Reviews in Popular Science: A Science of Success?

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AmericanScience is pleased to present the first of our Reviews in Popular Science, written by Catherine Mas. Catherine will review Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld's book The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.

Catherine Mas, originally from Miami, Florida, is a second-year Ph.D. student in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. She is broadly interested in changing perceptions of illness and the varying meanings and uses of science in American history. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, drawing, and listening to music. 

       Last February, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld published The Triple Package:How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, a controversial book about culture and success. From book reviews to talk shows in mainstream media, audiences have grappled with the book’s bold premise: that three traits common among certain minority cultural groups lead to their higher-than-average material wealth, occupational status, and academic achievement. These three traits include: 1) a superiority complex, 2) insecurity, and 3) impulse control. When combined, these so-called cultural forces make up what Chua and Rubenfeld call the “Triple Package,” a formula that generates the drive to succeed in America. Mormons, Cubans, Asians, Jews, and Nigerians are all included in the authors’ list of high-achieving cultural groups. By the end of the book, the authors extend their theory to the scale of nation, describing how America had once been a Triple Package nation but has recently entered an era of decline.
Pepe Billete, a radio, TV, and social media personality whose YouTube videos have amassed millions of views and who also writes a column in the Miami New Times, is featured in The Triple Package as an example of the way Cuban-Americans express the “Superiority” element of their Triple Package. The puppet, always with a cigar in hand, dons aviators and shirts ranging from partially unbuttoned guayaberas to Miami Heat jerseys. He is a caricature of Cubans in Miami—a stereotype that many have embraced given his popularity. Anecdotal evidence such as the Pepe Billete’s controversial words touting the superior status of Cubans over other Hispanic groups are accompanied by social psychological studies on “stereotype boost.”

            This book, classified under ethnic studies, uses social statistics, studies in psychology, and selective historical examples to show why people of equal capabilities and facing similar obstacles achieve different levels of success. The authors insist that even though certain groups carry the Triple Package, it is available to anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or cultural upbringing. Chua and Rubenfeld, husband and wife and law professors at Yale, lack formal training in sociology and social science research methodology. Some critics have dismissed the book’s original research as unsound and pseudo-scientific, questioning the quality of the research and its selective use of statistical data. In this review, rather than critique their methodology, I want to focus on how Chua and Rubenfeld deployed scientific knowledge about human behavior in their quest to offer a formula for success.
First, some background on the authors may help to contextualize their agenda. Chua’s previous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011), was similarly provocative, causing a nationwide debate about the benefits and dangers of “extreme” parenting. The link between parenting style and future success that Chua describes in her memoir is generalized and made into a science in The Triple Package. Both authors have experience with the phenomenon they describe in this book as the first generation children of Chinese and Jewish immigrants. Moreover, as a self-professed “tiger mother,” one might guess that Chua—with Rubenfeld’s consent—is working to reproduce this cultural experience for her own children. Knowing this about the authors, the reader wonders how much of this book is about finding a scientific explanation for the authors’ own career achievements and responding to anxieties about the fate of their own children, members of a generation seen in popular culture as entitled and complacent.  
            Nevertheless, the empirical evidence that illustrates their argument has convinced a large number of readers and positive reviewers (or perhaps confirmed preexisting beliefs). These readers are convinced by (a) the authors’ theorization of cultural traits as embodied by the “Triple Package” (b) the citation of psychological studies to support their argument, two strategies which I will now discuss further.
The book’s main premise is that the perfect combination of three cultural traits produces success. Without one of the three, the system fails. To give one example, Chua and Rubenfeld claim that Jewish Americans possess insecurity from a history of persecution, a superiority complex from the belief they are God’s chosen people, and they practice a lifestyle of impulse control. The authors write that ethnic groups do not inherently possess the cultural package that leads to success in America, evidenced by what they call “group decline.” Usually, by the third generation of immigrant groups, the “drive” generated by the cultural package disintegrates because of the difficulty in sustaining all three elements of the formula.
Mitt Romney is the authors’ leading example of a successful Mormon. They argue that he obtained wealth and status because Mormons are members of a cultural group that faces insecurity, possesses a superiority complex, and practices impulse control.
            The counterpoint to Triple Package cultures is the American culture that tends towards the average—a modern culture that, thanks largely to popular psychology, values self-esteem and living in the moment rather than appreciating the productive qualities of insecurity, scorn, and asceticism. The authors often make a caricature of American self-acceptance culture, with anecdotes like the one about parents who discipline their children by having them write “poems of atonement” when finding they were in possession of marijuana.
The authors use empirical findings in social psychology to support their notion of the Triple Package and to show why we might benefit from taking stereotypes seriously. “Stereotype boost” fuels a success loop. Social psychologists have shown that individuals who are told they will be inherently superior at a certain task due to their race, ethnicity, or gender will then proceed to perform better at that task than they would have otherwise. To illustrate the advantage of impulse control, the authors cite Walter Mischel’s “marshmallow test” experiment of the 1960s, which demonstrated that the children who resisted temptation were more likely to perform better in school. Overall, the authors’ understanding of childhood is very important to their argument, and sometimes taken as a given. They see the child’s mind as a moldable entity and the main tool for breeding success.
The pathologies of the Triple Package are often psychological or emotional. Children of Triple Package cultures experience high levels of anxiety, low self-esteem, and feel reduced to mere investments or a source of bragging rights for their group. Neuroses are the psychological costs of extreme insecurity and impulse control, and here Chua and Rubenfeld spend substantial time discussing the high levels of depression and anxiety among Asian Americans and Jewish Americans. Ambition, greed, and arrogance are additional symptoms of what the authors label the “Triple Package disease.”
Ultimately, the Triple Package, a set of values and practices, is a source of empowerment available to anyone. But this optimistic conclusion seems naïve without a mechanism for how someone could cultivate his or her own Triple Package. Chua and Rubenfeld make it seem that individuals of non-Triple Package groups just need to learn how to practice self-discipline to replace the group discipline characteristic of Triple Package parenting. As many critics have already pointed out, they ignore the deeply entrenched structural inequalities in American society and the complex histories of immigration. In fact, from a historical perspective, this work resembles the success ideology of Gilded Age America, when upward mobility was understood in evolutionary terms of competition and natural selection rather than these psychological terms of insecurity and superiority complexes.

As a student of the history of science, I wonder what style of reasoning led the authors to understand “culture” as a set of traits that can be isolated and replicated, and to then approach the nation like a human being, whose success relies on its personality traits? How is the average American—or America personified—manufactured in today’s world, and how does that idea interact with the desire of many to be above average? I am concerned that by neglecting the impact of systemic racism and sexism, this book may appeal to those who seek an alternative explanation for the reality of poverty or the lack of upward mobility in America. After all, as the authors suggest, since Nigerian immigrants and Cuban exiles have managed to achieve wealth and status, race doesn’t necessarily interfere with African Americans’ and Latinos’ chance at success. This study, with its historically insensitive generalizations, is revealing of the stories people tell themselves today about culture and the types of behaviors and psyches that the present economy rewards. In bringing culture and psychology to the forefront, Chua and Rubenfeld attempt to offer scientific and seemingly neutral explanations for success to avoid the messy reality of inequality.

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