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Cultural Cognition Theory

jrieders's picture

Julianne Rieders

Continuation on the Cultural Cognition Theory

            In my last paper analyzing Richard E. Nisbett’s theories about Cultural Cognition, I asked if stereotypes of the East and West affect research on this topicwithout elaborating on what these stereotypes are. Furthermore I failed todiscuss why China, Korea, and Japan could be considered a cohesive group, whichI called East Asia, in which members share similar ways of thinking.

The concept of the East, physically and metaphysically, is by no means constant. The border between Europe and Asia are essentially man made, but on the other hand some ofthe islands in close proximity to Australia, such as Indonesia, are stillcounted as the East Asia. One simply cannot depend on geographic borders whenconsidering shared cognition. From an economic standpoint, one might beinclined to include China, and all of South Asia as the East, but to includeJapan, a first world country, as the West.[1]If one were to consider shared culture and language, one might find moresuccess by simply listing individual neighborhoods.

While it is hardto create satisfactory borders, it is also easy to see that many countries andregions do share some common history and culture. Long before the Silk Road(100B.C.E.) China had long standing relationships with Korea, Japan, Mongolia,and Vietnam (which was part of China during the Qin Dynasty).  The backbone of these cultures wasConfucianism, Taoism, and later Buddhism, all with Chinese characteristics.Because of this shared history, culture, and sense of morality, it is plausibleto suppose that the peoples of these regions, especially China, Korea, andJapan, do share similar ways of thinking. If we consider a similar set ofcharacteristics such as religion and cultural exchange, it is also plausiblethat Western Europeans and European Americans share similar ways of thinking(though most likely to the exclusion of several other regions).

The misconceptionsof the East draw less from a faulty impression of the East, but rather, arederived from the Eurocentric impression of the West. In the book The Myth ofthe Continent on page 73 Lewis and Wigen summarize the characteristicstypically attributed to the West:

“…compulsion to control and manipulated nature…arestless desire for growth and development…a practical, this-worldlyorientation that seeks social betterment through technological means; andperhaps above all, a commitment to rational inquiry. The Eastern mind has beendefined in opposite terms.”


This definitionflies in the face of technological history:

“Chinesecivilization far outdistanced Greek civilization technologically. The Chinesehave been credited with the original or independent invention of irrigationsystems, ink, porcelain, the magnetic compass, stirrups, the wheelbarrow, deepdrilling, the Pascal triangle…”[2]

This list goes onto include watertight compartments, several maritime inventions, immunizationtechniques, and seismographs, are these not perfect examples of practicalityand manipulation of nature? And so the stereotypes of the East became more of acollecting pool, reflecting self proclaimed triumphs of Western thought in itsmurky waters.  If the West embodiesself-autonomy, then by default the East embodies collectivism. If the Westembodies civilization, then the East embodies barbarism

         In a study by Pengand Nisbett (1999), they compared Easterner’s and Westerner’s preference forwhat they termed “logical” versus “dialectical” ways of thinking. “Th[e]cognitive tendency toward acceptance of contradiction could be defined broadlyas dialectical thinking.” [3]Because change is constant, contradictions are constantly forming, and asthings are constantly changing and contradictions are made up of at least twoparts or truths, everything is connected. Thus, as everything is only one partof the story, decontextualization is pointless; this is Nisbett’s definition ofholism. Some principles of Westernlogic, as defined by Nisbett and Peng in their 1999 report, are the following“the law of identity, which holdsthat a thing is itself and not some other thing, and the law ofnoncontradiction, which holds that aproposition can’t be both true and false.” (8).  In one variation of their experiment they asked Eastern andWestern students at the University of Michigan which explanation for theexistence of God they preferred between a holistic account and a logical account. The logical and holistic arguments, summarized in Nisbett’s book The Geography ofThought on pages 179-180 reads as follows:

Whatever exists must have a cause. In moving fromeffects to causes, therefore, we must have two options. One is to go on tracinginfinite succession without any ultimate cause at all, the other is that we atlast have recourse to some ultimate cause that is necessarily existent. But ifthe whole eternal chain of succession, taken together, is not determined orcaused by anything, this is absurd. We must, therefore, have recourse to aBeing who carries the reason of his existence in him, and who cannot besupposed not to exist, without an express contradiction.


