The Olympics and inter-cultural discord

One World, One Dream - that was the official slogan of the Beijing Olympics of 2008. The words encapsulate an aspiration of the Olympic movement, to bring about global harmony through the medium of elite sport. But onto that sweeping canvas of rosy idealism, a team of researchers led by Shirley Cheng have just cast a bucket-full of reality. Their new study shows that the 2008 Olympics deepened people's perception of inter-cultural differences and entrenched their in-group loyalty, at least through the eyes of the Chinese.

Cheng and her colleagues surveyed dozens of undergrads about "social and economic behaviours" - a thin disguise for their real aim of having them rate ten values, half of them typically seen as Western (e.g. autonomy, uniqueness), half as Chinese (e.g. obedience, modesty). These values were presented in random order and the participants' task was to rate them for how typically Western or Chinese they considered them to be. A further key detail was that for some of the participants, the survey featured the Olympic logo on each page. Also, half the participants were quizzed before the Olympics and half were quizzed a few months afterwards.

The main finding here was that participants who completed the survey after the Olympics, with the logo on each page, tended to rate the values far more in accordance with cultural stereotypes. The presence of the logo had no such influence before the Games. In other words, the experience of the Olympics (and being reminded of that experience by the logo) appeared to deepen participants' perception of the contrast in values between China and the West.

A follow-up study was similar but this time Chinese participants rated their emotional response to and perception of classic Chinese (e.g. Lenovo computers) and American brands (e.g. McDonalds). Some participants were quizzed before the Games, some towards the end. This time the Olympics seemed to have strengthened in-group bias. Chinese participants surveyed towards the end of the Games showed far more favouritism and positive emotional bias towards Chinese brands, and this was true even among those who had low levels of identification with Chinese culture according to a standard measure.

The same result wasn't found with a sample of Hong Kong Chinese, who tend not to view mainland Chinese competitors as part of their in-group. The researchers took this as evidence that inter-group competition can heighten in-group bias, but only if it's your in-group that did the competing.

These new findings chime with classic work in social psychology by Muzafer Sherif in the 1960s, in which competitive games played by boys on summer camp helped to catalyse conflict between recently formed groups.

Cheng and her team said their results revealed an irony: "Despite the deliberate effort to promote the ideal of 'One World, One Dream,' the Olympic experience has, at least for those in Mainland China, widened the perceived cultural gap between Chinese and Western cultures, and produced a uniform tendency to favour Mainland (vs. American) brands, irrespective of the level of in-group identification."
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Cheng, S., Rosner, J., Chao, M., Peng, S., Chen, X., Li, Y., Kwong, J., Hong, Y., and Chiu, C. (2011). One world, One dream? Intergroup consequences of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. International Journal of Intercultural Relations DOI: 10.1016/j.ijintrel.2010.07.005

This post was written for the BPS Research Digest.

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