February 27, 2003

The geography of thought: How culture colors the way the mind works

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 behavior."

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.

Related links:

Institute for Social Research >

Richard Nisbett >

Culture & Cognition program >

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 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


Home | Releases | Experts | News Staff | Broadcast | In the News
Images | Publications | Site map

Copyright 2002 The Regents of the University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109 USA 1-734-764-1817