Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Random Thoughts: Confirmation Bias

The presence of this gun and military shop in Tokyo indicates that the Japanese are violent people who love guns and implements of destruction, right? We can judge people by the items in stores, correct? If they didn't sell, such shops wouldn't exist! Is this not logical thinking? Perhaps not... Whether you believe this or not depends on your confirmation bias regarding Japanese people.

I'm stepping away from my ongoing memories of working at a Japanese office to talk about something that has been stuck in my head as of late. I'll be returning to my stories next week. I've found that if I don't get an idea out while it's lodged in the front of my mind, it'll get shuffled to the back and lost. My apologies to anyone who was looking forward to another story.

One of my husbands teachers at graduate school posted an article to Facebook recently about how you should clean your washing machine before you put clothes in it to kill germs. She posted with a comment which said that "this country" was obsessed with germs. This woman, who is an excellent teacher who is well-liked, intelligent, and highly capable, is British and when she was talking about "this country", she was referring to America.

I'll be honest and say that the way in which she presented the information immediately annoyed me because when people say "this" or "that", it is generally in a negative way that expresses exasperation and disapproval. You see and hear this sort of talk many times and it's rarely meant in a positive or neutral fashion. For example, a person who has a neighbor with a tendency to allow her dog to defecate on his lawn may utter with anger, "That woman!" when he inadvertently steps in a pile of doggy doo.

The first thing I did was read the article. The second thing I did was consider the source. The article was on Yahoo. That's not a good place for starters since most of the news outlets of that type structure content to promote advertising. In this case, it was even more egregious as the "advice" in the article was issued by an entity comprised of cleaning product manufacturers. This was no more than fear-mongering advice to try and promote the sales of that entity's products.

The teacher who used this article as "evidence" that Americans are germ-phobic in a manner which is atypical and strange compared to the rest of the, supposedly more sensible world, didn't look carefully at the source. She only found something that supported her bias and stopped right there. Being triumphant in locating such a tidbit of information, she thrust it out for the world to see and show that Americans are defective in this fashion.

I discussed this article with my sister-in-law and my frustration that someone who teaches courses at a graduate school level would not scratch the surface and see if what she was promoting as support for a negative view of Americans was from a valid source - never mind that it was not research or empirical data - which she should be looking for. My sister-in-law said that she felt that the article was correct and that Americans were obsessed with germs. As evidence of this, she said there was a plethora of anti-bacterial products in every store.

It's very important to look under the hood of everything you experience and not reach hasty conclusions and even the fact that there are a ton of anti-bacterial products isn't evidence that Americans are obsessed with germs. I had an experience in Japan which illustrates this well, and it had nothing to do with germs but everything to do with understanding that what consumers are offered isn't necessarily what they want or would prefer to choose.

This is a situation which I've mentioned somewhere in the well over 1000 posts I've made, so some of you will remember it, but it bears repeating in this context. Most of the video shops in Japan during my 23 years there carried an enormous selection of American-made content. From movies to music to T.V. shows, the number of American titles eclipsed the Japanese ones by a large amount. For years, I assumed that Japanese people liked American entertainment more than the native stuff and others concluded the Japanese must be obsessed with all things American. That was not the reason why the shops were loaded with such titles.

The real reason that video shops stocked so many American titles was simply that it was cheaper. American studios were willing to cut a favorable deal with the shops. They allowed them to pay for the titles by giving a cut of the rental fees collected instead of buying the title and taking ownership of it outright. Japanese studios required a full cash outlay for the price of the content. So, a shop had very low risk on American titles and very high risk on Japanese ones. If they shelled out 10,000 yen for a Japanese movie and found that it wasn't popular enough, they could lose money. If they agreed to stock American titles, all they had to do was fork over the piece of every rental fee. A poorly rented title wasn't a risk under such terms.

