Culture plays a big role in how we see the world, how we think about it, and how we act in it. A person born into one culture can end up with a very different type of mindset than a person born into another culture.
In The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why, social psychologist Richard Nisbett shares his extensive research into how “Western” and “Eastern” minds differ in many ways, from how they think and perceive the world to how they develop social norms and political institutions.
Most of the research in the book compares “Westerners” from the United States, Canada, and Great Britain to “Easterners” from China, Korea, and Japan. While of course there is a lot of variety within any single culture, in general Nisbett found some interesting psychological differences between the East and West that could explain why our cultures are so different.
One of the basic findings is that Westerners tend to be more focused on objects and analytical thinking, while Easterners are more focused on relationships and holistic thinking.
Westerners focus more on objects, identifying their properties, categorizing them, and discovering laws and principles that govern their behavior. They often break things down to understand them, thinking from a more reductionist or atomistic perspective.
This way of thinking is one reason Western culture has often led to major advancements in logic, science, and technology. Science in particular relies on isolating variables and testing them in a controlled environment where all other factors are held constant. “All things being equal…” is a very Western way of thinking.
Easterners focus more on relationships between things, identifying the interdependent nature of existence, and practicing a “middle way” perspective on truth – allowing more flexibility of what they consider true, depending on the context or situation.
This way of thinking is one reason Eastern culture is often more open to paradoxes and contradictions that don’t always present neat and specific rules for how the world works.
Of course, these ways of thinking aren’t exclusive to either culture, but they are patterns discovered in a wide range of studies and research. Psychologist Nisbett also stresses the fact that neither way of thinking is necessarily “right” or “wrong,” but each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.
Analytic Focus vs. Holistic Focus
To test whether Westerners are more focused on objects and their properties and Easterners are more focused on relationships between objects, psychologist devised some interesting experiments.
In one study, Asians and Americans were shown 2 similar pictures and were asked to find little differences between them. Some of the differences were object-related (like a part of a plane missing) and some of the differences were relationship-related (like two planes being closer together). Results showed that the Americans were more likely to identify object-related differences, while Asians were more likely to identify relationship-related differences.
In another study, participants were presented short animated movies of an underwater scene with fish, plants, pebbles, and other background elements, like a frog and a snail. They were then asked to describe the scene they saw. Both Asians and Americans discussed objects in the foreground (there was one “focal” fish moving around), but Asians were more likely to mention the background elements and also to write about the environment as a whole (“It looked like a pond.”)
Studies like these support the idea that Westerners have a “narrower vision” when they are scanning their environment, often paying attention to objects and analyzing their properties, while Easterners have a “broader vision” that often looks at relationships between objects and the environment as a whole.
Thinking in Categories vs. Relationships
According to Nisbett’s research, Westerners are more likely to mentally group things together in terms of “categories” while Easterners are more likely to mentally group things together in terms of “relationships.”
In one simple experiment, Asian and American college students were given a series of pictures asking them to choose what object was the best match with another object. Here’s an example below:
Which choice best matches with the bull at the bottom?
Most Americans chose the “chicken” as the best match for the “bull,” since both were seen as part of the same category: “animals.” However, most Asians chose the “grass” as the best match for the “bull,” because they were looking at it in terms of the relationship: “The bull eats the grass.”
This again illustrates how Westerners focus more on objects, properties, and categories, while Easterners focus more on relationships, context, and environment.
Neither perspective is right or wrong, they each give us a different lens to look at the world and interpret it. One perspective is narrower and more analytical, while the other is broader and more holistic. Each can lead us down a different path of thinking about the world.
The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why is a fascinating book by social psychologist Richard Nisbett. He explores various differences in how “Westerners” and “Easterners” view the world, and how these might’ve influenced differences in values, culture, society, and politics. This is a really enlightening book to read if you want to learn how our minds can be influenced by culture – and how you can expand your own ways of thinking.
Rule-Based vs. Paradox-Based Thinking
According to Nisbett, Westerners tend to be stricter when it comes to logic and rule-based thinking. This comes from their tendency to group things into categories based on discrete properties.
Check out this example:
Which group do you think the flower at the bottom belongs to?
In the study, most of the Easterners thought the flower belonged to Group A, while most Westerners thought the flower belonged to Group B.
The flower shows the most “family resemblance” to Group A (pedals and leaves). However, the flower shares a “rule” that isn’t being broken by Group B: the stems are straight as opposed to curved.
The opposite of this strict “rule-based thinking” is “paradoxical thinking.”
