North Korea and Penn State

In an excellent talk last week about North Korea — linked to his book The Cleanest Race — Brian Myers, a professor in South Korea, said that people don’t fear dying, they fear dying without significance. Without their life having meant something. Life in North Korea is far more attractive than Americans realize, he said. The border between North Korea and China is easy to cross, and about half of the North Koreans who go to China later return, in spite of North Korea’s poverty. How does the North Korean government do such a good job under such difficult circumstances? Partly by playing up external threats (U.S. troops in South Korea), the obvious way politicians win support, but also by telling the North Korean people they are special. Maybe it plays this card because it has to — they can’t afford a police state — but there is no denying how well it works. In contrast, Myers said, the South Korean government offers its citizens no more than consumerism. That doesn’t work well, and South Korea, in spite of high per capita income, has high rates of depression and suicide.

I think the attractiveness of North Korean life has a lot to do with why Penn State students like Penn State so much. This American Life did a show about Penn State a few months ago. Life at the nation’s top party school said the description. Sounds boring, I thought, so I waited to listen to it until I’d run out of stuff to listen to. It turned out to be one of their best shows ever. Mostly it’s about the large amount of drinking — this is why they did the show — but at the very end is a short segment about how much Penn State students love their school. Not much detail but I was convinced. The attractive school cheer (“We Are Penn State”) comes up in conversation! A few people reading this won’t know that Penn State has an extremely successful football team. A large fraction of the students attend its games. After graduation, a lot of them continue to attend the games.

Here is a powerful and neglected force in human life. The bland technical term is group identity.  As the South Korea comparison indicates, governments don’t routinely use it to govern. As Penn State exceptionalism indicates, colleges don’t routinely use it either. Faculty routinely disparage football. Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Has Crippled Undergraduate Education was written by a professor — of course. The Penn State chancellor seemed mystified that his students were so proud and supportive of their school. (They’re just that way, he seemed to say.) A lot of my self-experimentation has been about discovering what we need to be healthy, such as morning faces. I can’t self-experiment about this but I would if I could. It’s yet another thing that people must have routinely gotten in Stone-Age life but don’t get any more — unless you happen to be a rabid sports fan or an alumnus of a college with a sufficiently successful football team. Or live in North Korea.

29 Replies to “North Korea and Penn State”

  1. I found something similar in the reactions to the MTV show The Jersey Shore. Our country’s “faculty” (i.e. the media, ivy league graduates that I know, Manhattan tastemakers) disparaged the guido subculture depicted on the show and continue to do so: on the talk show Ellen the show’s stars were subjected to trivia questions they couldn’t answer to show how stupid they are; on other shows they were “treated” to makeovers, etc. Somehow people seem to think guidos need to be rescued from being guidos.

    Meanwhile, the guidos themselves are (of course) proud to be guidos!

    I think a lot of people told themselves they watched that show in order to make fun of it, but I suspect many of them were jealous of the obvious pride and joy on display.

  2. My wife and I sometimes do a little cheer just for the 2 of us where we say “1, 2, 3, supercouple!” I started as goofiness and now when we do it we really do do it at moments where we feel great about who we are and have faith in our ability to contribute something worthwhile. We do it irregularly, but after reading this I may try to do it more often. It’s an easy way to get a lift. Even now I feel good just thinking about it.

  3. Anonymous, that’s a good example.

    Eric Arias, I too feel I have something to learn from this. That I should spend a lot more time telling my students they are special. And not just saying it, but also encouraging it and giving persuasive reasons.

  4. In some sales organizations the salespeople are measured by the team and not by individual production . . . which makes peer pressure a very valuable motivator. I would imagine that working for the team is also more rewarding than working for yourself. Or not, depending on the team.

  5. people have a tendency to adapt to all sorts of bizarre and harsh environments, which is exactly what the North Koreans apparently have done. It’s difficult to imagine that period mass starvation is attractive; In fact it sounds nutty to me. Reaching for meaning in one’s life usually follows satisfying basic and other needs, aka as survival and minimum comfort.

