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Chinese middle class anxiety a fable   2012-03-27 11:43:00

In the 1980s it became fashionable in the United States to explain Americans' behaviors in terms of addiction. Not only were there alcoholics and drug addicts but people labeled excessive eating, gambling, and even shopping as pathologies. In the 1990s, Internet and video addictions were added to the list. A popular book written 25 years ago, When Society Becomes an Addict by Anne Wilson Schaef suggested that the West's dysfunctional culture had created a nation of relationship addicts.

In China today there is a parallel to this addicted nation fable: the widespread belief in a generalized anxiety disorder among the Chinese middle class.

The argument goes something like this: society in China is competitive, producing pressures to keep up with one's neighbors, which makes people anxious.

Urban Chinese worry for many reasons, about housing prices, over work, and the best way to raise kids. Middle class anxiety seriously influences people's quality of life, but, although it exists, is it a real phenomenon?

But putting middle class anxiety alongside other irrational fears may help us feel, well, less anxious.

The Barnum Effect is the name given to a type of subjective validation in which a person finds personal meaning in statements that could apply to many people. For example: You have a need for people to like you but you sometimes keep people at a distance.

When people read or hear such vague statements, they generally see the statements as applying specifically to them. The problem is that such statements don't really tell us anything except that we are like most people. Taken alone the statements are harmless but when we attempt to extract personal life messages and alter our behaviors based upon such "individual" personality profiles we succumb to irrational and uncritical beliefs.

The notion of generalized middle class anxiety has the same superficial allure as the Barnum Effect but like that shibboleth can't be tested in any scientifically meaningful way.

A second applicable psychological principle is that once we form beliefs about people or phenomenon those beliefs are resistant to change even in the face of conflicting evidence. With regard to beliefs about generalized anxiety among the middle class, we ignore all the instances of people who apparently don't feel anxious or tense about life's circumstances and exaggerate and overemphasize examples of people who do.

Unwittingly, the media buy into the notion of a generalized societal anxiety without testing the underpinnings on which the supposition relies. Thereby the media uncritically accept the postulate that the Chinese middle class are generally anxious.

"For China's emerging middle class, this is an age of aspiration - but also a time of anxiety," wrote Leslie Chang in a National Geographic article several years ago. Chang supported her thesis with various anecdotes from anxious Chinese.

source : China Daily     editor:: Ma Ting
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