What impact does culture have on cognition? Psychologist Richard Nisbett has conducted dozens of studies to find out the answer to this question. Presented in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, the results of his study are fascinating – and their implications far reaching.
|“Perception: How Germans and Chinese See Each Other”
from Yang Liu‘s East Meets West info graphic series.
Image Source: bsix12.com
Several years ago I had the chance to eat lunch with a few friends from Hong Kong. None of them had been living in America for more than a few months, yet as a group their English was quite good. I do not remember exactly what it was we talked about that day, but I do remember that the longer we talked the more lively we became. To emphasize a particularly humorous point I stood up from my chair. To my surprise my friends did not laugh; they looked positivley horrified.
“What are you doing? People might look at us!”
I glanced about to see if I could find one of the ominous onlookers my friends feared so much. We were in public, but at a venue too busy for anybody to take notice of our small group. I was mystified. As with any campus commons, this one was host to scenes far more spectacular than a person who decided to stand up from his table. Nevertheless, my friends’ distress at the thought that they might be the subjects of undue attention was quite apparent, so I returned to my seat. It was neither the first nor the last time I have had reason to think “These Asians just do not think the same way I do.”
The observation that people from East Asia have habits of thought distinctly different from the West is not a new one. Philosophers, anthropologists, and cultural critics have been saying as much since the twain did meet.  The problem with these descriptions, however, is that they – like the anecdote I shared above – are inevitably subjective. It is one thing to suggest that Westerners and Easterners think differently; it is another thing altogether to prove that they do so.
And this is where Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently comes in handy.
Richard Nisbett approached this topic skeptically. As he notes in the introduction, “I had been a lifelong universalist concerning the nature of human thought… [I even wrote] a book with a title that made my sympathies clear — Human Inference. Not Western inference (and certaintly not American college student inference!), but human inference” (xiv). Intrigued by the claims made by anthropologists, historians, philosophers, and his own Chinese PhD students, he sets out to discover if they are true. The Geography of Thought is the result of this effort.
|“At A Party” from Yang Liu’s East Meets West info graphic series.|
Not every study highlighted in Professor Nisbett’s book was conducted by him, but most of these studies share a similar methodology: the psychologists conducting the experiment found tests of inference, logic, or decision making that had previously been administered to Westerners and then adapted them so they could be used to compare two different groups 1) “Asians” and 2) “Westerners.” Here is a small sampling of their remarkable findings:
- Canadian and Japanese students were asked to to take several bogus ‘creativity’ tests and then given feedback on how they did on each task. When participants were given the opportunity to work on similar tasks, Canadian students worked longer if they had previously “succeeded;” Japanese students worked longer if they had “failed.” (p. 56)
- Chinese, Korean, and American students were asked to read newspaper reports about mass shootings. When asked why the killings happened, Chinese and Korean students were far more likely to blame situational factors (such as “he was isolated from the rest of his class” or “availability of guns in the United States”) while Americans were more likely to focus on the shooter’s personality traits or psychological problems (such as a “suffered from severe depression” or a “political belief that guns were a legitimate means to address grievances”). (p. 112, 129).