  6. Maybe North Korea then is like a country-sized version of Penn State. Everyone feels special and unique, proud to be part of their collective. But at the same time, this does not translate into motivation to work hard and excel. At Penn State the students party; perhaps in North Korea the people avoid work as much as possible. That would explain the starvation.

    We need a social system which combines the group pride and solidarity of these examples with some way of motivating people to work hard so that there is plenty of production and people’s needs are met. Sounds like neither western consumerism nor the Korean or communist models have managed to achieve that.

  7. I’m surprised at the naivete of this post. Human beings have many moral emotions; Jonathan Haidt has classified them into two broad groups, which one might call individualist and collectivist. All people have these moral emotions or intuitions, but for some people collectivist moral instincts are stronger and for others the individualist ones are stronger. The individualist moral sentiments are a concern for justice and fairness, and a concern for the well being and suffering of others. The collectivist moral sentiments are a concern with purity/holiness/defilement, deference to authority and submission and support of hierarchy, and in-group loyalty. These same collectivist moral sentiments which give meaning to North Koreans are the same psychological underpinnings of false scientific consensus and the gatekeeper syndrome. I’m surprised that other commenters haven’t pointed out the trade offs that come with such a meaningful life yet.

  8. Paul, thanks for the reference to Haidt’s work, which I didn’t know about. The correlations are interesting. The correlation with purity/cleanliness fits the North Korean case but not the Penn State case (or any football-loving-alumni case). Penn State students don’t think they are unusually clean. Nor do they seem especially hierarchy-oriented or authoritarian. With all their drinking and partying, they seem less authority-obeying than the average student, not more. I don’t see the trade-offs you do. What harm is done by how much Penn State students love their school?

  9. “The border between North Korea and China is easy to cross, and about half of the North Koreans who go to China later return, in spite of North Korea’s poverty.”

    On the other hand, half of them never come back.

  10. “What harm is done by how much Penn State students love their school? “

    Maybe they could be getting them some edumacation somewhere else.

  11. >>And not just saying it, but also encouraging it and giving persuasive reasons.

    This seems to be the key. Going to California public schools in the 80s and early 90s, I was subject to my fair share of self-esteem programs, the essential message of which is “You are special”. I can’t say me or my classmates were positively impacted.

  12. Bryan, that’s a good point. I think group membership is required for this special mechanism to kick in. You have to convince people they are part of a special group. Telling someone they are special (by themselves) doesn’t work. Perhaps the more special you think you are the LESS this works because the less you feel like joining your inferiors in some big group.

  13. At UC Berkeley, I’ve always asked students why they didn’t go to a different school they live near. So far, they have always said something like, “Because Berkeley is better.” A professor at Cal told me that he works so hard on papers. I said, “Why?” He said, “That’s why Berkeley is the best!” So people at Berkeley feel special, too! I guess because of the prestige of the school. I didn’t realize it was prestigious around the world until foreign summer school students told me.

    Today, I asked a former Tsinghua student why Tsinghua accepts a small percentage of students. He said, “There’s a lot of people in China!”

  14. It’s not just the students, it’s the entire community. I grew up in the shadows of the University of Illinois, where people walk around in orange clothing as if it’s normal. A few years ago the basketball team won thirty+ games in a row and my father basically said it was the best year of his life. Everyone around town was in a good mood, looking forward to the games, etc…

    Perhaps you can start going to Raider games?

  15. Is a rate of emigrant return of 50% higher than expected? I think that before we can say what NK’s rate of emigrant return is evidence for, it has to be compared to other rates of emigrant return in an analysis that takes important covariates into account.

  16. David, the dark side of what I’m saying is that perhaps this sort of group identity can develop only in situations where there are winners and losers — meaning that people who belong to the losing side aren’t happy. I hope not. I’d like to think it can develop around excellence of any sort. Or even something less than excellence, such as competence. As for Raiders games, I used to be a 49ers fan. Watched every game (at home). I enjoyed the games a lot but it didn’t give my life meaning.

