Pick a word — any word. Read it aloud 30 times. Many of you will notice that the word gradually loses meaning and starts to look strange. This phenomenon, known as semantic satiation, temporarily disrupts our ability to process familiar words, such as “bicycle” or “happiness,” and forces us to reconstruct the meaning anew from strings of letters.
Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian literary theorist, famously claimed that good art does something similar, estranging us from what is habitual and aiming “to make objects ‘unfamiliar’ … to increase the difficulty and length of perception.”
As a cultural psychologist, I derive my estrangement experiences from puzzling over cultural similarities and differences. As I study people who inhabit different cultural contexts, I look back at the one we inhabit here at Georgetown with wonder.
In this cultural context, we emphasize choices and equate them with freedom. Students here carefully choose their courses and order their lattes with soy milk, hazelnut syrup and half a shot of espresso, please. The assumption we all share is that choice is individuating and therefore rewarding and motivating. Yet, people inhabiting other cultural contexts far and near do not share it, responding to choices as if they were taxing rather than rewarding.
It takes a typical Georgetown student less than a minute to describe his or her emotional state using a standard questionnaire. Don’t we all know our feelings? In one of my studies, articulate and intelligent students in Ghana spent about 30 minutes on the same questionnaire. They frequently sought my guidance while filling out the form. How is one supposed to know whether she is sad or proud when no one else is around?
Our relationships tend to be voluntary. College life is designed to bring students in contact with numerous others, facilitating relatively low-stake and transient relationships.
Even family relationships are marked by expectations of mobility. When I ask students in my large classes to raise their hands if they intend to live in the same city as their parents in 20 years, only one or two hands go up.
This looks very strange to cultural outsiders. Students in many cultural contexts tend to stay in their hometowns for college, embedding themselves in small and stable networks of old friends and family. College relationships are often considered just as serious and stable as more mature relationships.
The list goes on. Things we take for granted, our strengths and our weaknesses — the incredible amount of time our students spend volunteering to help strangers, their concern with experiencing and expressing happiness, our shared assumption that talking in class signals to rigorous thinking, our prevalent stereotypes that create threats for members of some minority groups — look unusual, if not downright weird, to other cultures.
These and many other cultural differences between Americans and much of the world are so pronounced that cultural psychologists have dubbed us the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) culture. WEIRD cultural contexts are outliers on a number of psychological dimensions.
Among people in these contexts, college students are even more extreme in their responses. Yet, much of what we know about the way people feel, think and behave is based on American college students. It is because of this that it is so easy for us to believe that choice is naturally rewarding, emotions are easily accessible and college relationships are transient by definition.
I submit that cultural estrangement experiences are critical to educating the whole person, and the best place for us to start is to train our students to be experts in their own culture. To do so, we need to systematically disrupt their sense that our cultural way of doing things is normal, natural and moral. They should estrange themselves from their cultural realities and reconstruct their meanings anew.
As Shklovsky posed, this comes with the cost of deliberately increasing the difficulty of understanding our ways of life. Yet the potential rewards are great. As individuals, we may gain flexibility and empathy for the worldviews of others. As a community, we may be more apt to notice aspects of our shared psychological and physical landscapes that signal belonging to some of us and exclusion to others. Cherishing cultural others in our midst and fostering opportunities for estrangement are critical to all of us as students and scholars.
Yulia Chentsova Dutton is an associate professor in the department of psychology. This is the final appearance of THE PSYCH FACTOR this semester.