Nisbett – Geography of Thought

[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.

Nisbett, again:

“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.

Final Comments

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 [1]

2 The Social Origins of Mind: Economics, Social Practices, and Thought [29]

3 Living Together vs. Going It Alone: Social Life and Sense of Self in the Modern East and West [47]

4 Eyes in the Back of Your Head vs. Keep Your Eye on the Ball?: Envisioning the World [79]

5 The Bad Seed or the Other Boys Made Me Do It?: Causal Attribution and Causal Modeling East and West [111]

6 Is the World Made up Of Nouns or Verbs?: Categories and Rules vs. Relationships and Similarities [137]

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 [165]

8 And If the Nature of Thought is Not Everywhere the Same?: Implications for Psychology, Philosophy, Education, and Everyday Life [191]

9 The End of Psychology or the Clash of Mentalities?: The Longevity of Differences [219]

10 thoughts on “Nisbett – Geography of Thought”

  1. Query, then, why the disproportion of East Asian and especially Chinese graduate students in the sciences in the USA. That fact seems totally at odds with the basic thrust of Nisbett’s book. For example, how many of that haul of 44 Nobels had Asian names associated with them, even if they were Americans or at least working in America?

  2. There are some Asian names here but not many (yet)

    Nobels in Physics (by name in descending chronological order)

