Book review: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think
Differently... and Why, by Richard E. Nisbett.
It is often said that travel is a good way to improve one's
understanding of other cultures.
The Geography of Thought discredits that saying, by being full of
examples of cultural differences that 99.9% of travelers will overlook.
Here are a few of the insights I got from the book, but I'm pretty sure
I wouldn't have gotten from visiting Asia frequently:
There's no Chinese word for individualism - selfish seems to be the
Infants in the US are often forced to sleep in a separate bed, often in
a separate room. That's rather uncommon in Asia. Does this contribute
to US individualism? Or is it just a symptom?
There are no Asians in Lake
I.e. Asians are rather reluctant to rate themselves as above average.
Westerners want contracts to be unconditionally binding, whereas Asians
want contracts to change in response to unexpected contexts.
Asians are likely to consider justice in the abstract, by-the-book
Western sense to be rigid and unfeeling.
Chinese justice is an art, not a science.
Origins of Western Culture
Those cultural differences provide hints about why science as we know it
developed in the West, and not in Asia.
I read Geography of Thought in order to expand my understanding of some
ideas in Henrich's WEIRDest
Nisbett disagrees somewhat with Henrich about when WEIRD culture arose,
writing a fair amount about the Western features of ancient Greek
Nisbett traces some of the east-west differences to the likelihood that
the Greeks met more apparent contradiction than did Asians, via trade
with other cultures. That led them to devote more attention to logical
thought. (Here's an odd claim from Nisbett: ancient Greeks were
unwilling to adopt the concept of zero, because "it represented a
Nisbett agrees with Henrich that there was some sort of gap between
ancient Greek culture and the Reformation, but believes the gap came
later than Henrich does. These two quotes are about all that Nisbett has
to say about the gap:
As the West became primarily agricultural in the Middle Ages, it
became less individualistic.
The Romans brought a gift for rational organization and something
resembling the Chinese genius for technological achievement, and -
after a trough lasting almost a millennium - their successors, the
Italians, rediscovered these values ... The Reformation also brought
a weakened commitment to the family and other in-groups coupled with a
greater willingness to trust out-groups
Neither Nisbett nor Henrich convinced me that they know much about any
such period of reduced individualism - they don't seem to consider it
Reductionism and Categorization
I used to interpret attacks on reductionism as attacks on a valuable
aspect of science. I now see an alternate understanding: a clash of two
cognitive styles, reflecting differing priors about how much we can
usefully simplify our models of the world.
The Western goal of finding really simple models likely helped generate
the study of physics. I'm guessing it also contributed a bit to the
West's role in eradicating infectious diseases.
However, it may have been counter-productive at dealing with age-related
diseases. Let's look at the example of Alzheimer's.
Western researchers have been obsessed with the simple model of beta
amyloid being the sole cause of the disease. Drugs targeting beta
amyloid have been failing at a rate that is worse than what we should
expect due to random chance if they were placebos. Yet some researchers
still pursue drugs that target beta amyloid.
Some of that focus on single causes is due to the way that medical
research depends on patents, but don't forget that patent law is a
product of Western culture.
Meanwhile, outside of the mainstream, there are some
of progress at treating Alzheimer's using approaches that follow a more
holistic cognitive style. They posit multiple, overlapping factors that
contribute to dementia, and entertain doubts about how to classify
various versions of dementia.
High modernism, combined
with excessive reification of categories, may have led the medical
establishment on some dead-end paths.
In addition, Western medicine has been much more eager to adopt surgery
than China -
presumably due to an expectation that cutting out "the cause" of a
disease will cure it. I'm moderately confident that Western medicine
does too much surgery. I don't have any guess about whether Asian
cultures do too little.
Chuang Tzu is quoted as saying, "Classifying or limiting knowledge
fractures the greater knowledge."
it's been suggested that the distinction between "human" and
"animal" insisted upon by Westerners made it particularly hard to
accept the concept of evolution. ... Evolution was never
controversial in the East because there was never an assumption that
humans sat atop a chain of being and had somehow lost their animality.
Westerners needed to overcome the habit of classifying humans and
animals as categories with different essences. Asians are much less
comfortable with attaching importance to categories and essences, so
evolution required less change in their worldviews.
Doesn't the Western lead in reductionist science conflict with the
evidence of Asian students doing well at math and science? Nisbett says
that's partly explained by Asians working harder:
due at least in part to the greater Western tendency to believe that
behavior is the result of fixed traits. Americans are inclined to
believe that skills are qualities you do or don't have, so there's
not much point in trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Asians tend to believe that everyone, under the right circumstances
and with enough hard work, can learn to do math.
