Q&A: Victoria Plaut, social and cultural psychologist at Berkeley Law

In a new tale of two cities, social and cultural researchers examined how our home base can affect the way we think about ourselves and our well-being.
Written by Christina Hernandez Sherwood, Contributing Writer

In a new tale of two cities, social and cultural researchers examined how our home base can affect the way we think about ourselves and our well-being. Comparing Boston and San Francisco, authors Victoria Plaut, Hazel Markus, Jodi Treadway and Alyssa Fu discovered stark differences between the old and established East Coast city and the new and free West Coast locale. "We're not saying one way of being is necessarily better than the other," Plaut said. "Both have their virtues and their downsides."

The research, Plaut said, reflected and explained deep differences that are often dismissed as stereotypes. "Who we are and how we feel we should feel are shaped in very important ways by the values and ideals of our local environment," she said. I spoke with Plaut, a social and cultural psychologist at Berkeley Law, last week. Below are excerpts from our interview.

Your goal was to understand how the city someone lives in affects who they are. Why did you want to research this?

We started this inquiry many years ago looking at regions, not cities. After we finished that article, we realized we wanted to go more local. We had an appreciation for the fact that while regional cultures exist, local cultures are vibrant too. Cities have certain industries and occupations that are prevalent. They have economic realities that might differ from other cities even in the same region. They have local healthcare practices and politics and newspapers. All of these matter for creating a local culture, which can affect how people learn and think and feel and behave. Cities are cultural contexts. Cultural contexts shape people's ideas about how to be a self and how to be well.

I had lived in both of these cities. I'd been thinking about these differences for a long time, in general. It was important to us to look at two cities in depth rather than many superficially. We wanted to map the culture cycle of the cities. Boston and San Francisco are similar in a variety of ways. These are both blue cities in blue states. But they're also very different culturally and historically. They're also similar in some of their demographics. Both have had relatively recent increases in home prices and gentrification. They're both waterfront areas. They have similar industries that are important in both areas.

How did you go about the research?

We conducted seven studies comparing Boston and San Francisco for three different things.

  • Their cultural products: What people produce that make up and reflect the culture. We analyzed venture capital firm websites for different themes. The firms were either headquartered in the Boston area or in the San Francisco Bay area. (They're the top two areas in the country for venture capital activity.) We also looked at hospital and medical center websites.
  • Their perceived norms: To gauge the perception of the norms, we looked at how residents answered questions about the tightness or looseness of social norms in their area. For example, to reflect a tight norm, a question like this might get a high endorsement: In this area, there are clear expectations for how people should act in most situations.
  • The psychological functioning of the residents: We surveyed residents and assessed their well-being and feelings of self worth. They were answering questions about how they feel in daily life, about the hassles and uplifts in their daily life and their feelings of satisfaction.

You found that feelings of self and well-being are tied to one's locale. Talk about the results.

We studied three sets of cultural products: venture capital firm websites, hospital websites and newspapers. The Boston venture capital firms stressed their reputation for being experienced and trusted firms. The Bay Area firms emphasized partnering with pioneering entrepreneurs who wanted to change the world. We also saw this difference in the hospitals. Bay Area hospitals were more likely to stress empowering individuals to take a role in their healthcare. They stressed progressive technologies. Boston hospitals were more likely to stress being taken care of by an expert system. We studied the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle. In Boston, headlines tended to focus more on community references, while San Francisco focused more on individual references.

These differences in the cultural products were also present in how residents perceived the norms of their areas. People in Boston were more likely than people in San Francisco to believe there were clear expectations for how people should behave in their city. People in San Francisco were more likely to believe, for example, that people in their city could go their own way.

The final set of studies was on well-being and psychological functioning. The results indicated that these differences in cultural products and norms give rise to different ways of thinking and feeling. In one study we found that for Bostonians, self satisfaction (how satisfied you feel with yourself) was tied to education and finances and community. For San Franciscans, self satisfaction was less tied to social standards and expectations. Importantly, in both cities we found that work was related to self satisfaction.

In another study, we surveyed people riding commuter trains in Boston and San Francisco. We asked them about their general feelings and their uplifts and hassles. Uplifts make you feel glad or satisfied and hassles irritate you. They rated items (including family members, colleagues, workload, neighborhood, weather) for how much it was a hassle and how much it was an uplift in daily life. The findings are revealing. In Boston, what matters for feeling good is feeling relieved from everyday hassles. When you have fewer hassles in Boston, you feel good. In San Francisco, people felt good from the everyday uplifts. In Boston, people feel the social pressure more than in San Francisco.

Based on those results, would you say that even in the internet age one's place still matters?

The local world does matter for who we think we are and how we feel about ourselves. This influences our relationships, family life, work, health and other important outcomes. That doesn't mean that a particular person is necessarily determined by the place they live. More importantly, we're not saying everyone in San Francisco is one way and everyone in Boston is another way. If you examine the local worlds, you'll find that the East is more old and established and the West is more new and free.

If you looked at Philadelphia and Los Angeles, for instance, do you think you'd arrive at a similar conclusion?

We think we'd come up with similar conclusions, but there might be important variations depending on the local culture. In Los Angeles, perhaps, the entertainment industry would have a particular effect on the culture norms that get communicated. What's considered old and established might be different in Boston than it is in Philadelphia.

One example I love is Mark Zuckerberg wearing a hoodie to meet with Wall Street investors. There was a lot of media chatter about that. People ended up taking sides. One of the reasons I think it's a constructive example is that it reveals the culture clash that can happen between the East and West Coasts. That was New York, not Boston, but I think similar processes were at play.

What's the takeaway for businesses? Do the results indicate how business leaders should decide to start or expand their companies?

These city differences matter for people who want to expand their businesses outside their particular home region. It matters for people who have to work across regional lines or people who have to or want to move for work across regional lines. It also has implications for how people market their businesses to their audiences. Depending on what kind of organizational culture you want to promote in your business, you might want to think carefully about place.

What's next for this work?

We'd love to do other cities. We'd love to see if we can induce certain modes in people. Can you capture an old and established norm and induce it in people even if they're not in the East? Is there something about the new and free mode you can capture and induce in people? Would that affect how they think, feel and behave?

There's a need to look more carefully at how these processes intersect with issues of race and class. We'd look at how race and class have shaped the histories and cultures of particular cities, but also how one's experience in a city might be different depending on their position in the social hierarchy.

Photo: Victoria Plaut

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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