The news and updates keep reporting the Australia bushfires with grim pictures and data of the implications on the continent. The exceptional catastrophe sparked an important discussion over the contribution of environmental pollution and the climate crisis to the fires, revealing a new face to Australia, a face we weren’t aware of before. A New York Times article in the aftermath of the fires displayed surprising information according to which Australia is the world’s number one gas and coal exporter. According to the magazine, in the past quarter of a century, Australian governments have fought resolutely to avoid the implementation of international climate change agreements, and the country ranks lowest, 57th out of 57, on climate change action.
It is likely that if we asked a random person from the street about the Australian government’s commitment to the environment, she probably would have had a very positive image on Australia’s contribution and actions towards environmental protection. At the same time, ask that same person about China, and she would probably immediately quote that China is very much responsible for global pollution. Here too, what she did not know is that China is a global leader in environmental change through massive investments and implementation of policy programs to improve energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the United Nations Environment Program organization has described the Chinese government as acting with determination and speed to change, and that it is the country that acts more than any other country on the issue.
A more local and blunt example, which is frequently raised in discussions about cooperation with China, can reinforce this point. At the time of Tnuva’s sale to the Chinese Conglomerate Brighfood, the Israeli media, politicians, and also the public, expressed great distress. Tnuva, the company which slogan was “Growing Up in an Israeli Home” will now be in foreign hands. Some have even called the deal a “liquidation sale of the country.” What was missing here, was the fact that the seller of Tnuva was an investment fund from England that bought the company seven years ago, and in fact the company has not really been “Israeli” for a long time. Why did the sale to Apex Fund go under the radar without any public attention? Why are Israeli companies being sold to international corporations with a brand and corporate identity, whereas when the corporation is from China, the sale is to “Chinese”?
Cognitive psychology has an explanation
The human tendency is to paint the world in black and white. Our brains like to think in the form of “either … or” because it makes it easier to process information. A person is either good or bad, a friend or foe. The most effective way to deal with complexity and ambiguity is to associate objects, events and people with categories.
An example of this is in Dr. David Eagleman’s study, which looked at the minds of subjects while watching a video showing 6 hands, each with the labeling of a certain group: atheists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Scientologists, while the needle randomly stabs one of the hands. The results were repeated over and over. When the subject watched a person from his group stabbed, there was a sharp increase in activity in the pain areas, but when the hand was associated with a person from an outside group, complete indifference to the pain was demonstrated.
That is, it seems that a single affiliation label is enough. Our brains are wired to categorize who belongs to the group and who is not and the more distanced we are from a group, for example a person from China versus a person from the West, the stronger the bias will be. Prejudice has emerged as a function of shared life in groups. Although life in the group promotes our survival, the fear of being harmed by someone external to the group has led to the development of a mechanism that allows identifying who belongs to the group and who is not. Over time, the rapid filtering process becomes automatic and unconscious. Therefore, even people who care about social equality show hidden negative tendencies towards other groups.
Working with Chinese parties is not like working with Western parties, there are deep cultural gaps, differences in the set of considerations, interests, and even how negotiation is conducted. However, in order to make the right decision, it is important to go deeper and determine which of our basic assumptions is fact-based and knowledgeable, and which are the result of biases that are not necessarily relevant or correct. The more meaningful the decision is to us; it is important to make in-depth examination and research rather than relying on biases in order to test each case on its own.
The article was written in cooperation with Dr. Liraz Margalit, Cognitive Psychology Specialist, Behavioral Researcher in the Digital Age, Interdisciplinary Center.