Tuesday, July 3, 2018

South Korea: the ugly side of Westernization

South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in OECD countries, and the highest rate of elderly suicide in the world

A major challenge for cultural evolution has been the creation of larger and more complex societies that bring together people who are not necessarily close kin or even acquaintances. This challenge has most successfully been met in two culture areas: Europe, especially northwest Europe, and East Asia. 

In both areas there have been certain mental/behavioral adjustments:

- A lower propensity for personal violence: The State has imposed a monopoly on violence, and such behavior is no longer a legitimate way by men to advance their personal interests or to impress other people, especially women.

- A higher capacity for cognitive empathy: people are better able to understand how others feel.

- A higher propensity for rule adherence: people are not only more aware of social rules but also more willing to comply.

- A higher level of cognitive ability: greater ability to think, to store knowledge, and to use  knowledge (Rindermann 2018, p. 43).

Some of these adjustments are relatively recent, whereas others go back to prehistoric times. In the latter case, one can say that these two culture areas were pre-adapted for the transition to larger and more complex societies.

Although Europeans and East Asians have created larger and more complex societies in similar ways, there have also been significant differences. Cultural evolution has thus followed somewhat different paths to achieve a similar result. Among Europeans, it has also relied on:

- A higher capacity for affective empathy: people not only understand how others feel but also transfer those feelings to themselves, i.e., there is a greater tendency to feel the other person's pain. In most humans, affective empathy is largely expressed in relations between a mother and her children. In Europeans, and especially northwest Europeans, this capacity is generalized to all social relations and deactivated only if the other person is perceived as being morally worthless. 

- A higher capacity for guilt proneness: people feel guilty and self-punish if they break a social rule, even if nobody else witnessed the wrongdoing.

- A more independent social orientation: more individualism, weaker kinship ties, stronger motivation toward self-expression, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.

Among East Asians, this cultural evolution has instead relied on:

- Less individualism, rather than more, and even higher capacities for cognitive empathy and rule adherence. 

These two internal tendencies work in conjunction with external means of behavior control (shaming, family discipline, community surveillance, appeals to moral duty). The self therefore has a different relationship with society. Whereas a greater sense of self has helped Europeans to transcend the limitations of kinship and, thus, build larger societies, East Asians have relied on a lesser sense of self to create a web of interdependence that extends beyond close kin. Their relationship between self and society puts more emphasis on social happiness, rather than personal happiness, and less emphasis on self-expression, self-esteem, and self-efficacy (Frost 2015; Frost 2017; Kitayama et al. 2014; Talhelm et al. 2014).

Because East Asian societies rely more on external means of behavior control, they are more vulnerable to the negative effects of Westernization, particularly its emphasis on individualism, maximization of personal autonomy, and personal happiness as a supreme life goal.

Elder abuse and elderly suicide

"Filial piety" is one of the pillars of East Asian cultures. It is the obligation of adult children "to obey, respect, care for, and support their older parents both emotionally and financially" (Yan and Fang 2017, p. 477). Care for elderly parents is thus driven by a different mix of motives in East Asian societies: "While American caregivers cited love and affection more frequently [...], Korean caregivers emphasized that their motivations were primarily based on filial responsibility, strongly influenced by the Confucian sentiment, including three core values: (1) respect for parents, (2) family harmony, and (3) sacrifice for parents" (Chee and Levkoff 2001).

As in Europe, this sort of traditional value has survived better under socialist regimes: "in the PRC, filial piety is still characterized by parental authority and absolute submission. 'Talking back' to parents is viewed as a serious offense" (Yan and Fang 2017, p. 478). In contrast, adult children are less submitted to their parents in Hong Kong and Taiwan: "young people today [...] tend to speak less respectfully to their parents, using language often considered verbal abuse by elders." In Hong Kong and Taiwan, adult children are increasingly following the Western model of putting their elderly parents into retirement homes (Yan and Fang 2017, p. 478).