Undoubtedly, given such access to American entertainment, Japanese folks developed a taste for it. After all, we like what is familiar and we consume what is at hand. This is a fact. It's why we love the food we grew up with and screw up our noses at some exotic food that is served regularly in other countries. Numerous studies support the idea that we like what we're accustomed to and desire relatively small amounts of novelty. However, this is not a "chicken and the egg" question. The videos came first. The interest in American entertainment followed.

So, now I turn back to the whole "germ obsession" business and anti-bacterial products. Japanese people rented American entertainment because it was largely what they were offered.* I went to a supermarket within the last month to find an all-purpose cleaning product. I was looking for something that I used to have in Japan called "Simple Green" and could not find it. I explicitly did not want anything which was promoted as "anti-bacterial" because I believe using such products makes more "super bugs" that are resistant to germs. I'm also just not that paranoid about common germs.

Despite being in a store with a very large collection of products, I could not find anything which was not promoted as being "anti-bacterial". I simply had no choice but to buy a product that had such properties because they all had them. Now, I'm sure that if I went to other stores, ordered online, or searched out an outlet which has a wider selection of products, I'd find something which was not promising to squash germs dead. The truth was that I just wanted to get something and go home. I didn't want to go on an all-out quest to locate something which lacked this "feature" so I bought a damn bottle of general purpose anti-bacterial "Mr. Clean" and went home. It wasn't what I wanted, but it would do.

I told my sister-in-law about this and said that I felt that it wasn't that Americans were obsessed with germ-killing products, but that we seem to have no choice these days in many cases but to consume such products - just as the Japanese had few options but to rent American entertainment for many years. I believe that the "anti-bacterial" claim is feature-creep. That is, one company did it and, all things (price, quantity, functionality) being equal, consumers chose that product because killing germs is a good thing, right? They didn't have to really desire the feature so much as simply see it as added value.

My guess is that, aside from situations in which germs are a strong concern such as dealing with sick people or babies, most people don't care about germocidal applications. It's just words on a bottle that seem to say this product does more. Once one product says it, all cleaning product producers feel obliged to include it to compete with the casual way in which people buy goods without thinking deeply about them. The thinking is that, if that product has three features and this one has four, I'll take the one with four. They aren't deeply pondering the necessity of any given feature.

How do I know that Americans don't care about anti-bacterial features and germs? Well, I don't know for certain, but I do know a few things which make them appear, shall we say, less than fastidious about such things. Let's start with the ubiquitous application of and talk about the "five-second rule". That is the "rule" which says it's okay to eat food that has fallen to the ground if you scoop it up fast enough because germs, apparently, are quite sluggish and can't be bothered to mosey on over and hop on all that quickly. It's not like germs are transferred instantly by contact or anything.

I didn't even know this "rule" existed until I came back to America. I've since learned that it is mentioned frequently in entertainment and I've personally observed it being used by at least three people, including someone who ate a face-planted pie in an area which is similar to a porch (that is, a very dirty place). People eat food that drops on the floor shockingly often. Does this sound like a nation obsessed with germs and cleanliness?

Beyond this dubious practice which would betray utter indifference to germs, there is also the fact that most Americans wear their shoes inside. This brings more than 300,000 bacteria into their homes. These germs are then ground into carpeting, spread onto furniture, and enter the air when people step on the floor and invisible particles are propelled from the carpet into breathing space. Would germ-obsessed people habitually wear shoes in their homes? And lets not even get started on how disgusting public toilets can be (yet we still use them in that state and tolerate them routinely in that condition) and how many people routinely do not wash their hands after using the bathroom. You can't criticize American habits for being dirty and disgusting on the one hand and call them "germ-obsessed" on the other.

I think Americans have been conditioned by advertising to think that products with germ-killing properties are desirable, but, in their daily lives, they don't live in fear of dirt or bacteria. Their habits when choosing products do not necessarily reflect any sort of wishfulness or deep thought on their parts in terms of how they regard germs. If you were to judge them by how goods are promoted or what is on the shelves, you may conclude otherwise. You would especially be inclined to do so if you had a bias against Americans and wanted to paint them as being neurotic or strange. Cherry-picking and endorsing information that supports your bias is what is called "confirmation bias."

