[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]
Nisbett, Richard E., The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … And Why, Free Press, 2003, 263 pp.
Previous posts for this blog has drawn on history, political science, technology trends, and a bit of economics. Only occasionally does an Anglosphere discussion turn to the biological or social sciences.
Some time ago, I put forward a proposal that the central unique attribute of the Anglosphere (its “secret weapon”) was its (inadvertent) ideal social structure for optimizing communal decision-making – the so-called “wisdom of crowds” effect. This proposed advantage is a matter of degree, drawing as it does on a universal capacity of humans in groups. Differences, however, even small ones, can have a big impact.
In the course of preparing materials for a website on medical decision-making for patients, I stumbled on a book with additional significance for the debate about the underlying nature of the Anglosphere. This book takes the biggest of “big picture” overviews of human cognition and perception.
Geography of Thought, by eminent U Mich social psychologist Richard Nisbett is a plain-language summary of years of social psychology research that suggest there are profound and substantial differences between the way Asian and Western cultures (and individuals) perceive the world.
In a nutshell, Asian people focus on substance and relationship, while Westerners focus on objects and properties. What does this mean at a practical level? An example. Shown a new object, say a pyramid made of cork … Asians will find the cork memorable and significant, while Westerners will focus on, and think more about, the shape (pyramid).
This general pattern of perception is repeated in a number of ways — shown a photo of a tiger in a jungle setting, and then a second photo of the same subject with small differences, Asians (and to a lesser degree Asian-Americans) will be most sensitive to changes in the background while ignoring changes in the tiger, its stance and its position in the photo. Westerners focus on the tiger almost exclusively. Such differences in focus are ranked on a scale of “field dependence.” These patterns are reflected in the way adults in the two cultures raise infants and children. Introduce a new toy and ask a mother to play with their toddler. An Asian mother will emphasize the niceties of sharing the toy and exchanging it with the child. The toy itself will be identified by the kinds of people who manipulate or relate to it (e.g. a firetruck). A Western mother however will begin by talking to the child about the physical properties of the object … its size, colour, weight, etc. and how its properties relate to other objects and toys with which the child is familiar. The toy is also described by its actions: what it does, what is done to it.
Not surprisingly, when children are instructed in dramatically different types of categorization, which carry through into their day-to-day life as adults, the emphasis of the cultures themselves is quite different.
Research by colleagues in Nisbett’s discipline further discovered that the emphasis on, and appetite for, identifying causality is very different in East and West. Westerners tend to over-simplify how the world works in order to model causality in useful active ways. Rules about non-contradiction are held to be very important. Asians tend to emphasize the complexity of the situation and ponder the variables. They will tend to see people as influenced by their environment while Westerners attribute personal behaviour to inherent, and relatively less plastic, personal attributes. Once a thief, always a thief, in other words.
A case in point illustrating contrasting perspectives is the “P-3 spy plane” incident off the coast of China in 2001. A US P-3 surveillance plane was nudged in the air by a much smaller Chinese fighter jet. The Chinese jet crashed and the P-3 made an emergency landing in China without permission after heroic efforts by the American pilot. America and China had two very different foci about the issue. Americans were obsessed with the initial cause of the incident (reckless Chinese piloting) while the Chinese wanted to address the broader situation (American spying and an unapproved landing). The resolution, after potentially damaging economic consequences loomed, was a mealy-mouthed statement of “regret” by the Americans that satisfied Chinese needs for apology without triggering American anger about causality by actually giving an apology.
Nisbett provides a nice balance of illustration and summarization of the research which he, his students, and the members of his profession have assembled over several decades. The implications of this research for medicine, law, science, human rights, and for international relations more generally are substantial.