    Glauber, Roy J.
    Hall, John L.
    Hänsch, Theodor W.
    Gross, David
    Politzer, H. David
    Wilczek, Frank
    Abrikosov, Alexei A.
    Ginzburg, Vitaly L.
    Leggett, Anthony J.
    Davis, Raymond, Jr.
    Giacconi, Riccardo
    Koshiba, Masatoshi
    Cornell,Eric A.
    Ketterle, Wolfgang
    Wieman, Carl E.
    Alferov, Zhores I.
    Kilby, Jack S.
    Kroemer, Herbert
    Hooft, Gerardus ‘t
    Veltman, Martinus J. G.
    Laughlin, Robert B.
    Störmer, Horst
    Tsui, Daniel C.
    Chu, Steven
    Cohen-Tannoudji, Claude
    Phillips, William D.
    Lee, David M.
    Osheroff, Douglas D.
    Richardson, Robert C.
    Perl, Martin L.
    Reines, Frederick
    Brockhouse, Bertram N.
    Shull, Clifford G.
    Hulse, Russell A.
    Taylor, Joseph H. Jr.
    Charpak, Georges
    De Gennes, Pierre-Gilles
    Friedman, Jerome I.
    Kendall, Henry W.
    Taylor, Richard E.
    Dehmelt, Hans G.
    Paul, Wolfgang
    Ramsey, Norman F.
    Lederman, Leon M.
    Schwartz, Melvin
    Steinberger, Jack
    Bednorz, J. Georg
    Muller, K. Alexander
    Binnig, Gerd
    Rohrer, Heinrich
    Ruska, Ernst
    Klitzing, Klaus Von
    Meer, Simon Van Der
    Rubbia, Carlo
    Chandrasekhar, Subramanyan
    Fowler, William A.
    Wilson, Kenneth G.
    Bloembergen, Nicolaas
    Schawlow, Arthur L.
    Siegbahn, Kai M.
    Cronin, James W.
    Fitch, Val L.
    Glashow, Sheldon L.
    Salam, Abdus
    Weinberg, Steven
    Kapitsa, Pyotr Leonidovich
    Penzias, Arno A.
    Wilson, Robert W.
    Anderson, Philip W.
    Mott, Sir Nevill F.
    Vleck, John H. Van
    Richter, Burton
    Ting, Samuel C. C.
    Bohr, Aage
    Mottelson, Ben
    Rainwater, James
    Hewish, Antony
    Ryle, Sir Martin
    Esaki, Leo
    Giaever, Ivar
    Josephson, Brian D.
    Bardeen, John
    Cooper, Leon N.
    Schrieffer, J. Robert
    Gabor, Dennis
    Alfven, Hannes
    Neel, Louis
    Gell-Mann, Murray
    Alvarez, Luis W.
    Bethe, Hans Albrecht
    Kastler, Alfred
    Feynman, Richard P.
    Schwinger, Julian
    Tomonaga, Sin-Itiro
    Basov, Nicolay Gennadiyevich
    Prokhorov, Aleksandr Mikhailovich
    Townes, Charles H.
    Goeppert-Mayer, Maria
    Jensen, J. Hans D.
    Wigner, Eugene P.
    Landau, Lev Davidovich
    Hofstadter, Robert
    Moessbauer, Rudolf Ludwig
    Glaser, Donald A.
    Chamberlain, Owen
    Segre, Emilio Gino
    Cherenkov, Pavel Alekseyevich
    Frank, Il’ja Mikhailovich
    Tamm, Igor Yevgenyevich
    Lee, Tsung-Dao
    Yang, Chen Ning
    Bardeen, John
    Brattain, Walter Houser
    Shockley, William
    Kusch, Polykarp
    Lamb, Willis Eugene
    Born, Max
    Bothe, Walther
    Zernike, Frits
    Bloch, Felix
    Purcell, Edward Mills
    Cockcroft, Sir John Douglas
    Walton, Ernest Thomas Sinton
    Powell, Cecil Frank
    Yukawa, Hideki
    Blackett, Lord Patrick Maynard Stuart
    Appleton, Sir Edward Victor
    Bridgman, Percy Williams
    Pauli, Wolfgang
    Rabi, Isidor Isaac
    Stern, Otto
    Lawrence, Ernest Orlando
    Fermi, Enrico
    Davisson, Clinton Joseph
    Thomson, Sir George Paget
    Anderson, Carl David
    Hess, Victor Franz
    Chadwick, Sir James
    Dirac, Paul Adrien Maurice
    Schroedinger, Erwin
    Heisenberg, Werner
    Raman, Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata
    De Broglie, Prince Louis-Victor
    Richardson, Sir Owen Willans
    Compton, Arthur Holly
    Wilson, Charles Thomson Rees
    Perrin, Jean Baptiste
    Franck, James
    Hertz, Gustav
    Siegbahn, Karl Manne Georg
    Millikan, Robert Andrews
    Bohr, Niels
    Einstein, Albert
    Guillaume, Charles Edouard
    Stark, Johannes
    Planck, Max Karl Ernst Ludwig
    Barkla, Charles Glover
    Bragg, Sir William Henry
    Bragg, Sir William Lawrence
    Laue, Max Von
    Kamerlingh-Onnes, Heike
    Dalen, Nils Gustaf
    Wien, Wilhelm
    Van Der Waals, Johannes Diderik
    Braun, Carl Ferdinand
    Marconi, Guglielmo
    Lippmann, Gabriel
    Michelson, Albert Abraham
    Thomson, Sir Joseph John
    Lenard, Philipp Eduard Anton
    Rayleigh, Lord John William Strutt
    Becquerel, Antoine Henri
    Curie, Marie
    Curie, Pierre
    Lorentz, Hendrik Antoon
    Zeeman, Pieter
    Roentgen, Wilhelm Conrad

  3. Again, a few obviously Asian names, but not many. This could be because the wave of Asian grad students in the U.S. is a relatively new thing. I don’t think we’ll answer this one for 20 years or so.


    Nobels in Chemistry (same sort)

