Even in the densest Banglatown, assimilation seems to be unstoppable. Regardless of whether a second-generation kid wears a jubba or sweatpants, his thinking is becoming more Western at the most abstract and instinctual levels.

The Jamiatul Ummah School, a private secondary school in Tower Hamlets’ Whitechapel neighborhood, recently failed its third government inspection in a row after inspectors found books in the library that promoted “inequality of women and punishments including stoning to death.” Mesoudi’s prior research involved asking college students in Missouri to imagine themselves in the role of Neanderthal hunters designing flint arrowheads by trial and error — interesting but not all that provocative. Asked whether he was aware when he started the Tower Hamlets study that he was wading into much more turbulent waters, he said, “It was always scientifically driven. We had no political motivation to prove anything or campaign for anything.”

Just because second-generation Bangladeshis become more Westernized doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less likely to become radicals. Imagine a boy from Tower Hamlets making the decision to offer his services to ISIL — arguably, a Western ego would only make that decision easier.

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.”

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