Saturday, November 20, 2010

The role of culture

In discussing public policy one of the great elephants in the room is the role of culture in explaining differing outcomes. This is understandable, both because changing policies is much easier than changing cultures and because many people are wary of declaring one culture or set of values to be superior to another.

However, it leads us to a place in which societal outcomes are explained almost entirely in terms of policy. If the Swedes live longer than Americans, for example, it is widely chalked up to differences in the two health care systems. Rates of gun violence in different countries are frequently explained as a function of the strength of their gun control regimes, even though one study found that New York had a homicide rate five times that of London over a 200 year period when neither city had gun control laws.

But the impact of culture, while almost impossible to precisely ascertain, is undeniably non-trivial. Does anyone really think that if every country in the world adopted the exact same policies that the outcomes would also be the same?

While this isn't the first time I have raised the culture issue, I was prompted to once again reflect on it after reading two stories today, the first of which is from the Wall Street Journal:
LAGOS, Nigeria—This megacity's motorcycle taxis are so dangerous that local hospitals have special orthopedic wards meant just for people who have suffered accidents while riding them. So you'd think a law requiring passengers to wear helmets would be well received.

But it turns out that, for many Nigerians, the only thing scarier than a motorcycle taxi is a motorcycle helmet. Many people refuse to wear them out of fear of juju, or supernatural powers. Some fret that previous passengers may have put nefarious juju spells on the helmets to steal someone's good fortune, or to make a person disappear in order to be used in a sacred ritual, say motorcycle taxi drivers and passengers.

"Our people are quite superstitious about anything dealing with their head," says Ralph Ibuzo, a 43-year-old architect whose closely cropped hair is beginning to gray. "People believe that if you put on a helmet, [others] can take away your brain, or your good luck."

So Mr. Ibuzo created the "Original Lapa Guard," a cloth cap that he claims can protect wearers from disease and sudden disappearance. The cloth provides a thin layer of separation between the head and a helmet full of potential trouble.
Now contrast that story with this article on Japan from Der Spiegel:
Even the homeless living in Tokyo parks neatly place their shoes in front of their makeshift cardboard shelters before crawling inside. People committing suicide bow politely before throwing themselves in front of trains.
Some may counter that the kind of ignorance demonstrated in the Nigeria example can be overcome by education, but prizing education is a cultural value in itself. The issue strikes me as hugely complex, extremely impactful -- and not terribly well understood or appreciated.


Plans to Prosper said...

In the Nigerian example, I'm struck by the strength of the market to overcome culture. They're afraid that helmets steal their brains, so someone "invents" a cloth to protect their brains-- problem solved. (I don't know why the cloth guard can't also steal my brains, but if the Nigerians are convinced, then I'm convinced.)

Colin said...

Good point, thanks for the comment.