The Geography of Thought

nisbett_coverThe Geography of Thought from Richard Nisbett shows that East Asia and the West have had different systems of thought, including perception, assumptions about the nature of the world, and thinking processes, for thousands of years. Ancient Greek philosophers were “analytic” — objects and people are separated from their environment, categorized, and reasoned about using logical rules. Psychological experiments show the same is true of ordinary Westerners today. Ancient Chinese philosophers and ordinary East Asians today share a “holistic” orientation — perceiving and thinking about objects in relation to their environments and reasoning dialectically (focusing on contradictions, change and relationships), trying to find the Middle Way between opposing propositions. Differences in thought stem from differences in social practices, with the West being individualistic and the East collectivist.

There are strong social-psychological differences between East Asians as a group and people of European culture as a group. East Asians live in an interdependent world in which the self is part of a larger whole. Westerners live in a world in which the self is a unitary free agent. Easterners value success and achievement mostly because they reflect well on the groups they belong to, whereas Westerners value these things because they are badges of personal merit. Easterners value fitting in and engage in self-criticism to make sure they do so. Westerners value individuality and strive to make themselves look good. Easterners are more sensitive to the feelings of others and aim for interpersonal harmony. Westerners are more concerned with knowing themselves and are prepared to sacrifice harmony for fairness. Easterners are more willing to accept hierarchy and group control, whereas Westerners prefer equality and personal development. Asians are more likely to avoid controversy and debate.

Nisbett discusses a range of studies that underwrite these differences.  Asians detect more elements in an environment, whereas Westerners tend to focus on the dominant object (left figure).  Westerners are more likely to classify the cow and chicken together (focus on object classification), whereas Asians group the cow with the grass (focus on relationship).


These differences already characterized differences between the Greeks and ancient Chinese. Greeks focused on agency, logic, individual objects and decontextualization. Confucianism and Taoism stressed complexity, constant change, harmony, interpersonal relations and relations of objects with their environment. Children’s education plays a role in perpetuating these differences, as well as differences in the structure of languages.

The preference of Westerners for classifying objects and of Chinese for seeing relationships is reflected in their languages. East Asian languages are highly contextual with words having different meanings depending on their context. East Asian children learn verbs as easily or more easily as nouns, in contrast to Western children.

A preference for logic with Westerners may sound contradictory to the superior achievements of East Asians in international maths and science tests. Nisbett gives following explanations:

1. East Asians don’t have trouble with understanding logical principles, but are less likely to use them in daily life.
2. The Asian superiority is quite recent, with traditional Chinese and Japanese culture focusing on arts, literature and music
3. Asian teacher training is better, with more continuous teacher professional development and fewer teaching hours for Asian teachers
4. Asian students work harder than their Western counterparts, partly due to a stronger belief that success is the result of hard work (growth mindset), rather than innate ability (fixed mindset)

Additionally, there are two major advantages of Asian cognition: first, Asians see more of a given scene or context than Westerners do and, secondly, the holistic, dialectic, Middle Way approach to problems. IQ tests that are used across cultures should therefore not use words. Advantages of the Western cognition are more openness to debate and peer review and less respect for hierarchy.

Globalisation causes a convergence of Eastern and Western values. Eastern parents enroll their children in debate camps and Westerners discover the virtues of Eastern philosophies. Nevertheless, differences are likely to remain for a while.


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