There's some important tension between this and the message of The
Nisbett tells us that American math-teaching isn't as good as the Asian
version. But that can't be the full answer - Cult of Smart indicates
that schools rejected key elements of Western culture in the past few
parts of that
trend happened just before Geography of Thought was published.
So the US seems to be adopting parts of Asian culture that make schools
more cruel, and more effective at producing excellent graduates. But
that trend seems unstable, due to the delusion that it's promoting the
Western ideal of equality.
For a long time, I believed that the Raven's Progressive Matrices Test
Nisbett compares an example from a CFIT
(like Raven's, but with "culture fair" in the name) with an example
from an IQ-like Chinese test. The Chinese test is more focused on
relationships between parts. It was easy for me to see that the two
tests were optimized for mildly different notions of intelligence, so I
was unsurprised when Nisbett reported that Chinese subjects showed
higher scores on the Chinese test, and Americans showed higher scores on
I'm a bit frustrated that Nisbett is vague about the magnitude of the
differences, and that he cites only an unpublished manuscript that he
co-authored. Publish it now, Nisbett!
Both notions of intelligence seem quite compatible with common notions
of smartness, differing only in which skill subsets ought to be
emphasized most. So this isn't like the usual commentary on bias in IQ
tests that's looking for an excuse to reject intelligence testing.
I'm surprised to find large differences in how much various cultures
care about distinguishing intentional and accidental harm, with WEIRD
people caring the most, and a few cultures barely distinguishing them
Nisbett hints that some of that is due to the WEIRD expectation that
actions have a single cause, and can't result from a combination of
intentional and accidental factors. Some of it might also be due to
Westerners doing more causal attribution in general.
I wonder how cultural differences affect attitudes toward ethics?
In particular, I wonder whether Asian cultures care less about virtue
ethics, due to less influence from Fundamental Attribution Error?
Some hasty research suggests that the answers are controversial.
What makes the characterization of Confucianism as a virtue ethic
controversial are more specific, narrower senses of "virtue" employed
in Western philosophical theories. Tiwald (2018) distinguishes between
something like the broad sense of virtue and a philosophical usage
that confers on qualities or traits of character explanatory priority
over right action and promoting good consequences. Virtue ethics in
this sense is a competitor to rule deontological and consequentialist
theories. There simply is not enough discussion in the Confucian
texts, especially in the classical period, that is addressed to the
kind of questions these Western theories seek to answer.
There are other narrower senses of "virtue" that are clearly
mischaracterizations when applied to Confucian ethics. Virtues might
be supposed to be qualities that people have or can have in isolation
from others with whom they interact or from their communities,
societies, or culture. Such atomistic virtues could make up ideals of
the person that in turn can be specified or realized in social
isolation. ... influential critics of the "virtue" characterization
of Confucian ethics ... seem to be supposing that the term is loaded
with such controversial presuppositions.
Geography of Thought is a great choice if you want to understand the
cultural differences between the US and China. It complements WEIRDest
People fairly well.
Geography of Thought is mostly about two sets of cultures, with little
attention to cultures other than those of eastern Asia and the West.
Nisbett seems a bit more rigorous than Henrich, but Henrich's cultural
knowledge seems much broader. Geography of Thought doesn't quite
satisfy the "and Why" part of it's subtitle, whereas Henrich makes an
impressive attempt at answering that question.
This review does a marvelous job of navigating a minefield.
It is often said that travel is a good way to improve one's understanding of other cultures.
The Geography of Thought discredits that saying, by being full of examples of cultural differences that 99.9% of travelers will overlook.
There's no Chinese word for individualism - selfish seems to be the closest equivalent.
The Chinese word for individualism 个人主义 is an import from France. I usually say "small families" or "weak family ties" instead.
There are no Asians in Lake Wobegon. I.e. Asians are rather reluctant to rate themselves as above average.
This is very true. My two closest Taiwanese friends suffer from this problem and don't even realize it. I realize I suffer from this error and I still fail to appropriately compensate.
Asians are much less comfortable with attaching importance to categories and essences…
Some East Asian ideas are easy to express. Sinocentrism is easy to explain. So are tyrannical schools and extended families. But the aspect of East Asian culture I have the hardest time explaining to Westerners is the flexibility of abstract concepts. This flexibility of thinking is deeply connected to business, religion and political theory [LW · GW]. It is foundational to at least one entire intellectual system.