- Most toddlers who grow up in a European language environment learn new nouns at twice the rate at which they learn verbs. East Asian toddlers learn verbs at a faster rate than they learn nouns. (p. 149)
- When asked to describe themselves either in particular contexts or without specifying a situation (e.g. I work very diligently on school projects, I am a loving child, or I like to cook with my friend vs. I am loving, diligent, or I like to cook ) Japanese people had difficulty describing themselves without referencing context; Americans not only preferred to describe themselves in terms of universal attributes, but many had trouble understanding the concept of describing themselves ‘in context’ at all. (p. 53)
- American and Japanese students were asked to view a CGI video of a fish tank that included several fish in the foreground with bubbles, water plants, rocks, and smaller fish in the background. They were later tested on what they remembered from the scene. Japanese students were twice as likely to remember inert, background objects. When asked to describe what they saw, Japanese students first referred to the environment (“it looked like a pond”), while Americans were three times as likely to refer to something in the foreground (“there was a big fish swimming to the left”). (p. 90)
- A cross cultural mental health survey of a American and Asian study groups found that “feeling in control of my life” was strongly correlated with happiness for the Americans, but weakly correlated with happiness for the Asians. (p. 97)
- When shown pictures of grass, a chicken, and a cow and then asked to select which of the three did not belong, American children were far more likely to choose the grass (because the other two are animals), while Chinese children were far more likely to choose the chicken (because the cow eats the grass). (p. 140)
- Chinese and American students were presented with “plausible” statements that seemed to conflict but were not in true logical contradiction with each other, such as “A social psychologist studied young adults and asserted that those who feel close to their families have more satisfying social relationships” and “A developmental psychologist studied adolescents and asserted those children who had weaker family ties were generally more mature.” Participants were asked to rate how “believable” one statement was before they saw the other; once they read the second statement they were to rate how believable both were. When Americans read two statements in seeming contradiction they usually rated one as much more believable than the other; when Chinese encountered the seeming contradiction they rated both statements as more believable than when they read them in isolation! (p. 182)
Particularly interesting were studies focused on well known cognitive biases. These cognitive quirks are routinely blamed for humanity’s inability to act rationally. Entire realms of study – for example, behavioral economics – are devoted to studying how these types of cognitive bias affect the wider world. It was fascinating to discover that these biases are not uniformly distributed. Again, a short sampling:
- Psychologists have presented many studies suggesting that humans operate under the illusion of control – a tendency for people to believe that they have more influence over the course of events than they really do. Several experiments have been developed to test this. When these same tests were applied to samplings from China and America, Americans showed this bias stronger than Chinese did. (p. 101-102).
- Another common bias well studied by social psychologists is the fundamental attribution error, also called the correspondence bias. When these tests were applied to Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and American groups, the Americans consistently demonstrated a stronger bias than the Asians (p. 120-126). On the flip side, when tested for hindsight bias, Korean test groups consistently demonstrated a stronger bias than American participants.
- When taking the rod-and-frame test for field dependency (i.e. the ability to separate an object from its context) Chinese test subjects were remarkably more field dependent than American ones. (p. 96)
When dozens of studies of this sort are placed side by side a composite picture of the Eastern and Western mind can be drawn. Asians perceive the world as a complex, constantly changing, and interrelated whole and that is not subject to their personal control; Westerners perceive a world that can be analyzed, categorized, and divided into discrete objects whose attributes can be known and whose future can be predicted. Asians have difficulty understanding an object apart from its context; Westerners often never see the context at all. Asians see themselves as part of one larger whole. They accept hierarchy, value fitting in, and are quicker to notice the feelings of others. Westerners strive to make themselves look good and look unique. Westerners demand social equality; Easterners aim for social harmony. Asians shy away from disagreement and contradiction. Westerners revel in it. When controversy emerges Asians look for a “Middle Way” that satisfies both parties; Westerners are less willing to compromise “the truth.”
|“Problem Solving Approach” from Yang Liu’s East Meets West infographic series.|
Personal experience living and working with many Japanese, Chinese, and Cambodian individuals has confirmed all of this to me. From my own life I could draw a story to illustrate each of these points. I was delighted to find that some of the anecdotes in the book closely paralleled my own experience. But Geography of Thought is not without limitations.
Careful readers will notice that the “East” and “West” so studied are narrower than normally defined, with East meaning “China, Korea, or Japan” (i.e. the Sinosphere) and West meaning “America, Canada, Great Britain, or Australia” (i.e. the Anglosphere). The few studies covered that do include continental Europeans suggest that human cognition cannot be boiled down to simple West/East dichotomy. When the attitudes and intuitions of developed countries are surveyed three distinct groupings emerge: the Americans, British, Canadians, and Australians had a marked ‘individualist’ orientation, which they shared with Scandinavians and Dutch respondents. As expected, Korean, Japanese, and Singaporean preferences were far on the other side of the scale. Most surprising was the French, Germans, Belgians, and Italians, whose preferences were intermediate between the two. (p. 63-65)
|“Complexity of Self Expression” from Yang Liu’s East Meets West infographic series.|
This is a fatal flaw in Professor Nisbett’s larger argument that the cognitive difference between East and West have deep seated historical and sociological roots. Nisbett traces Western individualism to the days of ancient Greece, yet Italy is no less a product of the classical world than Canada. The problem is worsened by the many studies of bicultural individuals discussed in the book. When given contextual prompts that they were an encountering an “Eastern” or “Western” situation these individuals unconsciously flipped their world views and cognitive biases. (p. 67-68, 118-119, 228-229). This suggests that many of these cognitive quirks are not deeply rooted in history or socioeconomics, as Professor Nisbett suggests. 
