This article is the fifth of an essay series on worldview, titled Between Jerusalem and Athens. Read the first here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.
“You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line,” said a graduate student from China to social psychology Professor Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan. This, too, was how he began his book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why.
The graduate student continued, “The Chinese believe in constant change, but with things always moving back to some prior state. They pay attention to a wide range of events; they search for relationships between things; and they think you can’t understand the part without understanding the whole. Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture; and they think they can control events because they know the rules that govern the behavior of objects.”
This conversation would set Nisbett off to a quest of unpacking the differences in cognitive processes between “Westerners” and “Easterners,” and to measure them scientifically. The Geography of Thought summarizes the key findings from these studies.
First, some definitions. The term Westerner in the book is designated to people of European culture. European Americans are everyone but those of Asian descent. Although Americans of all backgrounds are submerged in Western ways of thinking, they in fact observe that Asian Americans display more Eastern behaviors more than Western.
The term Easterner is meant to represent communities influenced heavily by the Chinese culture, primarily China, Japan, and Korea. Nisbett admits that certainly there are differences amongst these cultures, but the discussion requires some working terminologies and indeed, there are many similarities in the social cultures of these societies.
Differences between the Asian and Western ways of thinking are rooted in their respective ancient heritage. Western thoughts claim intellectual inheritance from ancient Greece and the East Asians inherit theirs from the ancient Chinese. The philosophical differences between the two are stark.
“The Greeks…had a remarkable sense of personal agency—the sense that they were in charge of their own lives and free to act as they chose.” Tied to this was a deep sense of individual identity and curiosity about the world. Additionally, there was a pervasive tradition of debate, public combats of rhetoric and logic. This display of oral prowess was how many questions and arguments were settled.
The Chinese counterpart to the Greek agency was the concept of harmony. A Chinese’s identity was derived from his community and relationships, i.e., so-and-so’s son. There was no concept of isolation, of an encapsulated unit, for an object or a person. Life’s preoccupation, then, was to minimize friction with others in the family or community. The agency was a collective one instead of personal.
“Chinese society made the individual feel very much a part of a large, complex, and generally benign social organism where clear mutual obligations served as a guide to ethical conduct… Individual rights in China were one’s ‘share’ of the rights of the community as a whole, not a license to do as one pleased.”
In terms of understanding the world, the Greeks were “deeply concerned with the question of which properties made an object what it was.” They would regard the object in isolation for analysis, which tended to have linear and either-or orientation. In contrast, the Chinese concept of the world was that it was constantly changing and full of contradictions. Things were seen as a whole rather than in part, and that events were related to each other.
In Part 2 of this essay, I summarize the interesting key findings and observations from Nisbett’s experiments described in his book. Read Part 2 here.
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