The geography of thought: How culture colors the way the mind
ANN ARBOR, Mich.Cultural differences in
the way the mind works may be greater than most people suspect,
according to University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett,
author of "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners
Think Differently...and Why," just published by The Free
Press. "When you have a diverse group of people from different
cultures, you get not just different beliefs about the world, but
different ways of perceiving it and reasoning about it, each with
its own strengths and weaknesses," says Nisbett, a senior
research scientist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR),
the world's largest academic survey and research organization.
|Westerners and East Asians describe this scene
in different ways
(Source: The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research)
In the book, Nisbett, who also heads the U-M Culture
and Cognition Program, discusses the substantial differences in
East Asian and Western thought processes, citing experimental, historical,
and social evidence. His findings call into question the long-standing
psychological assumption that the way the human mind works is universal.
In the process, he addresses such questions as:
· Why did the ancient Chinese excel at algebra
and arithmetic, but not geometry?
· Why do Western infants learn nouns more
rapidly than verbs, when it is the other way around in East Asia?
· Why do East Asians find it so difficult
to disentangle an object from its surroundings?
"East Asian thought tends to be more holistic,"
says Nisbett, who also heads the U-M Culture and Cognition Program.
"Holistic approaches attend to the entire field, and make
relatively little use of categories and formal logic. They also
emphasize change, and they recognize contradiction and the need
for multiple perspectives, searching for the 'Middle Way'
between opposing propositions.
"Westerners are more analytic, paying attention
primarily to the object and the categories to which it belongs and
using rules, including formal logic, to explain and predict its
In study after study described in the book, Nisbett
and colleagues from China, Korea, and Japan have found that East
Asians and Americans responded in qualitatively different ways to
the same stimulus situation. In one experiment, designed to test
whether East Asians are more likely to attend to the whole while
Westerners are more likely to focus on a particular object within
the whole, Japanese and Americans viewed the same animated underwater
scenes, then reported what they had seen.
"The first statement by Americans usually
referred to a large fish in the foreground," says Nisbett.
"They would say something like, 'There was what looked
like a trout swimming to the right.' The first statement by
Japanese usually referred to background elements: 'There was
a lake or a pond.' The Japanese made about 70 percent more
statements than Americans about background aspects of the environment,
and 100 percent more statements about relationships with inanimate
aspects of the environment, for example, that a big fish swam past
some gray seaweed."
In another experiment described in the book, Nisbett
and colleagues found that Americans respond to contradiction by
polarizing their beliefs whereas Chinese respond by moderating their
beliefs. In still another study, the researchers found that when
making predictions about how people in general could be expected
to behave in a given situation, Koreans were much more likely than
Americans to cite situational factors rather than personality characteristics
as reasons for someone's behavior.
Social practices and cognitive processes support
or "prime" one another, Nisbett points out. For example,
"the practice of feng shui for choosing building sites may
encourage the idea that the factors affecting outcomes are extraordinarily
complex," he notes, "which in turn encourages the search
for relationships in the field. This may be contrasted with the
more atomistic and rule-based approaches to problem-solving characteristic
of the West. Consider, for example, the nature of approaches to
self-help in the West: 'The Three Steps to a Comfortable Retirement'
or 'Six Ways to Increase Your Word Power.'"
According to Nisbett, Asians move radically in
an American direction after a generation or less in the United States.
"But it might be a mistake to assume that it's an easy
matter to teach one culture's tools to individuals in another
without total immersion in that culture," he says.
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Established in 1948, the Institute for Social
Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research
organizations, and a world leader in the development and application
of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited
studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes,
the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study,
the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study,
the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of
Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists
in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects,
and the Institute has established formal ties with universities
in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at www.isr.umich.edu
for more information. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium
for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest
computerized social science data archive.
Contact: Diane Swanbrow
Phone: (734) 647-9069