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Asians and Westerners Think Differently…there’s proof!

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment

This is a good read especially if you want to learn about how Westerners think differently than Asians: The Geography of Thought by Richard E. Nisbett, a social psychologist teaching at the University of Michigan.

The author’s fascination with this topic got its kick-start when a Chinese student said to him, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” Though Nisbett was skeptical he was definitely intrigued. He had been a lifelong Universalist and believed that all human groups perceive and reason in the same way. Now he needed to find the evidence to prove it one way or another.

Nisbett conducted many psychological experiments, often with the assistance of Asian colleagues, which revealed that, in fact, European/American analytic and perceptual modes differ from those of Asians (specifically Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans).

Westerners, he found, focus on objects and their control, Asians on context and harmony; Westerners are linear and rhetorical, while Asians are holistic and relational; where Westerners see simplicity, logic, and stability, Asians find complexity, paradox, and change.

His work is the first to offer solid research and theory to back it up.

While we Westerners are cognitive descendants of Aristotle and Greek thinking, Asians think differently and more holistically.

For instance, I liked his comparison of early childhood learn-to-read books. In the West, we see a single child depicted running across the lawn and the text is “See Dick run. See Dick play.” It’s all about me. While in Asia in the same era, the first page of a primer shows a little boy sitting on the shoulders of a bigger boy. “Big brother takes care of little brother. Big brother loves little brother.” It’s all about us.

Backed up with many experiments, Nisbett provides convincing evidence that “Human cognition is not everywhere the same”. Such a contention pits his work squarely against evolutionary psychology and cognitive science, which assume all appreciable human characteristics are “hard wired.” This has implications today as China gains such a world presence and influence.

In this conceptual age of globalization, can the world villagers really learn to understand each other? Are we headed towards convergence or continued divergence? Nisbett claims we all will have to make some compromises so that an equitable blending can really happen.

But, if change and adaptation are inevitable it’s quite possible that the new world culture that emerges could be the best one of all!

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