    Chauvin, Yves
    Grubbs, Robert H.
    Schrock, Richard R.
    Ciechanover, Aaron
    Hershko, Avram
    Rose, Irwin A.
    Agre, Peter
    MacKinnon, Roderick
    Fenn, John B.
    Tanaka, Koichi
    Wüthrich, Kurt
    Knowles, William S.
    Noyori, Ryoji
    Sharpless, K. Barry
    Heeger, Alan J.
    MacDiarmid, Alan G.
    Shirakawa, Hideki
    Zewail, Ahmed H
    Kohn, Walter
    Pople, John A.
    Boyer, Paul D.
    Skou, Jens C.
    Walker, John E.
    Curl, Robert F., Jr.
    Kroto, Sir Harold W.
    Smalley, Richard E.
    Crutzen, Paul
    Molina, Mario
    Rowland, F. Sherwood
    Olah, George A.
    Mullis, Kary B.
    Smith, Michael
    Marcus, Rudolph A.
    Ernst, Richard R.
    Corey, Elias James
    Altman, Sidney
    Cech, Thomas R.
    Deisenhofer, Johann
    Huber, Robert
    Michel, Hartmut
    Cram, Donald J.
    Lehn, Jean-Marie
    Pedersen, Charles J.
    Herschbach, Dudley R.
    Lee, Yuan T.
    Polanyi, John C.
    Hauptman, Herbert A.
    Karle, Jerome
    Merrifield, Robert Bruce
    Taube, Henry
    Klug, Sir Aaron
    Fukui, Kenichi
    Hoffmann, Roald
    Berg, Paul
    Gilbert, Walter
    Sanger, Frederick
    Brown, Herbert C.
    Wittig, Georg
    Mitchell, Peter D.
    Prigogine, Ilya
    Lipscomb, William N..
    Cornforth, Sir John Warcup
    Prelog, Vladimir
    Flory, Paul J.
    Fischer, Ernst Otto
    Wilkinson, Sir Geoffrey
    Anfinsen, Christian B.
    Moore, Stanford
    Stein, William H.
    Herzberg, Gerhard
    Leloir, Luis F.
    Barton, Sir Derek H. R.
    Hassel, Odd
    Onsager, Lars
    Eigen, Manfred
    Norrish, Ronald George Wreyford
    Porter, Lord George
    Mulliken, Robert S.
    Woodward, Robert Burns
    Hodgkin, Dorothy Crowfoot
    Natta, Giulio
    Ziegler, Karl
    Kendrew, Sir John Cowdery
    Perutz, Max Ferdinand
    Calvin, Melvin
    Libby, Willard Frank
    Heyrovsky, Jaroslav
    Sanger, Frederick
    Todd, Lord Alexander R.
    Hinshelwood, Sir Cyril Norman
    Semenov, Nikolay Nikolaevich
    Vigneaud, Vincent Du
    Pauling, Linus Carl
    Staudinger, Hermann
    Martin, Archer John Porter
    Synge, Richard Laurence Millington
    McMillan, Edwin Mattison
    Seaborg, Glenn Theodore
    Alder, Kurt
    Diels, Otto Paul Hermann
    Giauque, William Francis
    Tiselius, Arne Wilhelm Kaurin
    Robinson, Sir Robert
    Northrop, John Howard
    Stanley, Wendell Meredith
    Sumner, James Batcheller
    Virtanen, Artturi Ilmari
    Hahn, Otto
    De Hevesy, George
    Butenandt, Adolf Friedrich Johann
    Ruzicka, Leopold
    Kuhn, Richard
    Haworth, Sir Walter Norman
    Karrer, Paul
    Debye, Petrus Josephus Wilhelmus
    Joliot-Curie, Irene
    Joliot, Frederic
    Urey, Harold Clayton
    Langmuir, Irving
    Bergius, Friedrich
    Bosch, Carl
    Fischer, Hans
    Euler-chelpin, Hans Karl August Simon Von
    Harden, Sir Arthur
    Windaus, Adolf Otto Reinhold
    Wieland, Heinrich Otto
    Svedberg, The
    Zsigmondy, Richard Adolf
    Pregl, Fritz
    Aston, Francis William
    Soddy, Frederick
    Nernst, Walther Hermann
    Haber, Fritz
    Willstatter, Richard Martin
    Richards, Theodore William
    Werner, Alfred
    Grignard, Victor
    Sabatier, Paul
    Curie, Marie
    Wallach, Otto
    Ostwald, Wilhelm
    Rutherford, Lord Ernest
    Buchner, Eduard
    Moissan, Henri
    von Baeyer, Johann Friedrich Wilhelm Adolf
    Ramsay, Sir William
    Arrhenius, Svante August
    Fischer, Hermann Emil
    Hoff, Jacobus Henricus Van’t

