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East vs. West: A book commentary on "The Geography of Thought"

Mahvish Qureshi's picture

       The ancient art of the orient, the royal dynasties filled with the smell of Japanese Cherry Blossoms, and the fresh ink of calligraphy contrasts sharply with the image of the west of cowboys and modern day city life. In the book The Geography of Thought Richard E. Nisbett works to portray the differences in the mental framework of people from the east vs. people from the west. A common Buddhist saying is “in the sky there is no distinction between the East and the West; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” This quote of a Buddhist belief contradicts Nisbett’s book but is a good summary of the philosophy of the eastern people as it shows their belief in unity and togetherness. Nisbett works to prove the difference between the mindset of the eastern and western people and how this difference in mindset develops through language and cultural interactions.

                Nisbett begins the book by discussing the ancient eastern and western philosophies of harmony and personal agency respectively. As the book progresses in a reader-friendly manner the reader is drawn into the book and the philosophies in a manner that would only happen if they are chatting to a good friend. In the book the argument for the differences between the East and the West are found. The West is portrayed as a very autonomous place, in which everyone is independent, while the East is much more harmonious place in which people are focused on relationships, interconnectedness, and interdependence. An interesting concept from eastern philosophy that the book briefly discusses is the yin-yang sign in which harmony is shown at its best. The dark yin represents the feminine side and the lighter yang is the masculine side, and both of these are dependent on each other to create a perfect balance. This basic difference in philosophy and way of thought was noted in many of Nisbett’s experiments. One experiment that I found particularly interesting was the observation of a mother and children at play. When observing children and their mothers it could be noted that Japanese mothers would interact with their children by personifying the toys and giving them feelings, for example they would say that the wall is hurting because the child threw a ball at it and contrastingly the Western mothers would give the child more autonomy and ask more individual questions pertaining to the child.

                This difference in frame of mind is ingrained in the children and magnified in adults. Nisbett conducted a study on two groups of college students, one group from the University of Michigan and the other from Kyoto University in Japan. When each group was shown a picture with a large fish in a pool it was found that the majority of Japanese students would describe the background, scenery, and the relationship among the large fish and the other fish while the group of students representing the west would have a response that dealt mainly with the large fish, or the focal point of the photo. This was interpreted as a demonstration of the individualism of the west and the interdependent nature of the east in which relationships and tinier details are noted. Nisbett coined the term as looking through a wide-angle lens versus having tunnel vision.

                                Philosophy of thought is not the only contributing factor to the difference in mental states between the east and the west; Nisbett discusses language as a possible contributing factor to the difference in the state of the mind as well. It was observed that eastern languages are filled with verbs and the western languages are more concentrated on nouns. This difference in language is not the most extravagant of differences but the way children interact with language can affect how they think and their beliefs. For instance young Korean children would refer to themselves in third-person as would their parents refer to themselves in terms of their relationship with the child. This difference in language is further magnified when it is noted through a series of observations conducted by Nisbett how people from the east tend to categorize by relationship (such as the cow and grass categorized together because the cow depends on the grass for food.) Westerners however categorize by type (such as cow and bird being grouped together because they are animals.) This question of categorization was very interesting to me because it can be thought of in a larger scale such as the organization of animals etc throughout the animal kingdom. In my intro bio class we were asked to classify a series of animals and every person classified the animals on different criteria ranging from habitat to food source to type of animal. It amazes me and makes me wonder if the frame of thought is so different between the eastern and western people how a general grouping for the various taxa of animals was agreed upon. How was a grouping of chemical elements in the periodic table agreed upon? It was really interesting to read about how these differences in classification could possibly occur.

                Another major contributor to the difference in the mental framework of the easterners and the westerners lies in the culture that is passed along in each hemisphere of the world. “Most remarkable thing about visiting American households is that everyone is always thanking everyone else: ‘Thank you for setting the table’” (49). This excess of politeness that was observed by an East-Asian person upon their visit to a western household demonstrates the cultural differences between the two groups of people. The easterners have an established set of responsibilities and everyone partakes in an activity because everyone is reliant on each other. The western household demonstrates graciousness for every act because they are more independent and therefore should be doing everything themselves, it is almost as if they must thank a person to make-up for not being independent. 

                One interesting topic that the book did not discuss but would have been interesting to read about is how American-Asians are affected. Nisbett discusses observations in eastern people and western people, he also dabble a bit in the subject of Asian-Americans, however he mainly deals with second generation Asian-Americans who may be too set in western culture to determine a difference. Nisbett, however, does not go into the topic of American-Asians. It would have been interested to see how westerners living in the east would have their mindset altered. It is possible that this population is minimal and a proper testing/observation pool was not able to be set up. Despite whatever the difficulties this book definitely has raised the question of how American-Asians would have reacted in the observations, whether the influence of the eastern society would have impacted their mindset greatly or not.

