Psycholinguistics and the India-China rivalry

November 2, 2011

The Indian Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis has an interesting lecture scheduled for this Friday (Nov. 4 2011) titled Psychological Science, Strategy, and China’s Periphery.  The description of the lecture states:

Advances in psychological science over the last 50 years have led to its increased and productive applications in the broad area of behavior modification in many fields including education, medicine, financial services, communication and media. Yet, curiously, its role in strategy and international relations appears to have been limited. This paper looks at how application of the scientific method in general and psychological science in particular could illuminate some current problems in these areas. Some issues concerning China’s border regions are used as examples to develop new perspectives and create hypotheses for further investigation.

The topic sounds fascinating and as I will not be able to attend, I look forward to obtaining a copy of the paper.  The lecturer, Ravi Bhoothalingam, wrote a paper earlier this year titled Unraveling the Mind of China (link to a pdf of that paper) that I also found quite interesting.   In that earlier paper, Bhoothalingam uses a psycholinguistic model to examine the distinct ways of thinking for the emerging Asian rivals of China and India.  The argument is that the Chinese character driven language and the Indian alphabet driven language each create different mental capacities:

In India, our experience of diversity in daily life, whether of caste, creed, language or custom, has generated a flair for flexibility and cultural adaptation that is widely recognized, not least in the adaptability of Indians in new environments. The Indian mind also seems capable of operating at several levels, simultaneously holding views that may be directly in opposition. I am reminded of my experience as a child, going for an‘idli’ breakfast at the house of astronomer and physicist Dr. K.S. Krishnan, F.R.S. After his ‘puja’, he meticulously rendered astrological advice to his family early every morning, but come 8 o’clock, was dressed in his suit and ready to leave for his office at the National Physical Laboratory, where he replied to letters from Einstein and Eddington. Indians take this kind of rare ‘two-brain’ ability for granted. The Chinese are constantly amazed at our fluency with languages and grasp of other cultures, our ability to deliver results amidst apparent chaos, and our flexibility in coping with issues both mundane and serious.

The character-pattern that underlies the way in which Chinese thought is formulated in turn makes certain modes of thinking more prevalent. One is inductive logic, which results as the Chinese mind systematically explores its universe, starting with what is known and near, and moving outward in an empirical manner, colourfully expressed in the proverb “crossing the river by feeling the stones”. But by virtue of the power of the pattern formation process, sincepatterns can be inverted, reflected, etc, there is also the prevalence of a type of non-linear and paradoxical thinking at which the right brain is adept. Thus, intuitive inversions and paradoxical solutions (like the ‘one country, two systems’ formula for the Hong Kong issue) are also possible. Patterns make it possible for seemingly opposing ideas to be also complementary (the yin-yang diagram). Finally, from a strategic viewpoint, placing issues as part of a long-term and broader vision or grand pattern allows temporary turbulences and short-term anomalies to be handled in the right perspective, without these irritants having the ability to hijack the grand strategy. The converse of this process is that there is also likely to be rigidity in the patterns once formed, leading to inflexible and insensitive responses when situations change.

The distinctive modes of thinking in the two countries also give a clue to their failures. India has had problems in establishing both the structure and pattern of governance across large swathes of its national territory. In China’s case, structural rigidity in its governance procedures has caused the emotional alienation of its outlying provinces. India has not generated mass mobilization of opinion in favour of rapid progress in health, education and infrastructure. In China, over-enthusiastic or coercive bureaucratic mass mobilization has resulted in much injury and injustice to its people.

While some might conclude that such vastly different ways of apprehending the world might lead to natural rivalries and frequent misunderstandings between the two nations (as has often been the case), Bhoothalingam makes the case that these differences create not mutually exclusive, but rather mutually supporting competencies that hold the promise of forming strong synergies in multiple areas, and that the future of the China/India relationship might be one of cooperation rather than of competition.

Again, very interesting, I suggest you read the whole thing (and look out for the full paper/presentation from Friday’s lecture).


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