Westernization is even more advanced in South Korea, and it is in this country that the situation of the elderly has deteriorated the most in relation to other age groups economically, socially, and psychologically. One example of this malaise has been a sharp increase in elderly suicide: "South Korea's elderly suicide rate is not merely the highest among the member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it is the highest in the world" (Cha and Lee 2017). Elderly suicide largely explains the country's high suicide rate:

In South Korea, the rate of suicide mortality has climbed since 1985, reaching over 30 per 100,000 person-years lived (PYL) in 2010. As a result of these trends, South Korea and Japan now exhibit the two highest rates of suicide mortality among all OECD countries. [...] Previous research has emphasized high suicide rates among the elderly as well as cohort effects as the main reasons for the steep rise in suicide mortality rates in South Korea over the past 20 years. [...] suicide rates appear poised to increase even further in the future without urgent public health action. (Jeon et al. 2016)

Today, half of South Korea's elderly live in poverty. They typically have little contact with their children. With meager financial support from them or the State, they have to work as security guards, cleaners, and trash collectors. A recent report describes an 86-year-old trash collector and the reasons for her poverty:

Mdm Yim worked hard to support five children, even sending one of them to university. But they all moved away to other cities once they got married, and three years ago, her husband died, leaving her once again without real family support.

"When my daughters visit, they come all at once, then they all leave. My grandchildren are afraid to visit me — they complain about the cockroaches in my place. I get so lonely and bored," she said with a humourless laugh.

[...] This self-condemning attitude perhaps also fueled another problem: The erosion of traditional social values in a Korean society built on confucianism and filial piety. (Shushan 2017)


Larger and more complex societies developed in Europe, especially north and west of the Hajnal Line, thanks to a peculiar mix of mental and behavioral traits: stronger individualism, weaker kinship ties, and higher levels of affective empathy and guilt proneness. This mix helped to bring market economies into being, and the success of this form of social and economic organization has, in turn, encouraged Western Europeans to push the envelope of individualism even farther. We're much more individualistic today than we were even a half-century ago. Is this sustainable? Probably not.

But what about non-Western societies that have adopted the Western model? Our hyper-individualism will be even less sustainable for them. This is particularly so for South Korea, which has embraced the Western model not only economically but also socially and culturally—in large part because of its special relationship with the United States. One consequence has been the collapse of filial piety. South Koreans are only now realizing that the Western model of individualism requires a generous system of old-age pensions. In a post-traditional, egocentric society why take care of aging parents?

Modern Western culture has other consequences. It dissolves the traditional supports for family formation and childbearing, as is painfully evident in South Korea. The fertility rate is now 1.2 children per woman, and many of those children are born to migrant mothers from Southeast Asia and elsewhere. The population is thus rapidly aging at a time when its elderly need much more financial support from younger taxpayers:

South Korea faces the problem of a rapidly aging population. In fact, the speed of aging in Korea is unprecedented in human history […] the percentage of elderly aged 65 and above, has sharply risen from 3.3% in 1955 to 10.7% in 2009. The shape of its population has changed from a pyramid in the 1990s, with more young people and fewer old people, to a diamond shape in 2010, with less young people and a large proportion of middle-age individuals. (Wikipedia 2018a)

I suspect that elderly suicide will be legalized in South Korea, just as it has been in many Western countries.

South Korea is also opening up to immigration, ostensibly to counter the problem of low fertility but really to provide employers with low-wage labor, particularly in agriculture. As of 2016, foreign residents made up 3.4% of the total population (Wikipedia 2018b). This figure understates the full extent of ethnic replacement because it excludes undocumented immigrants, foreigners who have become South Korean citizens, and children of "multicultural marriages" (who automatically acquire citizenship). The immigrant population is also much younger.

One curious result of all these changes is that traditional Korean culture is now much more intact on the other side of the DMZ. This is ironic because North Korea, like other socialist regimes, was founded on a project of radical social reform, including abolition of religion and the traditional family. Yet, today, if you wish to see a traditional society, particularly one that has achieved an advanced stage of social development, you're better off going to a former socialist country, or a bitter hold-out like North Korea.

North Korea's fertility rate is 1.98, just below the replacement level. In fifty years the North will still be recognizably Korean. Will the same be true for the South?


Cha, K.S. and H.S. Lee. (2017). The effects of ego-resilience, social support, and depression on suicidal ideation among the elderly in South Korea. Journal of Women & Aging, April 28

Chee, Y.K. and S.E. Levkoff. (2001). Culture and dementia: Accounts by family caregivers and health professionals for dementia-affected elders in South Korea. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology 16(2): 111-125.

Frost, P. (2015). Two paths. The Unz Review, January 14

Frost, P. (2017). The Hajnal line and gene-culture coevolution in northwest Europe. Advances in Anthropology 7: 154-174.

