Book Review: Tiger Mom's Superiority Complex

Amy Chua and her husband on the reasons certain ethnic groups excel in America

Yale law professor Amy Chua gained fame—and stoked fires in the mommy wars—in 2011 with a Wall Street Journal piece called “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior.” The essay introduced Chua’s provocative book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which embraced cultural stereotypes about Asian moms having academically successful offspring because they don’t let their kids watch TV, get out of playing the piano or violin, or “not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama.” Three years later, Tiger Mom is back, with her claws only slightly retracted, and a co-author, her husband, fellow Yale law professor, and novelist Jed Rubenfeld. Their book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, has no problem with absolutes, either.

Instead of sticking with one outstanding tribe—the Chinese—Chua and Rubenfeld add seven more: Jews, Lebanese, Indians, Iranians, Nigerians, Cuban exiles, and Mormons. The authors (Chua is Chinese, and Rubenfeld is Jewish) say these eight groups are more financially and academically successful than others in the U.S. because they possess “the triple package” of traits—superiority, insecurity, and good impulse control.

Chua and Rubenfeld point to studies that show peoples’ performance in all sorts of activities increases or decreases when they’re stereotypically thought to be good or bad at the task at hand. They cite this as empirical proof that group feelings of superiority breed success. They also say that black students score lower on standardized tests when instructions “remind them about stereotypes concerning differential racial performance on such tests.” Yet doesn’t that undermine the inclusion of Nigerians? Chua and Rubenfeld seem to know they’re on shaky ground and stick in this maddening get-out-of-jail-free clause: “If a disproportionately successful group could be found in the United States without a superiority complex, that would … undercut the Triple Package thesis.” Well, duh.

The book is racism masquerading as social science, but that doesn’t mean that it’s all wrong. On an individual level, feelings of superiority—i.e., narcissism—can help you become a leader. When P.D. Harms, an assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, co-authored a study in 2013 that aggregated other papers on leader emergence, he found that narcissists are more likely to become heads of companies for two reasons: They self-nominate and self-identify. “When someone puts a thing up on a job board that says who wants to be assistant manager or manager,” Harms says, “a narcissist will always say, ‘Me me me me.’ ”

One culture that Chua and Rubenfeld focus on is Mormonism, which has produced an astounding number of chief executive officers and chief financial officers, including the heads of JetBlue, American Express, Deloitte, Marriott, and Sam’s Club (pretty good for a group that makes up less than 2 percent of the population). The authors argue that the Mormon sense of superiority is lodged in their theocracy. According to Matthew Bowman, author of The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith, Mormons don’t necessarily think they’re superior, but they do see themselves as the same kind of being as God. “This lends Mormons a real sense of possibility. That our efforts in this world all have the promise of vast potential and vast success.”

It’s common, according to Bowman, for Mormons to seek divine intervention for their careers. But another aspect of the religion—an emphasis on spending time with family—leads some to turn down opportunities, he says.

That’s the problem with broad arguments based on culture, like the “triple package.” When you actually talk to people who come from those groups—something Chua and Rubenfeld don’t do—the complexities contradict absolutes.

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