Orwellian (dualist) double-think is a trap. But non-dualist (Daoist) double-think is critical.
Westerners want contracts to be unconditionally binding, whereas Asians want contracts to change in response to unexpected contexts.
What I like about the above quote is its grounding in economic reality. It's easy to get lost in the clouds generalizing about cultures' philosophical ideas. It's much harder when discussing business standards.
Part of why Chinese people want contracts to change in response to unexpected contexts is they live in a laissez-faire economic system compared to the Free World. Flexible contracts are natural law. Inflexible contracts arise from the unnatural rule of law.
Asians are likely to consider justice in the abstract, by-the-book Western sense to be rigid and unfeeling.
Chinese justice is an art, not a science.
Western philosophy confused me in high school and college. It still does. To this day I do not understand how "justice" can be a fundamental value (in the most general value-criterion sense of the word).
High modernism, combined with excessive reification of categories, may have led the medical establishment on some dead-end paths.
Well stated. Obviously yes, but I'm not comfortable stating my precise views on a public forum.
Chuang Tzu is quoted as saying, "Classifying or limiting knowledge fractures the greater knowledge."
I wonder to what extent this is connected to Asians' reluctance to rate one's self above average.
Doesn't the Western lead in reductionist science conflict with the evidence of Asian students doing well at math and science?
Math and science as handed down for most students is sufficiently mechanical to perform unthinkingly without comprehending reductionist science. Newton's Laws of Motion are true because the book, the test, the teacher, the government and your future boss all say so.
Nisbett hints that some of that is due to the WEIRD expectation that actions have a single cause, and can't result from a combination of intentional and accidental factors.
This is an impressively concise sentence. The idea is important and complex enough to deserve its own post.
I wonder whether Asian cultures care less about virtue ethics, due to less influence from Fundamental Attribution Error?
I don't know about "error" but East Asian cultures do perform less "fundamental attribution".
One more thing
Another difference the review doesn't address is "cultural appropriation". Offence at cultural appropriation is not a thing in East Asia—at least among the major ethnic groups. Rather, the opposite is true.
The paragraph in question uses wordplay to poke fun at John Locke, the Chinese Communist Party and American-style capitalism. It requires historical context to understand.
"Communism" describes an economic system, a political party, a political theory, an ideology and so on. China is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is a political party. China is "Communist" in the sense it is ruled by the "Communists" [political party]. China was communist [economic system] in the decades after the CCP took power in 1949. However, in recent decades, the CCP has dismantled the communist economic system in favor of a capitalist economic system. Nixon's 1972 visit to China is a useful landmark for when the communist Chinese Community Party began turning itself into the capitalist Chinese Communist Party.
Today's China is hands-off when it comes to small-scale business matters. Compared to the United States, there is less government regulation in China of everything except speech, guns and politics. Ironically, China is now more capitalist [economic system] than the United States and the European Union.
That's the joke poking fun at American-style capitalism and the CCP. What about John Locke?
John Locke is famous for his idea of "natural law". His idea of "natural law" is not based in science and is therefore not based in nature. It is based on a particular artificial political philosophy. "Natural law" is relevant to the capitalism-communism joke because the capitalist ideology is philosophically entangled with the Enlightenment myth of natural law. I poke fun at John Locke by comparing his idea of "natural law" to what really happens in the absence of intervention by Leviathan (government).
Today's China is hands-off when it comes to small-scale business matters. Compared to the United States, there is less government regulation in China of everything except speech, guns and politics. Ironically, China is now more capitalist [economic system] than the United States and the European Union.
Isn't there more regulation of internal movement? People from the country being blocked from moving to the cities, etc.?
Also, while there may be less regulation, it also seems that the government is in general more powerful in China. It has more license to arrest people, shut down businesses, install political operatives in businesses, surveil people, order lockdowns, etc. than western governments, which struggle to cut through their own red tape when they do those things. Or is this a wrong impression?
You're not wrong. I forgot about the hukou system. It's also true that China's government is more involved with large-scale businesses. You have to play more politics to build a business empire in China than in the USA.
Otherwise, especially when it comes down to small fry (which are the majority of businesses), national politics is just one aspect of the business environment. Also important to small businesses is things like paperwork, regulation and—perhaps most importantly—the chance of getting sued. The United States is a very litigious society where you (usually) have to pay high legal fees even if you win. China is less litigious because it is rare for anyone in their right mind to willingly call down attention from the government.