Frost, P. and H. Harpending. (2015). Western Europe, state formation, and genetic pacification, Evolutionary Psychology 13: 230-243.

Jeon, S.Y., E.N. Reither, and R.K. Masters. (2016). A population-based analysis of increasing rates of suicide mortality in Japan and South Korea. BMC Public Health 16: 356.

Kitayama, S., A. King, C. Yoon, S. Tompson, S. Huff, and I. Liberzon. (2014). The Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene (DRD4) Moderates Cultural Difference in Independent Versus Interdependent Social Orientation. Psychological Science 25: 1169-1177. 

Rindermann, H. (2018). Cognitive Capitalism. Human Capital and the Wellbeing of Nations. Cambridge University Press.

Shushan, L. (2017). Poor and on their own, South Korea's elderly who will 'work until they die' Channel NewsAsia, March 19

Talhelm, T., X. Zhang, S. Oishi, C. Shimin, D. Duan, X. Lan, and S. Kitayama. (2014). Large-scale psychological differences within China explained by rice versus wheat agriculture. Science 344: 603-607. 

Wikipedia (2018a). Demographics of South Korea

Wikipedia (2018b). Immigration to South Korea
Yan, E. and G. Fang. (2017). Elder Abuse and Neglect in Asia. In X. Dong (ed.) Elder Abuse: Research, Practice and Policy, pp. 477-493, Springer.


Sean said...

"Because East Asian societies rely more on external means of behavior control, they are more vulnerable to the negative effects of Westernization, particularly its emphasis on individualism, maximization of personal autonomy, and personal happiness as a supreme life goal."

There is going to be an ongoing loss of meaning in the lives of Koreans, but their adaption to external control may serve them relatively well in the future. I suspect that in a few decades the advanced counties will, even in agriculture, have automated production. Younger people could find themselves unwanted, if most manual work is done by humans a generation hence in Westernized countries like the South. In 50 years' time, North Korea might have had a decades long influx of redundant low level South Koreans workers of immigrant origin. Given the developing identification and surveillance capacities of algorithmic systems South Koreans will be subservient to a new form of control, but it will still be external.

Westerners are not adapted to external controls. I wonder about what will happen to the unconditional value the Westernised countries put on the individual, and the populations internal controls based on conceptions of personal efficacy when very substantial proportion of the population have no function at any time in their lives; why let them vote? I suppose developments in Cambridge Analytica type manipulation and Bullshit Jobs might keep the population quiescent,while immigrant communities might come into their own as a reserve army. I think the Koreans are going to accept whatever comes, difficult to see that happening in Western countries where internal control has become meaningless.

Anonymous said...

South Koreans are only now realizing that the Western model of individualism requires a generous system of old-age pensions.

The Western model is no solution though. In Europe, pensioners' living standards have been propped up by taxes and tight labor markets that disproportionately cost younger people. Britain has been importing foreign doctors to prop up the NHS. In the US, immigration and outsourcing and real estate price inflation have been used to prop up Baby Boomer living standards while devastating younger people's economic prospects.

Regarding South Korea's elderly poverty rate, it refers to relative poverty, not absolute poverty. The poverty rate is defined as earning 50% or less of median household income. They also have a high and increasing life expectancy, and highly rated universal healthcare. About a quarter of South Korean elderly live alone, which is lower than the US, where about a third live alone. People spend less as they age, so it's not clear that increasing elderly incomes simply because of some arbitrary metric would do much good. Elderly South Koreans would probably just give the money to their children.

Different populations have different personality traits, and some populations seem to be more depressive than others, so it's not clear how useful comparisons of suicide rates are. A lot of elderly South Korean suicides may be due to them not wanting to be a burden on their families. Those kinds of suicides are qualitatively different from other kinds of suicide.

Sean said...

Britain has been importing foreign doctors to knock the prop away from British doctor's wages. Supply and demand, the doctor's union (BMA) restricts the number of doctors trained in the UK (see Paul Collier).

"About a quarter of South Korean elderly live alone, which is lower than the US, where about a third live alone.". Korean culture has not prepared them. East Asians have a higher prevalence of the repeat dopamine receptor that makes them deeply affected by the norms of whatever culture they happen to be brought up in: ref Kitayama. These receptors are known to contribute to alcoholism, and South Korea has the highest rate of alcoholism in the whole wide world. Our hyper-individualism IS even less sustainable for them.