  17. The rate of return may not be a good indicator of how well a government is doing its job. Imagine two countries A and K. 10% of citizens of both these countries would prefer to live somewhere else.

    In country A, the government doesn’t care a bit about emigration (if government exists in that country at all). The country is mainly producer of agricultural goods, with minimal international trade. Nearest country with substantially better living conditions, country X, is 3000 km away.

    In country K, the government is afraid of all its citizens emigrating, and tries to make it as difficult as possible, by issuing passports only to loyal people, for instance. Emigration is portrayed as treason. X is a neigbour country.

    Now, in country A (African type) there is no need for people to travel abroad, except emigration. Business travelers are rare, since there are almost no businesses owned by A’s citizens, and to travel 3000 km for pleasure is out of reach for almost all of A’s inhabitants. Therefore, meeting A’s citizen in X, we can expect that he is an emigrant with 99% probability, and the return rate would be in order of 1%.

    In country K (Korean type) the people who can travel abroad are workers of government organisations sent on business trips, people from border areas coming to X to do some private business (if there are private businesses in K) and the K’s elite on vacations. Now, meeting K’s citizen in X, the probability that he is an emigrant is much lower.

    So we have expected high return rate for A and low for K, whereas the average desire to emigrate can be the same.

    If one compares North Korea to African countries (which I assume you’ve done actually), one could be surprised that not all travellers are emigrants. If one compares it to East European communist regimes (which I have done implicitly when reading the post), one can conclude that if half of the travellers never return, certainly even much of the loyal supporters of the regime betray it when they have an opportunity – and there would be nothing to explain by group identity.

    To make sensible analysis, we should take into account rather the ratio of emigration to overall population. Of course, such analysis would be distorted due to different difficulty of emigration from different countries. The return rate seems to overcome this distortion, but it probably brings at least as big own problems.

    (this is an edited version of a comment I’ve made here:

  18. Tom, that’s a good question, which his talk didn’t completely answer. But he showed a comparison of the Berlin Wall (heavily enforced) with the wall separating North Korea and China (practically nothing). I think his conclusion was also based on visits to North Korea.

  19. Seth, I would be suspicious about info based on visits to N Korea. If a foreigner visits, he is accompanied by a government escort. If you were a N Korean citizen, you would not want to be the person who said something negative about life in N Korea in front of that government official.

    I have read that China does not like N Koreans sneaking into their country. They send them back. So maybe the half who return are just the ones who got caught. 8-(

  20. Tom, of course government escorts reduce how much one can learn from a visit to North Korea. Sure, residents aren’t negative in front of them. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to be learned. Letters of recommendation are never negative but I learn lots from them. You’ll have to look at his book to learn more about the basis of his conclusion. That North Koreans are happier than you’d think was only one of several points he made.

  21. I went to penn state. The amount of partying there is no different than at any other large state university. Many many students rarely party. And while many students love the school, many are indifferent or dislike it. I doubt it’s much different than for most other schools. Don’t believe everything you hear at NPR.

  22. Another thought: I just noticed this effect on Ben Casnocha’s blog when he brought up Cal Newport referring to readers of his blog as freakishly intelligent. I know you read Ben so I won’t go into it but after I read that bit I did feel more encouraged to think over the post’s content more than I otherwise would have.

  23. Vic, have you been to any other colleges? The This American Life report made Penn State sound different than any of the colleges I’ve had experience with. And quite apart from whether Penn State is much different from other schools, the whole phenomenon of alumni attending football games for decades suggests something powerful is at work. The alumni are incredibly protective of this thing they do; it must mean a lot to them. I’ve been to some of those games. I don’t think it’s because college football is incredibly fun to watch; it surely has something to do with group identity.

  24. Seth wrote: “That North Koreans are happier than you’d think was only one of several points he made.”

    Seth, how do you know how happy I think the N Koreans are? 😎

  25. Sorry I’ve tried but failed to get beyond the words “The attractiveness of North Korean life..”
    Okay, trying again….nope, can’t do it.

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