Just as two people watch a cup on the table, onesees a cup with a handle, the other must see a cup without a handle if he islooking from the opposite perspective. Each one of them can only see a part ofthe truth. Is nothing the ultimate truth? There must be way to add up all thedifferent perspectives. Such a sum or “whole” consists of every idiosyncraticperspective, but reveals the truth as a whole. This marvelous ‘whole’ cannot bedesigned or found by any individual alone. We must, therefore, have recourse toa necessarily existent Being who is above every idiosyncratic entity.


Isthis experiment valid? Does it even test what it intends to test? For a test tobe valid, it must be shown that it tests only one variable or a set ofvariables and that nothing else can account for the results. If there areplausible alternative explanations that are unaccounted for, then it cannot bevalid. According to Nisbett, Westerners tend to be more aggressive, with a socialexistence based on “a tradition of confrontation and debate”(37), whereasEasterners prefer to compromise by “finding a Middle Way” (37). The firstparagraph has strong persuasive language, while the second is more descriptiveand ambiguous. Thus it is possible that the participants chose the argumentsthey chose, not because of the underlying systems of logic, but because thelanguage itself was more familiar and therefore appealing. If you were raisedunder the Confucian ideal of moderation, you might be put off by the firstparagraph simply because the language was too extreme, not because of theactual logic.

Anotherfactor that could influence participants is the description of what a higherbeing is, a single male versus a higher “Being who is above every idiosyncraticentity.”  In Christianity, Islam,and Judaism, which are predominant in America and Europe, God is the father andis almost always portrayed as a human male. In Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism,although the Buddha, Laozi, and Confucius were all male, they were notconsidered gods in the Christian sense. Furthermore, many of these gods areoften represented as female or even in animal or natural forms. Thus theWestern religions tend toward emphasizing one male God, and the Easternreligions tend toward de-emphasizing one form or God. Religion has a hugeaffect on our values and disposition, thus a participants might be inclined tochoose one paragraph merely because it portray an accurate depiction of theirgod.

Western religionscan be generalized to be about worship, Eastern religions can be generalized tobe about a way of life. This is also reflected in the two paragraphs. The logical argument involves a series of conditionals (if A,then B) culminating in the undisputable existence of God. The holistic argument is a series of descriptions creating avivid scenario (two people looking at a mug), which climaxes with the sentence“Is nothing the ultimate truth?” and is resolved with “There must be way to addup all the different perspectives.” The first paragraph, like Westernreligions, focuses on the existence of God as the final point. The secondparagraph, like Eastern religions, focuses on the way of thinking about lifeand perspective. It is therefore plausible that participants would select oneparagraph over another because it coincides with their religious view of lifeand the role of God, and not because of their disposition to logical ordialectical thought.

Because there is along standing Eurocentric tradition of comparing East and West, scientists mustbe very careful when they do research on this subject. People tend toerroneously trust research and its premises as fact. Thus research like Pengand Nisbett’s can be very troublesome and may hinder rather than help our understandingof one another. It is essential for scientists not just to formulate questions,but to question their background research, their design, and their results toavoid such societal harm.





[1] Wigan, Karinand Martin Lewis. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.


[2] Nisbett,Richard. The Geography of Thought, How Asians and Westerners ThinkDifferently…and Why. New York: The FreePress, 2003.


[3] Nisbett,Richard and Kaiping Peng. Culture, Dialectics, and Reasoning aboutContradiction,1999. 



Paul Grobstein's picture

more on nisbett

Maybe the problem here is "People tend to erroneously trust research and its premises as fact" because it "tests only one variable or a set of variables and nothing else can account for the results"? If we were to acknowledge that the latter can't in fact be achieved and hence science isn't "fact", then maybe Nisbett is more interesting/useful? Cf Rica Dela Cruz.