Take for instance the case of public debate and rhetoric. Asians, and their governments, generally distrust the value of public airing of different sides of a debate. The strange (to Western eyes) role of South Korea’s education system in not teaching their students about the specifics of life in North Korea is an excellent example. Public discourse is more often seen as boilerplate consensus rather than a list of debating points that must be addressed by political opponents. And in fact, counterintuitively, when people are shown two explanations for an event, one plausible, then one implausible, Asians will view the plausible explanation as less likely after hearing the implausible explanation while Westerners will consider the plausible explanation more likely after hearing the implausible explanation.
In the West, from an early age, children are expected to express themselves verbally and make a case for their desires and opinions using elementary rules of logic, of noncontradiction. This skill is highly valued, often very well remunerated, and generally considered both a sign of intelligence and of a good education. Japanese students at the primary and secondary levels, temporarily living in the US when their fathers are transferred for work, are occasionally diagnosed as “learning disabled” because they haven’t been educated to speak in class and display progressively better skills in applying formal logic and identifying causality.
Consider the following however:
Ask people to verbally describe the steps they are taking to solve a puzzle in a laboratory setting. Western participants proceed as normal while the Asian participants find it much more difficult to complete the puzzle if they are required to verbalize the steps they take. The problem becomes very acute, Nisbett relates, for Asian grad students coming to America who are held to particularly high standards of verbal participation in the classroom and who will be required to epitomize and rationalize their research in front of fellow students and teachers.
Indeed, Nisbett believes that learning Western logic and scientific rhetoric is often the last and most difficult (but not impossible) step that Asian students working at his university must complete in order to enter the highest ranks of scientific success.
The recent controversy over Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk’s faking of scientific results on cloning of human embryos suggests that social requirements can overwhelm the commitment to scientific integrity even for those whose work is going to receive minute scrutiny. The damage to both personal and national reputation has been substantial and may take many years to overcome. A similiar Korean scandal in the financial and business areas was required before GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) was instituted and taken seriously by the nation.
Personal guilt (distinguished from shame) or accountability is driven by a different set of standards. “Westerners are the protagonists of their autobiographical novels; Asians are merely cast members in movies touching on their existences.” p.87
Reading about this kind of cognitive research, I was struck by the efforts in the 19th century (described by Alan Macfarlane in his book The Making of the Modern World: Visions from the West and East) by Japanese scholar Yukichi Fukuzawa to establish the infrastructure that would support this Western emphasis on verbal articulation and rhetoric: clubs, universities, courses in public speaking, scientific writing, and even double-entry accounting. What seems inevitable and universal to Westerners simply isn’t. As Nisbett says, “I firmly believe that the entry of East Asians into the social sciences is going to transform how we think about human thought and behaviour across the board.” p.226 It seems very likely that we’ll discover more about cross-cultural variation in perception as time goes by.
The research on cognitive styles also has uncovered variation between subgroups … there is some information about variation between northern and southern Europe (the northerners are even more object-oriented), and between Korea, China, and Japan. Also, there have been efforts to test Asian-Americans, Asians in Hong Kong and Singapore, Asians who learned English as adolescents versus Asians who grew up in bilingual environments from childhood. Clearly however, the samples are skewed toward nations and cultures where psychological research is most developed. It’s worth noting that Nisbett collaborates widely with Asian researchers to pool results of cognitive testing.
Nisbett describes these two different styles of cultural perception as part-whole categorization (relationships, substances, complexity) and individual-class categorization (objects, properties, simplified causality and relationship). In his words:
“My claim is not that the cognitive differences we find the laboratory cause the differences in attitudes, values, and behaviours, but that the cognitive differences are inseparable from the social and motivational ones. People hold the beliefs they do because of the way they think and they think the way they do because of the nature of the societies they live in.” p. 201
Research results do suggest that there is plasticity in modes of thinking. Asian-Americans and those living in Anglospheric environments like HK and Singapore score somewhere in the middle of the object-substance continuum and in fact seem to toggle between the two modes depending on the social and work environments in which they find themselves. For example, focus on causality and objects kicks in when troubleshooting software code but focus on relationships may reassert itself at home. Everyone, apparently, can be primed or cued to temporarily perceive in a more “Asian” or more “Western” style, but the effect and its duration are very limited.