Despite these weaknesses this book is an important one. The actual data presented is hard to argue with, and its implications are far ranging. To name just a few of the fields impacted by studies of this sort:
Psychology: Professor Nisbett’s work is the tip of a much larger movement shaking the foundations of experimental psychology. The concerns of this movement were encapsulated in a 2010 essay for Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled “The WEIRDest people in the world?” The authors point out that almost all psychological studies published during the last 40 years reached their conclusions through the study of individuals from “Western, Educated, Industrialized, and Developed” societies. 68% of research subjects came from the United States, and of those, 67% were themselves psychology undergraduates.  Geography of Thought points to the problem: Americans (to say nothing of the educated ones) do not think like the rest of the world. One cannot make broad claims about “human nature” if the only humans studied are Americans! This takes a particularly hard toll on fields which extend the study of cognitive quirks to much larger systems, such as evolutionary psychology or behavioral economics.
History: The research presented in Geography of Thought touches on a wide variety of debates near and dear to the historical community. World historians have nearly burned themselves out debating why Western Europe was the site of the Industrial Revolution and all that came from it. Nisbett explicitly argues that Westerners’ inability to accept contradiction and their penchant for reducing the world down to universal laws (as opposed to the Eastern preference for ‘middle way’ solutions and their implicit belief that the world is too complex to break down into parts) was at the center of the scientific revolution, a prerequisite for the 19th century industrial take off. There are problems with this approach; these arguments will remain speculative until there is evidence to prove that these cognitive differences extend into the past. Yet with this weakness conceded, culture-based habits of thought can still serve as a useful “lens” to give new perspective on tired historical debates.
Strategy: Is there a “Chinese Way of War?” It is one of the more interesting questions posed by the emerging field of strategic studies. Many commentators have tried to answer this question through an appeal to Chinese history, strategic thought, or political theory. This is a fundamentally flawed approach. The 3,000 years of recorded Chinese history are a lot like the Bible: you can find justification for almost anything in it. The Chinese philosophical and strategic traditions (to say nothing of China’s actual history!) are just as varied and diverse as the philosophical and strategic traditions of Western civilization. Pulling the ‘essence’ of Chinese statecraft out of the mess is not possible. A different approach is provided by the studies discussed in Geography of Thought. If the Chinese strategist acts and thinks like other Chinese, then he will be less subject to the illusion of control and have a keener eye for background detail than his Western counterparts. This will change how he creates and implements strategy. If there is a difference between the way Easterners and Westerners wage war, it may have more to do with these kind of unconscious cognitive differences than their respective literary canons.
There are other fields (such as marketing, organizational science, public diplomacy, the nature/nurture debate, and second language learning) that can make good use of these studies. (Now I finally understand why Cambodian was such a difficult language to learn!) The studies presented in Geography of Thought are really just the beginning. This is one of the most exciting areas of research offered by modern psychology – and every other field touched by it.
“East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait by Yang Liu.”
Rainer Falle. b-Six-12. 28 February 2013.
All of the pictures in this post were created by Ms. Yang, a graphic artist who moved from China to Germany when she was 14. The rest of the infographics are worth seeing.
“We Are Not The World“
Ethan Watters. Pacific Standard. 25 February 2013.
A fascinating review of cross-cultural psychology as it stands in 2013.
“Review: The Geography of Thought“
Razib Khan. GNXP. 24 August 2003.
 The comparative philosopher and translator Robert T. Ames often writes on this theme. Surprisingly, his most concise summary of these ideas is not found in any of his works of comparative philosophy, but in the introduction to his translation of Sunzi’s Art of War. See Robert T. Ames, trans. “The Classical Chinese World View” in The Art of Warfare (Classics of Ancient China). (New York: Ballantine Books). 1993. p. 43-64.
As for less scholarly treatments of this topic, I have never been disappointed (and often entertained) with Robert Collins. Japan-Think, Ameri-Think: An Irreverent Guide To Understanding the Cultural Differences Between Us. (New York: Penguin Books) 1992. Few cross cultural surveys match it.
 Or genetics, which Nisbett never considers.
 Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. vol. 33 (2010). p. 61-135