Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The Geography of Thought: Asian and Western Minds at Work

jwong's picture

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why

Richard E. Nisbett (2003)

A fundamental question that every individual come to terms with at some point in life is defining the meaning of his or her existence. As fluffy and abstract as that pondering may seem, analyzing the biological mechanisms that govern the human brain are key to understanding the patterns we follow in our daily interactions with people and even with our suppositions about ourselves. In his book, The Geography of Thought, Richard E. Nisbett asserts that cultural belief systems and cognitive patterns organize an individual’s conception of self and relation to the world. Specifically focusing on the established cognitive patterns of (mainly Eastern) Asia and the West, Nisbett projects the concept that human brain patterns are not universal; people literally see the world differently because of different social structures and education practices.

Nisbett’s overall argument stems from his definition of an initial split in ancient Western and Eastern cognitive conception of the world: the sense of ancient Greek ‘agency’ and ancient Chinese ‘harmony.’ Greek agency asserts each man as being a competent individual possessing a freedom to act as he chooses; independence and the ability to assert one’s self is valued and respected over ties to other people. In contrast, the Chinese concept of harmony believes that each person is primarily a component of a family clan or collective; a person does not have a unique identity throughout multiple settings but is a piece to its inseparable whole. Expounding off these two basic philosophies, Nisbett uses extensive experiments to demonstrate that these thought processes actually craft different responses from Asian and Western thinkers when presented with the same situations.

For example, Nisbett examines views on debate. Discussion and healthy forum-based debates were highly valued social organizers embodied in Greek society; Westerners believed in the idea that “a man is defined almost as much by his ability to debate as by his prowess as a warrior (2).” In contrast, a Chinese proverb states that “the peg that stands out is pounded down (48).” Nisbett’s inference implies that argument and debate was less accepted and hardly frequent in Eastern (Chinese) culture because Asian culture values unity and overall accord while Western culture values independent thought. This was an interesting assertion, because it insinuated the (Chinese) idea that each object or event resonates in relation to what is around it, thus leading to related consequences on the workings of the universe. This concept makes sense to me, and made me think about my own actions and how I perceive certain events. I also liked the example of asking Asian and Western individuals to describe themselves. North Americans described their personality traits and activities (“I am friendly, I am a teacher”) to explain their individuality. Chinese and Japanese instead described themselves based on context and on relationships (“I am serious at work, I am Joan’s friend”).

I liked the articulation of some of these observations because I can relate to feelings of such magnitude: oftentimes I approach problems not by jumping into them but by recognizing the consequences that could result from different reactions. In fact, I for one, can atone to the fact that I withhold comments in class or refuse to interrupt a discussion unless I am sure of what I am going to say and what effect my response will have on the discussion/the audience/people’s idea of me. Can this characteristic be attributed to be a result of my Asian background? This is an extremely different method than some of my Western friends who might see my pause as unnecessary hesitation. I think this idea can also be said to relate to Nisbett’s inference about Asians’ tendency to being detail-oriented and more in tune with their social roles than some Westerners may be. His experiment with identical photographs with subtle background images demonstrated that Asians were more perceptive of details than Westerners had been; in their minds the details contribute to the efficiency of the whole, and therefore have significance in being included in understanding the total. Interestingly enough, Nisbett notes that in all his experiments involving Asians, Westerners, and Asian Americans (Asians with Westernized backgrounds), the Asian American majority demonstrated traits somewhere in the middle of what the Asians and the Westerners presented.

This is extremely interesting because it indicates the mixing of the two cultures on the methods to which these humans interpret their surroundings. This relates back to the ideas we discussed extensively in class on the idea of culture. There are boundaries that limit and include particular individuals into a culture; we mentioned that our I-functions may be responsible for producing these concepts. Our brain sets up reflexive reactions or predispositions in response to stimuli so that we can group things into particular categories and understand them more easily. However, culture and environment apparently play an important part in determining these particular categories. While Asian and Western thought display differences based on their historically polar value systems, the wiring of Asian American brains obviously display the melding of these two value systems. I thought this was pretty fascinating to realize the plasticity of the brain; brains (at least of humans) clearly are able to remold themselves and rewire according the cultural norms. By rearranging such brain organization, the ideas of “proper” emotions, reasoning, and intuition are all clarified. As I read Nisbett’s conclusions, I thought about what we mentioned in class, that culture is not an impingement on an individual, but is created by an individual and in turn impinges on other individuals. Our brains have the capability to mold to whatever environmental shaping is available; the reworking of the world around us to fit to a particular definition allows us to understand the world with greater clarity in relation to other people. Thus, culture truly can be seen as a figment of our own imagination, to fully coordinate understanding between our individual selves and the rest of our outside world. In his discussion of law, Nisbett noted that, in an Asian context, it is not a contest between opponents where one party wins and the other loses based on the evidence, as in the West. Instead, the goal of Asian law is to assist in reducing animosity and using evidence to seek a “Middle Way” to solve the issue at hand, regardless of fairness. Whether or not this solution sounds logical or not is moot; the acceptance of this idea is demonstrative of the circular relationship characteristic of Asian thought in contrast to a linear pattern of Western perception.

I thought Nisbett’s experiments all produced interesting observations, though after a while his experiments blended together and produced the same repetitive results. I think it would have been beneficial to experiment on a wider range of “Asian” audiences since his focus throughout the book seemed to be that of East Asia. Nisbett’s initial categorizing of Chinese or Greek thought as being the solitary bases for Asian and Western thought seem a bit broad to the point of oversimplifying Eastern cultures. I wondered about the influences of other cultures besides the ancient Greeks or Chinese—surely the Persians or near Eastern empires had some influence as well on their modes of thought? In addition, while Nisbett participated with a wide variety of Asian colleagues in his multiple experiments, he is, in fact, a Western scientist, whose Western upbringing often shines through his analysis of Eastern and Western inclinations. His limited understanding of Chinese linguistics and culture are often reflected in his sometimes narrow inferences.

Overall I think Nisbett argues his points well, offering a good deal of experiments to demonstrate that brain functioning is definitely correlated with the effects of cultural environments. I think the “geography of thought” indicates the brain’s capability of laying out interconnected modes of thought; to do so allow people to construct laws and understandable brain functions that dictate commonality and create connections between people.


kvssiyer's picture

book review.

An excellent review of the book " Geography of thought". As the reviewer brings out the analyis by the author is based on the Chinese and Greek philosophies. There are variations of these philosophies or philosophie which influenced the Chinese philosophies like the Indian philosophies.It is good if the author makes further analyis from samples of men and women from other areas of the east and west.
The book is well written and logical and one of the few I read the best.