China is not known for its worker protections and environmental regulations. There are far fewer zoning laws in China than the United States. I reckon mundane annoyances are more likely to kill a small business than is a visit from the secret police. (This is not necessarily a bad thing. I like living in a city with breathable air.)
I also suspect organized crime plays a bigger role in China than in the United States for small businesses. This isn't a good thing, but it does technically fall under "low government involvement".
Debate is almost as uncommon in modern Asia as in ancient China. In fact, the whole rhetoric of argumentation that is second nature to Westerners is largely absent in Asia. North Americans begin to express opinions and justify them as early as the show-and-tell sessions of nursery school (“This is my robot; he’s fun to play with because …”). In contrast, there is not much argumentation or trafficking in opinions in Asian life. A Japanese friend has told me that the concept of a “lively discussion” does not exist in Japan—because of the risk to group harmony. It is this fact that likely undermined an attempt he once made to have an American-style dinner party in Japan, inviting only Japanese guests who expressed a fondness for the institution—from the martinis through the steak to the apple pie. The effort fell flat for want of opinions and people willing to defend them.
The absence of a tradition of debate has particularly dramatic implications for the conduct of political life. Very recently, South Korea installed its first democratic government. Prior to that, it had been illegal to discuss North Korea. Westerners find this hard to comprehend, inasmuch as South Korea has performed one of the world’s most impressive economic miracles of the past 40 years and North Korea is a failed state in every respect. But, due to the absence of a tradition of debate, Koreans have no faith that correct ideas will win in the marketplace of ideas, and previous governments “protected” their citizens by preventing discussion of Communist ideas and North Korean practices.
The tradition of debate goes hand in hand with a certain style of rhetoric in the law and in science. The rhetoric of scientific papers consists of an overview of the ideas to be considered, a description of the relevant basic theories, a specific hypothesis, a statement of the methods and justification of them, a presentation of the evidence produced by the methods, an argument as to why the evidence supports the hypothesis, a refutation of possible counterarguments, a reference back to the basic theory, and a comment on the larger territory of which the article is a part. For Americans, this rhetoric is constructed bit by bit from nursery school through college. By the time they are graduate students, it is second nature. But for the most part, the rhetoric is new to the Asian student and learning it can be a slow and painful process. It is not uncommon for American science professors to be impressed by their hard-working, highly selected Asian students and then to be disappointed by their first major paper—not because of their incomplete command of English, but because of their lack of mastery of the rhetoric common in the professor’s field. In my experience, it is also not uncommon for professors to fail to recognize that it is the lack of the Western rhetoric style they are objecting to, rather than some deeper lack of comprehension of the enterprise they’re engaged in.
The combative, rhetorical form is also absent from Asian law. In Asia the law does not consist, as it does in the West for the most part, of a contest between opponents. More typically, the disputants take their case to a middleman whose goal is not fairness but animosity reduction—by seeking a Middle Way through the claims of the opponents. There is no attempt to derive a resolution to a legal conflict from a universal principle. On the contrary, Asians are likely to consider justice in the abstract, by-the-book Western sense to be rigid and unfeeling.
Negotiation also has a different character in the high-context societies of the East than in the low-context societies of the West. Political scientist Mushakoji Kinhide characterizes the Western erabi (active, agentic) style as being grounded in the belief that “man can freely manipulate his environment for his own purposes. This view implies a behavioral sequence whereby a person sets his objective, develops a plan designed to reach that objective, and then acts to change the environment in accordance with that plan.” To a person having such a style, there’s not much point in concentrating on relationships. It’s the results that count. Proposals and decisions tend to be of the either/or variety because the Westerner knows what he wants and has a clear idea what it is appropriate to give and to take in order to have an acceptable deal. Negotiations should be short and to the point, so as not to waste time reaching the goal.
The Japanese awase (harmonious, fitting-in) style, “rejects the idea that man can manipulate the environment and assumes instead that he adjusts himself to it.” Negotiations are not thought of as “ballistic,” one-shot efforts never to be revisited, and relationships are presumed to be long-term. Either/or choices are avoided. There is a belief that “short-term wisdom may be long-term folly.” A Japanese negotiator may yield more in negotiations for a first deal than a similarly placed Westerner might, expecting that this will lay the groundwork for future trust and cooperation. Issues are presumed to be complex, subjective, and intertwined, unlike the simplicity, objectivity, and “fragmentability” that the American with the erabi style assumes.