Santoculto said...

Cognitive empathy is basically ''prejudice'', i see afective empathy as more reactive or even instinctive than deliberactive, something people can't control or even can't choice, and more related with sympathy, in my view, this is previous and decisive for empathy definition [whom to feel it]. Sympathy is our capacity to detect dangers [lower sympathy] or ''positives'' [higher sympathy] for our survive and often reproduction. Europeans and namely ''mostly-nordic ones'' seems more a mixed between individualism and collectivism while africans, namely bantu and other predominance's, seems more individualistic, resulting in higher rates of intra-male competition. Today, (((western))) over-emphasize affective empathy OVER cognitive. Instead understand people, just feel people, if ''everything about human behavior is subective and cannot be previously designed or predicted''...

People seems use more cognitive empathy against those they detect or conclude as enemies or they are less sympathetic, and more affective empathy for those they like more.

Anonymous said...

The claim that South Korea has the highest rate of alcohol is based on shots of liquor consumed per week:


However, South Koreans almost exclusively drink soju, which is much weaker than Western liquor, and South Koreans don't drink much beer. Moreover, most South Koreans, like other East Asians, lack an enzyme that breaks down alcohol effectively. Alcohol doesn't seem to affect them in the same way it does other populations. Also, drinking is mainly a communal activity in South Korea, done in company outings with coworkers or friends and with food. There doesn't seem to be much individual drinking at home or people going alone to pubs simply for the purpose of drinking.

Sean said...

But why do Koreans love to go out and drink in groups? My assertion was that Korean are more sensitive to social norms and prone to alcoholism because they have a high prevalence of certain dopamine receptor variants. Dopamine-system genes and cultural acquisition: the norm sensitivity hypothesis. Elderly Koreans commit suicide because they are not being taken out for a meal ect by their children, and older South Koreans' expectations of the respect from their offspring are out of step with the materialism of a capitalist state.

Anonymous said...

My point is that given the style and nature of drinking in South Korea, the kind of alcohol they imbibe, their lack of enzymes that metabolize alcohol, etc., it doesn't seem accurate to say that they are the most alcoholic population.

I think it's reasonable to say that elderly Koreans commit suicide due to loneliness. They say there's a "loneliness epidemic" in the US as well. The response in the US to it and general social decay seems to have been alcoholism and substance abuse, which have resulted in increased death rates for middle aged Americans due to alcoholism, overdoses, and suicide:


Elderly Koreans don't seem to turn to drink and drugs out of loneliness. They just off themselves. Whereas Americans seem to turn to more indirect means of self-harm, in addition to turning to suicide more often now than in the past.

I don't think the situation with elderly Koreans is necessarily worse or less sustainable than the situation among middle aged and older Americans.

Peter Frost said...


In 50 years time, the world will be a very different place. Yes, robotization and automation may be a lot more prevalent. On the other hand, I've been hearing that prediction my entire life.


I agree that our current pension system isn't sustainable. Furthermore, some of the "solutions" will only make things worse.

South Korea isn't as affluent as Western Europe or North America, so relative poverty is worse there than it is here. Moreover, the pension system in South Korea is rudimentary and not intended to be sufficient in and of itself. The children are supposed to help out. Unfortunately, many don't. I agree that elderly suicide is done mainly for psychological reasons, i.e., a feeling of being cast out of society and forsaken even by one's own children.


I'm deleting your link. It makes a few legitimate points, but the language is offensive, and needlessly so.


Affective empathy has a stronger impact on behavior because it causes people to respond emotionally. This is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it's easy to rationalize indifference to the suffering of others. On the other hand, there are situations where you can end up destroying yourself in a vain effort to help people who are cynically exploiting this Achilles heel.

Sean said...

Korean Americans also are drinkers, and 'approximately 3.7 out of every 100 suicides in the United States are of Korean-Americans'. I don't disagree that Koreans would rather be dead than alone and they love to drink socially. They are adapted to rice agriculture, which requires cooperation and makes alcohol too easily available, see here. Rice farming and gene-culture co-evolution. To me, that rice agriculture started in Korea is confirmed by them having all sorts of adaptions to cooperation. For instance "KIM found that Koreans are less likely than Americans to turn to their social circle for support and they get less out of doing so; they are more concerned about burdening their friends and straining their relationships". There are other peculiarities of Koreans, such as their unusual hormone levels and lack of body odour.