  4. Dear Lex,

    Nisbett and Co.’s claim is that culture structures perception. North America sees a tiny slice of Asian students as graduate students, actively selected through years of education and training. And Nisbett spends some time in his book discussing the difficulty that Asian students over here have in transitioning from a memorization-hard work-consensus model of science to one that can formulate and champion hypotheses through the entire scientific cycle. It tends to be the last, and quite hard, step in becoming aleading scientist … and it usually occurs in a Western setting. As one can see from spending time with most MDs, hard work and memory can replace scientific method in many professions. There’s a big niche for unimaginative grunt work in the sciences.

    And as we saw some months ago out of Korea, rote generation of scientific data (and widespread fraud) is the intellectual challenge facing Asia in the early part of the 21st century. “Me-too” science fits better into the social milieu, but generates few if any truly elite scientists.

    Nobels with Asian names would only be an intriguing data point if the individuals were socialized and educated entirely in Asia. [They certainly do exist!] Otherwise, like the HK, Taiwan, and Singapore students, they actually toggle perceptual modes between work and home as they acculturate in the West. This is the very useful part of the work that Nisbett and his Asian colleagues have been undertaking.

    The book does a much more thorough job than I in walking through the research, and how the researchers tried to control for other variables.

    All the best. J.

  5. Thanks. This was a very stimulating review that went beyond a recapitulation of the book.

    Does Nisbett have much to say about South Asian thinking?

    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.

    And yet it is the East Asian countries, especially Japan and Taiwan, that seem to have accomodated best to living with the Anglosphere. If we think so differently why have they been so successful? I doubt the Anglosphere has tried harder with them than others.

  6. “…accomodated best to living with the Anglosphere.”

    We got to that level by way of the Opium Wars and Hiroshima. In other words, the East Asians accomodated themselves to us, because they suffered military defeat and relative economic backwardness and they were desperate to catch up.

  7. Just about everybody else had cultural and institutional and even public health (e.g. malaria) deficiencies that made it impossible for them to accomodate themselves to the Anglo-American world order, currently called Globalization. Latin America, Africa, the Middle East have done relatively poorly. The East Asians were sufficiently on the ball that after suffering bloodily at the hands of the West they were able to adapt what they saw to the their own circumstances relatively effectively.

  8. Lex,

    When the Europeans and Americans began to impose themselves on China and Japan in the 19th Century, both countries took different strategies to address the situation. The Chinese looked at the European power and said their success against them was because they, the Chinese, had morally failed. The Chinese as with most major cultures thought they were superior to all others. The Chinese Empire was only overtaken by European growth in the prior century. Therefore, they sought to return to the old ways to reestablish themselves. It was their moral failures that lead them to an inferior position, not the technology. Notice what happened when the Chinese got around to the tech issue by the 80s? The Japanese took the opposite approach. To them it was the technology from the start. So the restored Imperial house sent its people to the west to learn the ways of the west in industry, technology, business, law, etc. It integrated as many institutions it could into the cultured. It did so very successfully. The unfortunate part was that they also got the gangsterism that also flowed through Europe to manifest itself in the ‘isms that would corrupt Europe. It had fertile ground in the undercurrent of remaining vestiges of historical clan power conflicts. However, Japan freely adapted these Western institutions and concepts with out an ‘Opium War’ and very much prior to Hiroshima. The Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and the initial phase of WWII in the Pacific, all demonstrated that the Japanese had indeed learned the way of the West. Meanwhile, the Chinese were still in another of their traditional warlord-consolidation-empire-breakup cycle.

  9. Don, agreed, except that Japan, after it started to get the hang of technology, decided that the West was morally inferior, and embarked on a course of nutty militarism that led from the Marco Polo Bridge right up to Hiroshima and US occupation. A most regrettable detour on an otherwise promising path.

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