A few weeks ago, I read Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by Winifred Gallagher, which I'll review one of these days when I get around to it. (Preview: It's a bit breezily written and not very well-organized, but contains any number of fascinating observations). On page 177, I found the following quotation:
When University of Michigan psychologist Oliver Schultheiss compared American college students and their German peers, he found that the former are markedly more oriented to achievement than to power, as the latter are. Thus, he concludes, Americans tend to focus more on the goals of innovation and success, and Germans on dominance and status.
The study itself is available here (pdf). Students had to write descriptions of drawings of various kinds of social situations, and their short essays were then ranked according to 'implicit motivation.' on scales Power, Achievement, Affiliation, and Inhibition. There are plenty of interesting cultural and gender differences in the results, but for this blog, the conclusions about Americans and Germans are the most relevant. Here's the key paragraph, from pp. 290-91:
We ound that our U.S. student sample differed from their German sample on three out of four PSE measures: U.S. students showed higher levels of implicit achievement but lower levels of implicit power motivation and activity inhibition than Germans. They were not significantly different from Germans on the n Affiliation measure. The observed differences seem to be consistent with cultural comparisons that highlight a strong prevalence of the Protestant work ethic, which is associated with high levels of n Achievement, in the United States relative to European countries and paint U.S. Americans as more friendly, outgoing, and impulsive than Germans, which may reflect their lower inhibition and n Power levels. However, they also raise the question whether it is appropriate to generalize from samples that are not representative of a country (i.e., college students) to between-country differences at the collective level. However, the pattern of differences in motivational needs and restraints we observed in our U.S. sample and Schultheiss and Brunstein’s (2001) German sample are consistent with data presented by McClelland (1961, 1975). Using content coding of stories in children’s readers from countries around the world, McClelland (1961, 1975) found Germany to be below the international average in Achievement but above the international average in n Power in 1925. At the same time, children’s readers from the United States contained above average levels of imagery related to n Achievement and below-average levels of imagery related to n Power. The difference between the two countries persisted when a similar analysis was repeated based on children’s readers collected in 1950: The United States had h igher levels on n Achievement and lower levels of n Power than Germany. The United States was also lower in activity inhibition than Germany. Thus, despite different data collection methods, samples, and historic contexts, our data corroborate those that have been presented by McClelland (1961, 1975), suggesting that Americans continue to have a stronger concern with achievement and a weaker concern with power than Germans and that they are less inhibited in the expression of their motivational needs than Germans.
Lots to digest! Two observations. First, this would seem to help explain the emphasis on titles one finds in Germany. Whenever you give a major speech here, your first obligation is to identify the VIPs, and greet them, in order of prominence, according to their correct official title. This often strikes Americans as outdated and obsequious, but most (not all!) Germans find it perfectly natural. This is pure respect for power: the person carrying the title may or may not have done something noteworthy to achieve it. In the case of the nobility, of course, the person carrying the title has done nothing to earn it. Even in the case of 'earned' titles (doctor, professor, civil servant etc.), the person is to be referred to by title even if everyone knows he is sheer deadwood whose last major contribution happened decades ago.
Second, this would seem to go a long way to explaining the puzzling tolerance for cheating at German (and, for that matter, most European) universities. A significant minority of students will definitely try to cheat on every exam. (Remember the words of the German professor who went to teach in the USA; the best students are great in both places, but in the USA, the 'bottom third' of the student body that would be present in Germany is missing). They show up having never attended a single lecture, and then try to copy answers from someone who has a reputation as one of the despised Streber (overachievers). They may also copy large sections of their seminar papers from books. What's amazing to an American is that these attempts are so frequent, and so clumsy. When they're caught, the students generally protest and file appeals, as if giving them a well-deserved zero were cruel persecution.
Of course, it would be unfair to single out lack of motivation and commitment among the students without pointing to the same flaw on the professors' side. For every engaged, innovative German professor, there is (at least) one lazy, disillusioned one, whose lectures consist of monotone recitals from the professor's latest book or article. As Jeffrey Peck once put it, the relationship between professors and students in Germany often resembles a failed marriage in which distrust and disillusionment have eaten away all that is precious, and each side simply goes through the motions from force of habit. The students often reason: why should I put any particular effort into this class when the professor so obviously hasn't done so himself? I hardly need to point out the effects this poisonous dynamic has on the reputation of Germany's universities. According to one influential ranking, no German university even makes it into the top 50 worldwide, and every single German university is outranked by the likes of the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Manchester, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Of course, rankings are often crap, and there are many reasons for Germany's academic mediocrity, but I happen to think the dysfunctional student-professor relationship is one of them. And that, in turn, is based on a power (as opposed to achievement) mindset. When (a) you're the sort of person who has no innate drive to work extra hard and achieve; and (b) you get to enjoy the full perks of your title – and students will (have to) show you deference no matter what you actually accomplish –then (c) you might just be tempted to relax into the soft, cushiony beanbag of mediocrity.
What say you, gentle readers?