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The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why Paperback – April 5, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
This book may mark the beginning of a new front in the science wars. Nisbett, an eminent psychologist and co-author of a seminal Psychological Review paper on how people talk about their decision making, reports on some of his latest work in cultural psychology. He contends that "[h]uman cognition is not everywhere the same"-that those brought up in Western and East Asian cultures think differently from one another in scientifically measurable ways. Such a contention pits his work squarely against evolutionary psychology (as articulated by Steven Pinker and others) and cognitive science, which assume all appreciable human characteristics are "hard wired." Initial chapters lay out the traditional differences between Aristotle and Confucius, and the social practices that produced (and have grown out of) these differing "homeostatic approaches" to the world: Westerners tend to inculcate individualism and choice (40 breakfast cereals at the supermarket), while East Asians are oriented toward group relations and obligations ("the tall poppy is cut down" remains a popular Chinese aphorism). Next, Nisbett presents his actual experiments and data, many of which measure reaction times in recalling previously shown objects. They seem to show East Asians (a term Nisbett uses as a catch-all for Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and others) measurably more holistic in their perceptions (taking in whole scenes rather than a few stand-out objects). Westerners, or those brought up in Northern European and Anglo-Saxon-descended cultures, have a "tunnel-vision perceptual style" that focuses much more on identifying what's prominent in certain scenes and remembering it. Writing dispassionately yet with engagement, Nisbett explains the differences as "an inevitable consequence of using different tools to understand the world." If his explanation turns out to be generally accepted, it means a big victory for memes in their struggle with genes.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Scientific American
Nisbett, a psychologist and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, used to believe that "all human groups perceive and reason in the same way." A series of events and studies led him gradually to quite another view, that Asians and Westerners "have maintained very different systems of thought for thousands of years." Different how? "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' behavior." Nisbett explores areas that manifest these different approaches--among them medicine, law, science, human rights and international relations. Are the societal differences so great that they will lead to conflict? Nisbett thinks not. "I believe the twain shall meet by virtue of each moving in the direction of the other."
Editors of Scientific American
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Top Customer Reviews
There is no boiler plate approach possible, because there is not anything like THE Western and THE Eastern way of thinking, but there are distingt patterns and peculiarities you have to know if you work cross culturally. The book increases your sensitivities for your communication partners no matter whether they are from the West or East. However, observing, listening and questioning is still up to the reader as practitioner.
- They do not see distinct objects in the world; rather they see undifferentiated substances;
- They have a tendency to become jacks and jills of all trades rather than experts in any;
- They have an inferior ability to perform logical operations.
These claims are made - about Asians - by Richard E. Nisbett in "The Geography of Thought," a book in which he advances an `economic-social' theory of human cognition to explain differences in thinking, detected in the numerous studies he cites, between Asians and Westerners. Westerners, it is found, pay most attention to the objects in a field, while Asians attend more to the background. Westerners tend to blame the individual for a crime; Asians take environmental factors into account. And, astonishingly, while Westerners see a world of differentiated objects, Asians literally see the world as undifferentiated masses of matter. (p. 82)
In a nutshell, Nisbett's explanation for differences in western and Asian ways of thinking is rooted in social differences in ancient China and ancient Greece. In China, for example, one lived in a village, at close quarters with others, where one saw oneself (so Nisbett speculates) as "linked in a network of relationships and social obligations (that) might have made it natural to view the world in general as continuous and composed of substances rather than discrete and consisting of discrete objects" (p. 35 - 36). The Greeks, unconstrained by relationships in this way, might have been more inclined to focus on individual objects. Fast forward two-and-half thousand years: ancient societies and their resultant thought patterns allow us to "make some rather dramatic predictions about cognitive differences between contemporary East Asians and Westerners." (p. 44) While the preponderance of studies in the book do indeed suggest that there may be some cognitive differences on average between different groups of test subjects, Nisbett's explanation is, to say the least, extremely problematic, on a number of fronts.
Before we even open the book, we are presented with a neat division of the world into "Asians" and "Westerners." This requires viewing these two vast regions as monolithic, and downplays the plethora of national, regional, local cultures and subcultures, as well as the variety of religious and intellectual traditions contained within them. Nisbett looks at China and sees "ethnic homogeneity," (2003, p. 31). Contrast this view with Reagan (2005), who draws attention to "the ethnic and linguistic diversity of its population" (p. 137). The idea of an identifiable "West" similarly needs to be questioned. For Nisbett, ancient Greek society and thought formed the first link in a direct and singular chain to a contemporary Western culture.