It is this fact that likely undermined an attempt he once made to have an American-style dinner party in Japan, inviting only Japanese guests who expressed a fondness for the institution—from the martinis through the steak to the apple pie. The effort fell flat for want of opinions and people willing to defend them.
This is so funny. It reminds me of a period of time when Mao Zedong ordered the whole country to self-criticize. You had to say something embarrassing in order to to not be a traitor but it also had to be harmless enough to not get anyone into real trouble.
For Americans, this rhetoric is constructed bit by bit from nursery school through college. By the time they are graduate students, it is second nature. But for the most part, the rhetoric is new to the Asian student and learning it can be a slow and painful process.
Wow. This is is an idea that, to me, falls under "extraordinary, if true". And…I can't think of any evidence against it. I look forward to discussing this with my East Asian friends. It probably affects only Asians who grew up in Asia. The Asian-Americans who dominated my high school debate club seem to be unaffected.
Political scientist Mushakoji Kinhide characterizes the Western erabi (active, agentic) style as being grounded in the belief that “man can freely manipulate his environment for his own purposes. This view implies a behavioral sequence whereby a person sets his objective, develops a plan designed to reach that objective, and then acts to change the environment in accordance with that plan.”
I feel this perspective has had an outsized impact on the field of AI safety.
There is a belief that “short-term wisdom may be long-term folly.” A Japanese negotiator may yield more in negotiations for a first deal than a similarly placed Westerner might, expecting that this will lay the groundwork for future trust and cooperation.
This surprised me when I entered the world of Silicon Valley.
This reminds me of a colleague who was invited to sit on a panel at a conference in South Korea a few years ago. He (being American) had no idea how much of a faux pas it would be to ask an actual unscripted question. It's still hard for me to understand, but this post helped.
Live in a different culture for long enough, and you can't help but to have it influence your thinking:
Of course, Easterners are constantly being “primed” with interdependence cues and Westerners with independence cues. This raises the possibility that even if their upbringing had not made them inclined in one direction or another, the cues that surround them would make people living in interdependent societies behave in generally interdependent ways and those living in independent societies behave in generally independent ways. In fact this is a common report of people who live in the “other” culture for a while. My favorite example concerns a young Canadian psychologist who lived for several years in Japan. He then applied for jobs at North American universities. His adviser was horrified to discover that his letter began with apologies about his unworthiness for the jobs in question.
Independent-minded Western culture, versus interdependence-minded East Asian culture:
Training for independence or interdependence starts quite literally in the crib. Whereas it is common for American babies to sleep in a bed separate from their parents, or even in a separate room, this is rare for East Asian babies—and, for that matter, babies pretty much everywhere else. Instead, sleeping in the same bed is far more common. The differences are intensified in waking life. Adoring adults from several generations often surround the Chinese baby (even before the one-child policy began producing “little emperors”). The Japanese baby is almost always with its mother. The close association with mother is a condition that some Japanese apparently would like to continue indefinitely. Investigators at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research recently conducted a study requiring a scale comparing the degree to which adult Japanese and American respondents want to be with their mothers. The task proved very difficult, because the Japanese investigators insisted that a reasonable endpoint on the scale would be “I want to be with my mother almost all the time.” The Americans, of course, insisted that this would be uproariously funny to American respondents and would cause them to cease taking the interview seriously. [...]
An emphasis on relationships encourages a concern with the feelings of others. When American mothers play with their toddlers, they tend to ask questions about objects and supply information about them. But when Japanese mothers play with their toddlers, their questions are more likely to concern feelings. Japanese mothers are particularly likely to use feeling-related words when their children misbehave: “The farmer feels bad if you did not eat everything your mom cooked for you.” “The toy is crying because you threw it.” “The wall says ‘ouch.’” Concentrating attention on objects, as American parents tend to do, helps to prepare children for a world in which they are expected to act independently. Focusing on feelings and social relations, as Asian parents tend to do, helps children to anticipate the reactions of other people with whom they will have to coordinate their behavior.
The consequences of this differential focus on the emotional states of others can be seen in adulthood. There is evidence that Asians are more accurately aware of the feelings and attitudes of others than are Westerners. For example, Jeffrey Sanchez-Burks and his colleagues showed to Koreans and Americans evaluations that employers had made on rating scales. The Koreans were better able to infer from the ratings just what the employers felt about their employees than were the Americans, who tended to simply take the ratings at face value. This focus on others’ emotions extends even to perceptions of the animal world. Taka Masuda and I showed underwater video scenes to Japanese and American students and asked them to report what they saw. The Japanese students reported “seeing” more feelings and motivations on the part of fish than did Americans; for example, “The red fish must be angry because its scales were hurt.” Similarly, Kaiping Peng and Phoebe Ellsworth showed Chinese and American students animated pictures of fish moving in various patterns in relation to one another. For example, a group might appear to chase an individual fish or to scoot away when the individual fish approached. The investigators asked the students what both the individual fish and the groups of fish were feeling. The Chinese readily complied with the requests. The Americans had difficulty with both tasks and were literally baffled when asked to report what the group emotions might be.