All people are prone to confirmation bias and seeing what supports their views and ignoring or not even noticing what does not. While I lived in Japan, I tried hard not to give in to my confirmation bias and to avoid anything which fit the stereotypes of Japanese people that you often see portrayed online, especially the "weird Japan" nonsense that continues to be spread around by people who have never actually lived there.

It's important not to look at something superficially and decide it means something about a people or a culture and to dig deep into the source of that information as well as look for behavior that demonstrates that people do not live in accord with suggested values based on media, consumer goods, or advertising. Just because someone is selling us something and we are buying it, it does not mean we necessarily embrace the values that would seem to underlie such concerns. It may simply mean we have no choice or we haven't thought much about it at all.

*Note: This has been changing as Japanese studios are changing their policies because they simply can't compete, especially with Korean titles coming so strongly into the mix. By the time I'd left, there were far more Japanese titles than I used to see. This change seemed to occur gradually over the last 5 years, but I can't say I was paying close attention. According to the manager from a major movie studio (which I will not name for his sake, but everyone would recognize it if I said it) who was in charge of their DVD and digital content distribution who I learned so much about this from, it was quite recently the case that the Japanese studios decided they had to change their policies.


  1. I attended a generalist academic conference in Osaka a few months ago, and a majority of the attendees were from the Asian-Pacific region, particularly China and Australia. Although it was held in Japan, the conference was not focused on Japan studies and relatively few of the presenters had backgrounds in Japan related fields.
    As part of the opening ceremonies a high school taiko group performed a powerful and energetic piece. A murmur of disquiet spread through the hall, with some people walking out altogether. One person turned to me and said "It's so aggressive, so violent! If this is what they learn in schools no wonder the rest of Asia is suspicious!" At the end, one of the performers talked about how the piece is traditionally performed as a prayer for a good harvest, and how the group has cranes embroidered on their uniforms as a reminder that their music can only be heard in countries that are at peace. They adopted the design after a performance in Istanbul had to be canceled because of the terrorist attacks there.

    1. I have to say that I'm truly shocked that anyone would see taiko as aggressive and violent. It's energetic, powerful, and loud for a sound which is not digitally enhanced, but I never saw it as anything but positive and enthusiastic. I relished the gusto with which people played the drums because it seemed like a rare "liberation" of energy for Japanese people who so frequently exercise control of their passions. I simply cannot see it as any more "violent" or "aggressive" than other forms of music which use strong percussion (like classical, which sometimes uses sounds that are meant to emulate cannons going off or the blasts of weapons).

      What you experienced is, indeed, a strong indication of confirmation bias! Thank you for sharing your experience.

  2. Simple Green is a very common cleaner in America. At least it was when I left there last. I would check either hardware type shops or very large box stores like Target if you’re having trouble finding it. It tends to be marketed more for degreasing and other manly sort of things. Simply Orange is another nice all purpose cleaner. The crunchy granola types use Dr. Bronner’s diluted for many different cleaning tasks as well. I hope you can find something that suits your needs.

    As for the germaphobe thing, it’s all relative to what we grew up with. Japan may be picky about shoes in the house, but school children clean the school with nothing more than cold water and gray rags. I could go on about all the gross aspects of both nations, but it’s all rather useless. Regardless of nationality, we’re all pretty icky on the cellular level. I find it best to simply get as much sleep as I can, eat a balanced diet and not focus on how many of my sick students are hacking all over me in the unheated classrooms.

  3. I've always thought the "five second rule" was a) tongue-in-cheek and b) allowed people to pick up food from the floor without feeling weird about it. Doesn't the five second rule show that there is a real fear of germs and we had to make up some rule about our normal habits of picking up stuff that has fallen to the ground?

    Looking forward to your next post about your workplace in Japan. :)


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