A moment’s thought will identify the implications of these East-West contrasts on the topics which dominate the this weblog — the emergence of individualism, economic agency, participatory democracy, etc.
“Remarkably, the social structures and sense of self that are characteristic of Easterners and Westerners seem to fit hand in glove with their respective belief systems and cognitive processes. The collective or interdependent nature of Asian society is consistent with Asians’ broad, contextual view of the world and their belief that events are highly complex and determined by many factors. The individualistic or independent nature of Western society seems consistent with the Western focus on particular objects in isolation from their context and with Westerners’ belief that they can know the rules governing objects and therefore can control the objects’ behaviour.” p. xvii
Where do these differences come from? Are they an artifact of population density or agricultural requirements for communal living?
Nisbett prefers to source the differences between East and West in the exemplar classical culture of Greece and China respectively. Here, readers of this blog may find his summaries of the two ancient cultures generally convincing but subject to many caveats. Nonetheless, one can hardly argue with the statement that Confucius and Aristotle provide convenient conceptual hooks for very, very different views of the world.
In a series of thought-provoking chapters, Nisbett outlines a vocabulary that helps a general reader carefully consider what the impact of such differences might be for daily life.
“If the key difference between agricultural peoples on the one hand and hunter-gatherers and modern, independent citizens of modern industrial societies on the other has to do with the degree of attention to their social world, then it would be reasonable to expect that subcultures within a given society that differ in degree of social constraint should differ in degree of field dependence, as well.” p.43
Beginning with the differences in direct perception (what is memorable and/or important), he then reviews the research results on perception of the larger world, the utility of logic and the concept of “truth”.
He spends some time in the book discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the two styles of perception. Westerners can tend to skip or overlook necessary detail. They can also get so caught up in logic that they deny reality for some time. Oversimplification is a problem. For Asians, apart from the serious impediments to scientific thinking, there is a tendency to “hindsight bias” — an after-the-fact comfort with whatever has happened that both over-estimates the inherent complexity of any situation and is notably incurious about differences between what has happened and what was predicted. The latter is the classic Western seed of scientific innovation.
Nisbett does conclude his book with a hopeful statement on the human capacity for Westernization and Easternization … but he certains doesn’t address the challenges raised by say, Ray Kurweil’s view of the world as facing a Technological Singularity. Indeed, Nisbett notes that during the 90s Japan managed to win only one Nobel prize in science. The Germans (5) and the French (3) won their prizes with a fraction of Japan’s funding … and the US haul (44) was managed on a science budget twice as large as Japan. Like it or not, Western modes of perception permit scientific traction. Mothers in Beijing know this … and Nisbett documents some indications that an individual appetite for Westernized styles of perception is growing in Asia, even if the day-to-day and sociopolitical realities of Asian countries appears very traditional.
Nisbett’s book is particularly well-written and serves as an excellent general introduction to an area of social psychology that is controversial but very much a part of the discussion on this blog about cultural values.
To what extent is the Anglosphere transferable to other nations, other cultures? This book would suggest that the hurdles are perceptual, and cultural, as much as institutional. It also suggests that the potential for misunderstanding is greatest when the East-West perceptual boundary is crossed. This was certainly evident in the AngloAmerican war with Japan during WW2 and might suggest particular caution in dealing with China in the near to mid-term. Correcting for the fact that Nisbett’s book is an introduction to the area of research and not meant to be an exhaustive academic tome, I would say that my only major frustration was reading a copy from the public library … I couldn’t annotate the volume page-by-page. There’s a lot of stimulating information in this book, and many little details that seem to relate to the history and political science discussed on this blog. So I plan on buying my own copy very soon and re-reading with a sharp pencil. I would expect that the discoveries highlighted by Nisbett will come back to haunt us regularly in coming years.
