Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought. New York: Free Press, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-5535-6.
It's a safe bet that the vast majority of Westerners who have done business in East Asia (China, Japan, and Korea), and Asians who've done business in the West have come to the same conclusion: “Asians and Westerners think differently.” They may not say as much, at least not to the general public, for fear of being thought intolerant, but they believe it on the evidence of their own experience nonetheless.

Psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and his colleagues in China and Korea have been experimentally investigating the differences in Asian and Western thought processes, and their results are summarised in this enlightening book (with citations of the original research). Their work confirms the conventional wisdom—Westerners view the world through a telephoto lens, applying logic and reductionism to find the “one best way”, while Asians see a wide-angle view, taking into account the context of events and seeking a middle way between extremes and apparent contradictions—with experimental effect sizes which are large, robust, and reliable.

Present-day differences in Asian and Western thought are shown to be entirely consistent with those of ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy, implying that whatever the cause, it is stable over long spans of history. Although experiments with infants provide some evidence for genetic predisposition, Nisbett suspects that a self-reinforcing homeostatic feedback loop between culture, language, and society is responsible for most of the difference in thought processes. The fact that Asian-Americans and Westernised Asians in Hong Kong and Singapore test between Asian and Western extremes provides evidence for this. (The fact that Asians excel at quintessentially Western intellectual endeavours such as abstract mathematics and theoretical science would, it seems to me, exclude most simple-minded explanations based on inherited differences in brain wiring.)

This work casts doubt upon Utopian notions of an End of History in which Western-style free markets and democracy are adopted by all nations and cultures around the globe. To a large extent, such a scenario assumes all people think like Westerners and share the same values, an assumption to which Nisbett's research offers persuasive counter examples. This may be for the best; both Western and Asian styles of thought are shown as predisposing those applying them to distinct, yet equally dangerous, fallacies. Perhaps a synthesis of these (and other) ways of thinking is a sounder foundation for a global society than the Western model alone.

December 2004 Permalink