Westerners tend to believe in the law of identity (“A is A”) and the law of noncontradiction (“A and not-A are impossible”), but Easterners tend to be more open to paradoxical and contradictory ways of thinking (“Sometimes A is A, and sometimes it’s not A.”)
The founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu once said: “When the people of the world all know beauty as beauty, there arises the recognition of ugliness; when they know the good as good, there arises the recognition of evil. And so, being and nonbeing produce each other…”
This perfectly encapsulates Eastern “paradoxical thinking.” A visual representation of this is the popular Yin and Yang symbol, which illustrates how everything is partly composed of its opposite.
Fixed Self vs. Dynamic Self
Since Westerners are often more focused on objects and their properties, they tend to view themselves as more fixed and unchanging regardless of the situation, rather than Easterners who see themselves as more dynamic and changing with the situation.
The “fundamental attribution error,” is a popular phenomenon in social psychology where people tend to overemphasize personality factors rather than situational factors to explain someone’s behavior. According to Nisbett’s research, Westerners are more susceptible to this bias than Easterners.
When participants were told a story about a man running late to work who declines to give a homeless man a dollar, Westerners tend to see it as characteristic of the man (“They are selfish”), while Easterners are more likely to consider situational factors as the cause of the behavior (“They were in a rush because they had to get to work”).
Westerners think of themselves and others as having a fixed personality. “I am who I am” and “They are who they are” no matter what the situation is. But Easterners think of themselves as having a more dynamic personality. They can act very differently from one situation to another and not see it as hypocritical or contradictory.
Easterners are more open to the idea that they are changing from moment-to-moment, day-to-day. Who they are today is different than who they were yesterday. From a self improvement standpoint, the idea of an always “changing self” was a critical insight I got from reading Eastern philosophies like Buddhism and Taoism.
This type of thinking is also shown in many Western religions that believe in an immortal self that is everlasting, while Eastern religions tend to view the self as always dying and being reborn into something new (such as the ideas of “reincarnation” in Buddhism or Hinduism).
Individualism vs. Collectivism
In this article we’ve covered basic differences in perception, thinking, and beliefs, but how might these differences also lead to different social and political institutions in each culture?
Western societies usually emphasize values like individualism, freedom, creativity, and even dissent. They see the “individual” as its own entity – independent from society – and every person is entitled to their own choices, rights, property, and pursuit of happiness.
Eastern societies usually emphasize values like collectivism, harmony, compromise, and peace. They don’t see society as just “individuals” but an interconnected web of people who must each play their part and work together for a greater whole.
Perhaps Westerners focus on fixed and independent objects has contributed to their philosophy of individualism. Western culture often de-emphasizes situational and environmental factors and sees all individuals as subject to the same universal rules and principles regardless of the context.
And perhaps Easterners focus on relationships and interconnectedness has contributed to their philosophy of collectivism. Eastern culture emphasizes situational factors and changing conditions, and are less likely to govern their societies by universally applicable rules and principles.
Of course, these are huge generalizations and they aren’t set in stone. But these patterns do seem to hold to different degrees and they are worth thinking about.
How Should People Think?
In The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbett mentions many times how neither “Western” nor “Eastern” thought is necessarily better than the other, they are just different ways of approaching life. As you read through some of these differences, you can probably see how each has their own advantages and disadvantages.
It’s also important to remember that the concepts of “Western” and “Eastern” are a very rudimentary breakdown of cultural differences. Most of Nisbett’s research tested Asians from China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and Westerners from United States, Canada, and Great Britain. There were other studies that included other countries, but obviously there are always different cultures to study further.
Now that we are living in a global world with the internet and other communication technologies, it’s easy to see how these cultures can begin feeding off of each other. Much of the world is influenced by Western culture to some degree, and Western culture too has begun integrating concepts from the East (such as the rise of Buddhism, meditation, and yoga).
In general, there’s a benefit to exposing yourself to other cultures and to become more familiar with other ways of thinking. Studies find even just traveling and spending a few months in a different country can change people’s ways of thinking in small but significant ways.
The research in this book is also strong evidence for diversity in business, politics, and other organizations. Since cultures bring different perspectives and “cognitive tools” with them, a diverse group of people may be better able to solve problems than if they were just a homogenous group of people whom all think the same way.
Overall I highly recommend you check out this book and learn how “Western” and “Eastern” minds differ. There are many interesting facts and studies that I didn’t get to mention here – and there’s a lot of insight and thought-provoking ideas throughout the book.
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