                From my own experience of being a Southeast-Asian who has been raised in the west, I can definitely see differences in both cultures mindsets. However I do not necessarily agree that this difference in mindset is as great or as broad as Nisbett argues. I think that a variety of mindsets can be found amongst any eastern or western population. Growing up in the west I can definitely say there is that great feeling of autonomy in my mindset and the individuality of doing things independently however at the same time I have the eagerness to work with others and create a network of interactions and dependencies. When I was reading about Nisbett’s observation on a child’s motivation to complete a task I found myself agreeing with both the eastern and western mindsets. ”Asian children showed the highest level of motivation when mom chose the category” (59). On the other hand the American children were more motivated when they were given the independence to choose a category. I think that I am a mix of the two mindsets because while I have noted that even though for some things I always fight for my independence at the same time for other choices I would rather do something that my parents have chosen in order to please them.

                From my perspective I think that the two extremes merge together in first-generation children, so that while they strive for autonomy they keep the desire to have harmony in their world and to have a group of people to rely on. This stereotype of the individual West and the interdependent East has been manifested in many ways other than this book. When people think of New York City for example after they get past the glitz of Times Square and Broadway they think about the busy people walking the streets and minding their own business. This is very different from my observations of the South East Asia, in which everyone is friendly, helpful, and relies on each other. One would assume, that the East-Asians tend to incorporate everyone as family, and are more concerned about others than they typical westerner is.

                Having grown-up in between two languages I have also seen the way language works in the two communities. As Nisbett has discussed in the book the western language stresses on Nouns. I find that languages in South Asia much like those in East Asia stress more on the relationship between people. The royal blood in South-Asia will often refer to themselves in third person; however this is not true for common people.  Although there is a difference in the language I would have to agree with Nisbett that overall language does not play a large role in shaping the different mindsets of the east and west.

                When asking a friend to categorize things I found that religion is an aspect that would result in the differences in frame of thought. When I asked my friend to group together two of the following three- cow, lion, and grass she grouped the cow and grass together. When I asked her why she wouldn’t group the two animals together she said, she was not sure but possibly because she was Hindu and did not like to think about a lion eating a cow. So while Nisbett may not have been able to find that language created the difference in categorization of objects, it seems possible that deeper cultural roots such as religion may play a role in how one categorizes things. 

                Out of interest I looked up the picture of the fish tank and conducted my own mini-version of Nisbett’s experiment. I noticed my first few sentences were not relevant to the focal point but rather addressed the scenery and the interactions between the fish, and then I went on to note the focal point, of the large fish. When I showed this to my American friends their observations mirrored those described by Nisbett. Nisbett’s observations were also related to the responses by my international friends from South-Asia, in that they paid attention to detail and the pond in their responses. This for me confirmed Nisbett’s belief that people from the east tend to look at the whole picture with all its detail while the thought process from the west results in people noting only part of the picture. Based on my response to this (which was possibly biased after reading the book and knowing the experiments purpose) I would have to say that my thought-process is an intermediate between the two extremes.

                I am not sure that this book relates to what we have reviewed in class to a great extent because the book deals greatly with the development of thought. I feel that our course dealt more with the perceptions while this book dealt mainly with the development of how the brain reacted to these perceptions and why people reacted this way. However this book did remind me of a class discussion about the difference in the male and female brains. It was discussed whether or not boys and girls were different in their reactions and what tasks were classified as feminine versus masculine. The development of this was discussed based on the toys that males and females are given as children, as well as the colors that may have been painted on their room walls. I think that if Nisbett can argue that philosophy and language can create an environment for differences in the mindset of people from the east and the west, then the gender-oriented environment children grow up in can create a difference in the male and female brains.

                This book also makes me think about the ways people perceive information from the outside world.  Do the differences in our mindset and our thought processes cause us to perceive information differently? It would make sense that this would be true, because one situation can be perceived optimistically or pessimistically, however whether this has to do with cultural and philosophical differences between the east and west or if it is simply based on the personality of the person is unknown.

                Based on my own personal experience and from observations among my international and American friends I would have to agree with Nisbett’s idea that there is indeed a difference in the mental state of the west and the east, however I am not sure if this difference can arise solely from culture and philosophies. While each culture does stress different factors it is plausible that within one culture different values etc are stressed as well which can also cause a difference in the thought of a set of people who are all from the east or all from the west.