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

“The Geography of Thought,” Richard E. Nisbett

Leah Bonnell's picture

Is human cognition the same everywhere? Or do styles of cognition differ depending on geographic or cultural boundaries? Richard Nisbett explores these questions in his 2003 book “The Geography of Thought.”  Nisbett primarily focuses on differences between Eastern and Western thought, defining Westerners as people of European culture and Easterners as East Asian (including China, Korea, and Japan). He proposes that Easterners and Westerns have markedly different styles of thought, using evidence from diverse areas such history, philosophy, language, and social science.

Nisbett opens his argument by comparing the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Chinese as emblems of Western and Eastern thought respectively. Overall, he attributes senses of personal agency and individual identity to the Ancient Greeks, while giving the Ancient Chinese the counterparts of collective agency and harmony.  He defends his argument using examples from the Greek philosopher Aristotle and the Chinese philosophies of Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. In particular, Nisbett missteps when he discusses Ancient Greek and Chinese science. He proposes that Chinese failed to develop science as result of a lack of curiosity, but does not further explore this bold statement. (21) Astonishingly, Nisbett ignores Chinese scientific innovation, failing to mention such hugely important inventions such as the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing, which certainly can be seem as rivaling or surpassing Western innovations. Nisbett provides, overall, a fair view of Asian culture, but his ideas surrounding science in Asia, which reappear in the book, may strike as offensive.

Nisbett next discusses the social origins of the mind, where he establishes that cognitive processes are dependent on ecology (location), economy, social structure, attention, metaphysics, and epistemology, or in other words culture. (33) He argues that the unique positions of the Ancient Greeks and Ancient Chinese in relation to each of these categories eventually led to the development of Eastern and Western styles of thought.  For example, Nisbett emphasizes that the agricultural basis of Ancient Chinese society necessitated social responsibility and interdependence. Comparatively, the location of Greece as a trading center and cultural crossroads produced on focus on individuality and independence. He proposes a model where the unique focus of each society creates different worldviews and in turn different social practices and perception. He defends this model by discussing changes in Western culture during the Middle Ages, when the West became agricultural. He notes the decline in individuality and lack of intellectual and cultural achievement in the West, which according to Nisbett, parallels Ancient Chinese culture. (39)

Although the exact conclusions about Asian culture Nisbett draw are debatable, it is clear that culture influences the individual. On the whole, Nisbett’s argument is reminiscent of discussion of the bipartite brain, or the idea that the individual influenced by two facets: the internal (body, genes, and hormones) and the external (life experiences, culture).  Essentially, belief in the idea of the bipartite brain is the basis of this book, with Nisbett particularly focusing on how various aspects of culture can shape thought processes. Nisbett could improve his argument by beginning his book with an explanation of the bipartite brain or explaining that his aforementioned model is applicable to all cultures.

Nisbett continues by using evidence from linguistics and social science experiments to create contrasting generalizations of East Asian and European thought. In the broad terms, he describes that Asians view themselves as part of a larger whole and strive to maintain harmony while Europeans see themselves as individuals.

In one of Nisbett’s own experiments he administered a vision test showing an image of a fish tank with fast moving focal fish, slower moving background species, and a stagnant backdrop. (91) Japanese participants were 60% more likely to reference the background species and backdrop compared to American participants who were more likely to reference the focal fish. Nisbett selected participants so the only culture/geography was the only major dividing factor between the participants, these differences in perception are evidence that culture (or geography) literally changes the way we way we see.
This difference in perspective can be explained by an emphasis on context in Japanese culture, an idea that Nisbett introduces in an earlier chapter. He cites the existence a contextual “I” in Japanese, where a speaker must take audience and context into account when using the word “I.”(51) This aspect of Japanese language promotes contextual based thought, where a speaker must take the contextual environment into account first. Likewise, although Nisbett does not mention it, Korean language strongly enforces contextual thought.  In Korean, all conversations are based on context, where the speaker must first recognize the relative age and personal relationship with the person they are speaking to, in order to use the correct speech form.  As a result, I would predict Koreans would also be more likely to reference the background in Nisbett’s experiment.     

Korean thought and perspective is particular interest to me as a biracial Korean American. As I read Nisbett’s book I couldn’t help but think about how my own experiences fit into Nisbett’s explanations. For background, my household combines Western and Korean culture and language, although for the most part my upbringing was by my Korean mother. In general, I could relate to both Western and Asian thought Nisbett describes, but it was the Asian style of thought that I related to most.

In one chapter, Nisbett contrasts Asian ideas of self and Western ideas of self. He claims, that in general Asians feel embedded in their in-group of close friends and family, and distant from their out-groups of acquaintances. Comparatively, Westerners tend not to make great distinctions between in-groups and out-groups, seeing themselves more as individuals. (51)  By far, I relate to the Asian version of self, which made me consider details of my upbringing that would promote this perspective.  For one, I grew up calling of all my Korean and Korean American friends brother and sister, as per Korean social code. I can imagine that this aspect of Korean language enforces belief in an embedded in group, where friends are like family. Additionally, Korean culture is based around a strong commitment to family, an idea my mother made clear to me as a child when she notified me that she and my father would be moving in with one of my siblings when they grew old, again emphasizing the importance of the in-group.

Nisbett briefly mentions the positions of Asian American and bilinguals in his discussion. Asian Americans are typically exposed to Asian thought in their upbringing and household, but are also exposed to Western thought outside of the house. He reasons that as a result Asian Americans tend to fall somewhere in between Asians and Westerners in perception and thought. In the social science experiments Nisbetts cites, like the vision test, Asian American tended to score in between the Asians and Westerners, as I did.  However, Nisbett does not discuss the position of Westerners living abroad in Asia. So, I am curious as to how Westerners in Asia would score on similar experiments.

Overall, I think Nisbett has a sound focus in the “Geography of Thought.” He persuasively argues that Asians and Westerners think differently and that these differences may arise from aspects of culture. One of the concluding remarks from our class can summarize my critique of Nisbett’s work, “Cultural stories are valuable, but don't take them too seriously.” There are most likely additional factors, like genetics, that influence cognitive processes.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Brains and cultures

“Cultural stories are valuable, but don't take them too seriously.” There are most likely additional factors, like genetics, that influence cognitive processes."

That's an important caveat at, and an issue very much worth exploring further. 


Serendip Visitor's picture

More Research

I sincerely look forward to reading this work focused on Asian - Western culture and thought. However, would Dr Nesbitt consider, or know of any writings/research on the differences of Westerm (Westphalian) thought and culture, as compared to Persian/Arab (Middle Eastern) culture, and the influence of the Theocracy (blending of sanctioned religion by the government)? I am especially intrigued about the mitary culture of the Quranic (Islamic) concept of war, and our Judeo-Christian Clausewitzian concept.

Thank you,
Ken Chrosniak