The "Plato-to-NATO" view of European culture is rejected by Reagan, who argues, "There is no single "Western" culture in any really meaningful sense; rather there are many different and distinct cultures that share certain elements of a common historical background that are manifested in different ways in the present" (Reagan, 2005, p. 37). The direct line that Nisbett draws between ancient societies and modern cognition is thus challenged by the cultural diversity within two world regions that Nisbett presents as monolithic. He fails to explain the mechanism by which ancient thought patterns are passed down more than two thousand years, remaining intact over time and amidst geographic, cultural, and linguistic diversity.
Nisbett's evidence about cognition in ancient peoples is in any case open to question because it is based on tenuous inferences. The validity of the assertion from from pages 35 - 36, quoted above, hinges crucially on that inconspicuous word might in the middle of the sentence. Nisbett also assumes that by examining the writings of the ancient philosophers, we can gain an insight into the cognitive processes of everyday people:
The ancient Chinese philosophers saw the world as consisting of continuous substances and the ancient Greek philosophers tended to see the world as being composed of discrete objects or separate atoms. A piece of wood to the Chinese would have been a seamless, uniform material; to the Greeks it would have been seen as composed of particles. (p. 80)
Leaving aside the question of whether the thinking of philosophers was disseminated and accepted by the population in general to the point that it influenced the way their visual apparatus and brains perceived the world (itself an extraordinary claim, especially given that most of their texts are lost), it is simply not accurate to characterize the ancient Greek philosophers' characterization of objects in the world as comprising particles. Certainly Democritus and Leuccipus advanced this notion; others, though, proposed the basis of the world to be an undifferentiated substance (Anaximander), fire (Heraclitus), earth, water, air, and fire (Empedocles), God (Xenophanes), and so on (Russell, 1946). Philosophers, in any case, generally do not write books that reflect popular thought; rather they attempt to bring new understanding of the world by cutting against the grain of popular conceptions. Nisbett's quoting the Tao Te Ching to illustrate the apparent Chinese "antipathy toward categorization" (p. 138) fails to consider that the Tao Te Ching was likely written as a reaction to the prevailing world view, rather than as a description of it. It cannot be assumed that the way ancient philosophers and common people viewed the world was one and the same. Nisbett's inferring of general thought patterns based on the musings of philosophers is deeply flawed.
The preponderance of studies that Nisbett cites is impressive in bolstering his case for difference between Asian and Western cognition. Yet his presentation of the research leaves various questions frustratingly unanswered. For one thing, Nisbett cites only studies that support his hypothesis, as if all the evidence points convincingly to his conclusion, which may not be the case. There are studies, for example, that have found no significant differences in the learning approach of Asians and westerners, and suggest that differences within cultural groups may be at least as significant as those between groups (Egege & Kutieleh, 2008).
A further weakness in the presentation of the research is that while most social science studies will call attention to their own deficiencies - a sample that makes the results difficult to generalize from, for example, or difficulties with the methodology - Nisbett makes no mention of these weaknesses, giving the impression that the results are unproblematic. Added to this, there is vagueness in the reporting of the results: Nisbett avoids numbers, preferring instead to report (on two pages of the book alone) that subjects "were likely to...," (two instances) "tended to...," (three instances) "less likely to...," "not necessarily true for...," and "quite likely to..." (p. 186 - 187). Even in their vagueness, results like these beg the question: what of the subjects who did not fit Nisbett's expectation? What was it that caused the non-conformists to dodge the ancient social influences Nisbett proposes? The answer to this question would surely provide a richer insight into the actual process by which individuals in these cultures come to think the way they do. Apparently, though, neither Nisbett nor any of the other researchers mentioned in the book thought to investigate it.
In an age in which many in the West continue to be fascinated by - or afraid of - Asia, The Geography of Thought holds out a tantalizing promise of an understanding of the thought processes of their respective populations. The monolithic conceptualization of those regions, as well as opaque presentation of research findings and a theoretical explanation that stretches the reader's credulity, conspire to leave this promise unfulfilled.
Egege, S., & Kutieleh, S. (2008). Dimming Down Difference... In L. Dunn & M. Wallace (Eds.), Teaching in Transnational Higher Education. New York: Routledge.
Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why. New York: Free Press.
Reagan, T. (2005). Non-Western Educational Traditions. New York: Routledge.
Russell, B. (1946). A History of Western Philosophy. London: Unwin.