Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Geography of Thought

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and WhyThe Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why by Richard E. Nisbett

Richard E. Nisbett's The Geography of Thought examines the age-old question that has intrigued  psychologists (and anyone, really) for centuries: how do Eastern and Western modes of thought differ, and why?

In the book, Nisbett begins by explaining the core foundations of thought on either side. In the East, Confucianism states that the world is a complex place that "consists of continuous substances." In the West, Aristotelianism asserts that "the world is composed of discrete objects or separate atoms."

So, it is natural that the people who suscribe to the first system of thought value harmony; to them, a world of "continuity" can only exist and function if its units interlink and cooperate. As Nesbitt puts it, a "sense of self was linked in a network of relationships." He discusses the ecology of China to support this thesis, pointing out how the flat plains of the mainland demanded farmers to work together in ancient times (even the irrigation system remained fixed under centralized control). If we consider China's political present and history - communism, communes, cooperatives - it is easy to see that collectivism has taken precedence. Anyone who has grown up in a Chinese family will also understand the importance of family dinners, long meals that take place around a round table with not only one's immediate family, but also one's cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. The Chinese developed a strong concept of social obligation that stressed relationships.

On the other hand, Westerners - whose world is composed of discrete objects - place more emphasis on individualism. Indeed, looking to ecological roots once more, Nisbett explains that the sloping mountains of Greece allowed for occupations such as hunting that were more or less independent - and commercial. In the West, we see a culture that is famous for vineyards, not paddy fields. Moreover, debate was common in the political assembly of ancient Greece, whereas arguments were considered threats to the harmony of the East. Here, we already see a Western inclination towards expressing personal viewpoints instead of relapsing into the collective. While Western societies encourage one to "stand out," Eastern societies strive to maintain equilibrium. Thus, it is no surprise that America is capitalist and perhaps the world's staunchest advocator of independence and human rights.

Of course, pros and cons accompany such differences. For example, Eastern societies' reluctance to reduce information into simple models due to their belief in the world's complexity might be justifiable; however, the West does classify its objects into categories and use such groupings to develop simple models, rules and theorems that forward opportunities for scientific and technological breakthroughs. Unsurprisingly, the West has the upper hand in the field of scientific development.

(To explore the Western tendency to categorize and the Eastern preference to focus on relationships, Nesbitt asked students of different backgrounds to group two of the following three organisms together: a chicken, a cow and some grass. Westerners tended to group the chicken and cow - the animals - together. Asians, noting the relationships of cow eats grass, left out the chicken.)

Where the East succeeds, argues Nesbitt, is their readier acceptance of change. After all, they believe that different elements must adapt in order to coexist in a world of continuous substances. Relationships cannot work without compromise. The reason why Asians are thus better at math, Nesbitt proposes, can be attributed to their drive to "work harder" - to change - as opposed to the Western belief that one may simply lack the "innate skills" to be good at math. (To be honest, I found Malcolm Gladwell's argument much more convincing.)

Interestingly, Nesbitt also discusses how the difference in modes of thought affect language. One of the most memorable examples in the book is about how the Chinese will say, "drink more," whereas Westerns inquire, "more tea?" during social gatherings. The former, whose culture revolves around relationships, use a verb; the latter, who focus on the object, use a noun.

The Geography of Thought is a lucid exploration of the differences between Eastern and Western modes of thinking. Yet at the end of the book, I couldn't help but wonder - is that it? Surely, there must be more? How would one categorize Russia, for instance, a country that could be considered Eastern and Western? What about further studies conducted in places like Hong Kong, which Nesbitt himself even acknowledges as a great laboratory for cross-cultural study? What happens to the development of thinking in places that have been much influenced by the West?

Certainly read this book if you are interested in the ways the East and West think differently. I find The Geography of Thought to be is a springboard, a well-researched platform that will push you to read more widely on the subject it investigates.

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