A few additional comments:
1. I believe that Nisbett’s use of Greece as the root of Western thinking styles is practical but could be “premature.” The styles of perceptual thinking which he highlights as Western did not penetrate into the general Western public until the Renaissance, I believe. In an upcoming book review (Crosby’s The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600), I’ll describe the case that can be made for Europe’s big break in perception coming in the late Middle Ages. Nisbett’s pocket summaries of Chinese and Greek philosophy/culture are therefore definitely open to further refinement.
2. Nisbett doesn’t use the term Anglosphere but certainly, here and there, manages to highlight America and the commonwealth countries as particular exemplars of the Western style of perception. It would be an interesting piece of meta-analysis if he could be encouraged to organize his information on a global level (cf. the World Values Survey).
It would also be very useful to have information on the perceptual styles of additional parts of the world. I guess the research simply isn’t available. Russia, Africa, the Muslim world, are all influential in the modern world and understanding their preference for social versus object perception would be helpful. One could, I think, make educated guesses based on the degree of focus on causality and logic in public discourse. By that standard, I’d guess that northwest Europe is an outlier in yet one more way …
Nisbett himself states “[s]omeone has said “The Idea moves west” meaning that the values of individuality, freedom, rationality, and universalism became progressively more dominant and articulated as civilization moved westward from its origins in the Fertile Crescent.” p.69.
3. As noted in the early part of this post, I’m personally convinced that it is in the dynamic interplay of social structure and human psychology that we discover the unique nature of the Anglosphere. With the addition of the perceptual information provided by Nisbett’s overview, we might speculate that the Anglosphere is not only an extreme example of European culture, it is almost completely distinct from Asian culture. I struggle to imagine how any “wisdom of crowds” effect could successfully take hold in Asia without a parallel system for the tolerance and encouragement of perceptual styles of individual authorship and action. The necessary diversity of opinion and information-gathering seen as central to optimal group decision-making is absent. There’s nothing genetic about this, of course, as specific examples of Asian culture in Hong Kong and Singapore confirm, but the research does suggest that Asia will be playing catch-up in both science and decentralized civic decision-making for some time yet. Not that Asian decisions and discoveries will be bad … but they will be persistently and marginally less successful than those made in the West.
I welcome contrary views on this subject because I’m a self-admitted pessimist when it comes to the export of Anglosphere values. I doubt it can be done … and if it can, I’d suggest it takes a long, long time and often occurs unilaterally.
Letting Nisbett sum up: “I have presented a large amount of evidence to the effect that Easterners and Westerners differ in fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world, in the focus of attention, in the skills necessary to perceive relationships and to discern objects in a complex environment, in the character of causal attribution, in the tendency to organize the world categorically or relationally, and in the inclination to use rules, including the rules of formal logic.” p. 189
For regular readers of Chicagoboyz who are interested in possible psychological roots of the Anglosphere, Geography of Thought is an excellent read and strongly recommended.
Table of Contents
1 The Syllogism and the Tao: Philosophy, Science, and Society in Ancient Greece and China 
2 The Social Origins of Mind: Economics, Social Practices, and Thought 
3 Living Together vs. Going It Alone: Social Life and Sense of Self in the Modern East and West 
4 Eyes in the Back of Your Head vs. Keep Your Eye on the Ball?: Envisioning the World 
5 The Bad Seed or the Other Boys Made Me Do It?: Causal Attribution and Causal Modeling East and West 
6 Is the World Made up Of Nouns or Verbs?: Categories and Rules vs. Relationships and Similarities 
7 Ce N’est Pas Logique or You’ve Got a Point There?: Logic and the Law of Noncontradiction vs Dialectics and the Middle Way 
8 And If the Nature of Thought is Not Everywhere the Same?: Implications for Psychology, Philosophy, Education, and Everyday Life 
9 The End of Psychology or the Clash of Mentalities?: The Longevity of Differences