Humboldtians in Focus

The Fireman’s Fear

By Georg Scholl

To what extent do emotions influence behaviour in different cultures? Psychologist Dominik Güss has searched four continents for the emotional blueprints of behaviour.

Dominik Güss explaining to a test person how he can control the bushfire on the screen.
Dominik Güss explaining to a test
person how he can control
the bushfire on the screen.

Photo: private

Until just a moment ago, fireman Willy Damaso was in control of the situation. But, now, the flames are shooting up all over the place and, even in the safety of the operation control centre, the burgeoning bushfire is becoming ever more threatening. Damaso checks the information on the screen in front of him and groans. “And now the wind’s coming up to top it all. What should I do about that patch of fire at the back there? I guess the best thing would be to send in a helicopter. Oh no, now the fire’s broken out over there, too. What on earth should I do?” With a heartfelt groan he drops back in his chair. “I’ll never make a good fireman!”

Psychologist Dominik Güss, who has closely observed the growing desperation of the stressed firefighter, smiles contentedly. He may have been a failure as a fireman, but as a test person in a study of the different strategies people use to solve problems, Willy Damaso, who in reality has another name altogether, has played his part brilliantly. He is one of some hundred Filipino students taking part in a computer simulation called Winfire. They have to try their hand at firefighting and, while they are about it, say everything that comes into their heads out loud. It is a popular method in psychology. As well as Winfire, there are other simulations, known as microworlds, in which the test persons are required to slip into the role of a chocolate manufacturer or a supermarket manager who has to achieve the right temperature in his cold store. Depending on how the participants react to certain problems and what they think, inferences can be drawn on how people would feel and behave in real-life situations.

Dominik Güss is the first person to apply the so-called thinking out loud method to an international comparison of work with microworlds. Apart from Damaso and his compatriots, a hundred Indians, Americans, Germans and Brazilians respectively each had to fight the virtual bushfire and find the right temperature for the cold store. Having worked at universities in Germany, the Philippines and the US, Güss has the international network essential for conducting these in situ tests with local teams of students. His voice is gentle and friendly, and it is not difficult to imagine what a positive effect the tall, youthful-looking German has on nervous, reticent candidates during the tests. After all, it takes a good deal of openness to engage in thinking out loud and to allow a researcher such direct insights into one’s own feelings and experiences.

Any number of clichés falls by the wayside

Güss is searching for answers to the questions that “so far have mostly been answered on instinct” in the literature on intercultural communication. To what extent do emotions influence behaviour in different cultures? Is there a special German or American way of solving a problem? Do Indians deal with frustration differently from Brazilians or Filipinos playing Winfire?

The computer simulation shows blazing forests, teams of firefighters, urban houses and lakes for fire water.
The computer simulation shows blazing
forests, teams of firefighters, urban
houses and lakes for fire water.

Photo: private

Güss was able to discover that any number of clichés falls by the wayside: “The results contradict the stereotype of the ‘fatalistic Indian’, for example, or the ‘Filipino who always smiles and never reveals any negative emotions’. In the thinking out loud transcripts Indians didn’t fatalistically submit to their fate but were just as active as Americans, Brazilians and Filipinos when it came to planning and decision-making. Only the Germans did more planning and took relatively more decisions than anyone else.” According to Güss, the Filipinos did not show more or less positive emotions or positive self-assessments than the Germans, Brazilians or Indians in the thinking out loud transcripts. However, they did express more negative emotions and negative self-assessments than the Indians or even the Germans, who are often thought to be particularly critical, to the point of crankiness. Americans emerged as the great pragmatists amongst the fire-extinguishing strategists: “They often simply tried something out just to see if it would work. If it didn’t, so what, they simply tried out the next thing,” says Güss, who thinks these findings are of value when putting together, say, international teams in which different strengths can be promoted or complemented.

Indians and Filipinos belong to so-called high context cultures in which the individual is more likely to base his or her behaviour on the environment or those around them. In the course of working with Güss this was illustrated, for instance, by the number of questions they asked the investigator before and during the game, or by their need to be praised when they were successful or encouraged when things went wrong.

“A computer programme that can feel a similar degree of stress to the desperate fireman could soon help to predict the reactions of people in crisis situations.”

Americans and Germans on the other hand, who belong to low context cultures, refer less to their environment, are more individualistic and are inclined to pursue their own goals. In Winfire this attitude meant they tended to do better. In a game requiring more interaction and teamwork the results could be different, according to Güss. He draws parallels with behaviour in extreme real-life situations such as natural disasters. The way the population of the Philippines came to each other’s assistance when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, was typical of the behaviour in a collectivist society. And the fact that the victims of the disaster quite naturally looked after one another may well have prevented the situation from being even worse.

Bushfires transform green forests into razed, grey expanses.
Bushfires transform green forests into
razed, grey expanses.

Photo: private

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on the other hand, the many inhabitants who chose to stay in their ruined homes rather than seek refuge in the emergency centre at the football stadium were, according to Güss, demonstrating behaviour typical of an individualistic society in which everybody looks after number one, and helping one another is not such a priority.

On the way to a computer soul

Güss is currently in Germany, extending his research together with his Humboldt Hosts in Jena and Bamberg. With his collaborative partner, the psychologist and Professor for Intercultural Communication at the University of Jena, Stefan Strohschneider, he wants to use simulations to examine the interaction of intercultural teams and test himself was a student, he wants to work together with the German doyen of behavioural simulation, Dietrich Dörner, integrating his results in Dörner’s Psi Theory, a model of human motivation, emotion, cognition, and behaviour. Dörner develops computer programmes which – to use an ambitious term – simulate the human soul. Dominik Güss’s work is designed to help adapt such simulations to different cultural contexts. A computer programme that can feel a similar degree of stress to the desperate fireman Willy Damaso could soon help to predict the reactions of people in crisis situations.


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Dominik Güss Dominik Güss
Photo: private

Professor Dr. Dominik Güss ist Associate Professor an der University of North Florida, Jacksonville, USA. Als Humboldt-Forschungsstipendiat forscht der Psychologe zwischen 2009 und 2011 an den Universitäten Bamberg und Jena.

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