|Figure 1. German (blue) versus Chinese (red) opinions, according to a German art exhibit. The piece was created by a German-educated Chinese woman named Yang Liu. Compare this symbolism with the term “Chinese fire drill”.|
Excepted from East meets west: How the brain unites us all [HTML] [PDF] by Ed Yong (via MindHacks):
AS A SPECIES, we possess remarkably little genetic variation, yet we tend to overlook this homogeneity and focus instead on differences between groups and individuals. At its darkest, this tendency generates xenophobia and racism, but it also has a more benign manifestation – a fascination with the exotic.
Nowhere is our love affair with otherness more romanticised than in our attitudes towards the cultures of east and west. Artists and travellers have long marvelled that on opposite sides of the globe, the world’s most ancient civilisations have developed distinct forms of language, writing, art, literature, music, cuisine and fashion. As advances in communications, transport and the internet shrink the modern world, some of these distinctions are breaking down. But one difference is getting more attention than ever: the notion that easterners and westerners have distinct world views.
Psychologists have conducted a wealth of experiments that seem to support popular notions that easterners have a holistic world view, rooted in philosophical and religious traditions such as Taoism and Confucianism, while westerners tend to think more analytically, as befits their philosophical heritage of reductionism, utilitarianism and so on. However, the most recent research suggests that these popular stereotypes are far too simplistic. It is becoming apparent that we are all capable of thinking both holistically and analytically – and we are starting to understand what makes individuals flip between the two modes of thought.
One of the pioneers of this research is Richard Nisbett from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. [...]
Time and again, studies like [those by Nisbett and others] seem to support the same basic, contrasting pattern of thought. Westerners appear to perceive the world in an analytic way, narrowing their focus onto prominent objects, lumping them into categories and examining them through logic. Easterners take a more holistic view: they are more likely to consider an object’s context and analyse it through its changing relationships with its environment.
Nisbett has suggested that historical cultural factors are the key to understanding these differences. The intensive, large-scale agriculture of ancient China involved complex cooperation among farmers and strict hierarchies from emperor down to peasant. “You had to pay attention to what other people were doing and you had to obey orders,” he explains. “These kinds of strong social constraints on behaviour have been characteristic of east Asian life ever since.” The situation in ancient Greece, often thought of as the fount of western culture, was very different: agriculture on such a scale was impossible and most occupations did not require interactions with large numbers of people. The Greeks led independent lives and valued individualism. That allowed them to focus better on objects and goals in isolation, without being overly constrained by the needs of others – traits that persist to this day in western culture. “If that story is all correct, it’s not east versus west, it’s interdependence versus independence,” says Nisbett.
Certainly it is appealing to think that a single dimension – individualism/collectivism – can account for much of the difference in people’s behaviour around the world. That might explain why many psychologists have been happy to go along with it. However, recently it has become apparent that the east-west dichotomy is not as clear-cut as this.
For a start, the simplistic notion of individualistic westerners and collectivist easterners is undermined by studies designed to assess how people see themselves, which suggest that there is a continuum of these traits across the globe. In terms of individualism, for example, western Europeans seem to lie about midway between people in the US and those in east Asia. So it’s not all that surprising, perhaps, that other studies find that local and current social factors rather than the broad sweeps of history or geography tend to shape the way a particular society thinks. For example, Nisbett’s group recently compared three communities living in Turkey’s Black Sea region who share the same language, ethnicity and geography but have different social lives: farmers and fishers live in fixed communities and their trades require extensive cooperation, while herders are more mobile and independent. He found that the farmers and fishers were more holistic in their psychology than herders, being more likely to group objects based on their relationships rather than their categories: they preferred to link gloves with hands rather than with scarves, for instance (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105, p 8552). A similar mosaic pattern of thought can be found in the east. “Hokkaido is seen as the Wild West of Japan,” says Nisbett. “The citizens are regarded as cowboys – highly independent and individualistic – and sure enough, they’re more analytic in their cognitive style than mainland Japanese.”
Is it time we moved beyond simplistic notions of eastern and western psychology? Daphna Oyserman from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor certainly thinks so. She is not happy invoking history to explain modern human behaviour. “We can’t test if history mattered,” she says. “But we can test how contexts can evoke one or other mindset.”
Clearly, the dichotomy between holistic eastern and analytical western thinking is more blurred than the stereotypes suggest. If we all flip between different modes of thought depending on social context, says Oyserman, psychologists should be trying to find out which contexts provoke the holistic and which the analytical mindset, rather than perpetuating a false divide.
This approach is all the more important, she says, because the supposed dichotomy is based on limited evidence, with China and Japan representing the east in most studies and the US and Canada flying the flag for the west. In many regions, from southern Asia to Latin America, studies are extremely scarce, and even better-studied Europe is mostly embodied by the unrepresentative duo of Germany and the Netherlands. “The kind of things that cue analytic or holistic thought may be very different in these [neglected] societies,” Oyserman says. “Honour, for example, is a hugely important issue in areas that haven’t been studied very thoroughly, like the Middle East, Africa or Latin America.”
What is clear is that the minds of east Asians, Americans or any other group are not wired differently. We are all capable of both analytic and holistic thought. “Different societies make one option seem to make the most sense at any given moment,” says Oyserman. But instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility. “There are a lot of advantages to both holistic and analytic perception,” says Nisbett. In our multicultural world it would benefit us all if we could learn to adopt the most appropriate mode of thought for the situation in which we find ourselves.
(Note that the article’s author, Ed Yong, also wrote the excellent post Gender gap in maths driven by social factors, not biological differences at Not Exactly Rocket Science, which was also covered on this blog.)
|Figure 2. German (blue) versus Chinese (red) way of life, according to a German art exhibit. The piece was created by a German-educated Chinese woman named Yang Liu. Compare this concept with Undifferentiated Groups of Asians as Ad Props.|
The psychology research on the supposed East-West dichotomy in thinking styles may be a subtle and contemporary manifestation of scientific racism. After all, the research project of finding differences between “the East” and “the West” is based on the Orientalist tradition of Western European colonial societies attempting to define their identities against the societies they were colonizing (which happened to be towards the east of where they were located). Moreover, the “scientific” conclusions about Westerners thinking analytically and being individualist, and Easterners thinking holistically and being collectivist, fit in too well with popular stereotypes (see Figure 1 and Figure 2).
Recall that in 2008, an employee at a university in Wales prevented a potential student from taking an accounting course because the course required “analytical skills” and he perceived the student as “Oriental”:
“The man said something like ‘I’m not saying you’re Chinese but people like you, Oriental people, tend to accept what is written in the books and what the lecturer says, whereas this kind of course is nothing like you have studied in the past, it requires more analytical skills, you will have to do more yourself.”
Not only is the research project of finding the essence of the “Eastern mind” versus the “Western mind” based on the Eurocentric East-versus-West social construct, and not only are the studies’ conclusions supported by popular stereotypes and clichés, but this same exact reasoning is used to rationalize racial discrimination in education against people perceived as East Asian.
It is difficult to conceive of this psychology research project as something other than an academic extension of cultural bias, and a product of its time.
- David Brooks, Social Psychologist by Mark Liberman at Language Log
- The cognitive fallacy of East is East and West is West by Vaughan at Mind Hacks
- First among equals in the mind of a child by Vaughan at Mind Hacks
- “Black or white”, “East or West” are not racially or culturally exhaustive. by Restructure!