The relative degree of sensitivity to others’ emotions is reflected in tacit assumptions about the nature of communication. Westerners teach their children to communicate their ideas clearly and to adopt a “transmitter” orientation, that is, the speaker is responsible for uttering sentences that can be clearly understood by the hearer—and understood, in fact, more or less independently of the context. It’s the speaker’s fault if there is a miscommunication.
Western thought that emphasizes individuals detached of context, versus East Asian thought that emphasizes relationships and contexts:
Most Americans over a certain age well remember their primer, called Dick and Jane. Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, were quite the active individualists. The first page of an early edition from the 1930s (the primer was widely used until the 1960s) depicts a little boy running across a lawn. The first sentences are “See Dick run. See Dick play. See Dick run and play.” This would seem the most natural sort of basic information to convey about kids—to the Western mentality. But the first page of the Chinese primer of the same era shows a little boy sitting on the shoulders of a bigger boy. “Big brother takes care of little brother. Big brother loves little brother. Little brother loves big brother.” It is not individual action but relationships between people that seem important to convey in a child’s first encounter with the printed word. [...]
“Tell me about yourself” seems a straightforward enough question to ask of someone, but the kind of answer you get very much depends on what society you ask it in. North Americans will tell you about their personality traits (“friendly, hard-working”), role categories (“teacher,” “I work for a company that makes microchips”), and activities (“I go camping a lot”). Americans don’t condition their self-descriptions much on context. The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean self, on the other hand, very much depends on context (“I am serious at work”; “I am fun-loving with my friends”). A study asking Japanese and Americans to describe themselves either in particular contexts or without specifying a particular kind of situation showed that Japanese found it very difficult to describe themselves without specifying a particular kind of situation—at work, at home, with friends, etc. Americans, in contrast, tended to be stumped when the investigator specified a context—“I am what I am.” When describing themselves, Asians make reference to social roles (“I am Joan’s friend”) to a much greater extent than Americans do. Another study found that twice as many Japanese as American self-descriptions referred to other people (“I cook dinner with my sister”).
The idea of a contextual personality is probably connected to collectivism, and vice-versa. The words "individualism" and "collectivism" bother me for reasons I have trouble pinning down. "Context-dependent personality" and "context-independent personality" do not bother me in the same way.
Westerners classify things according to the how much individual members of a class resemble each other, and East Asians according to the relationships between the classes:
For the Greeks, things belonged in the same category if they were describable by the same attributes. But the philosopher Donald Munro points out that, for the Chinese, shared attributes did not establish shared class membership. Instead, things were classed together because they were thought to influence one another through resonance. For example, in the Chinese system of the Five Processes, the categories spring, east, wood, wind, and green all influenced one another. Change in wind would affect all the others—in “a process like a multiple echo, without physical contact coming between any of them.” Philosopher David Moser also notes that it was similarity between classes, not similarity among individual members of the same class, that was of interest to the ancient Chinese. They were simply not concerned about the relationship between a member of a class (“a horse”) and the class as a whole (“horses”). [...]
Take a look at the three objects pictured in the illustration on page 141. If you were to place two objects together, which would they be? Why do those seem to be the ones that belong together?
If you’re a Westerner, odds are you think the chicken and the cow belong together. Developmental psychologist Liang-hwang Chiu showed triplets like that in the illustration to American and Chinese children. Chiu found that the American children preferred to group objects because they belonged to the “taxonomic” category, that is, the same classification term could be applied to both (“adults,” “tools”). Chinese children preferred to group objects on the basis of relationships. They would be more likely to say the cow and the grass in the illustration go together because “the cow eats the grass.”
Li-jun Ji, Zhiyong Zhang, and I obtained similar results comparing college students from the U.S with students from mainland China and Taiwan, using words instead of pictures. We presented participants with sets of three words (e.g., panda, monkey, banana) and asked them to indicate which two of the three were most closely related. The American participants showed a marked preference for grouping on the basis of common category membership: Panda and monkey fit into the animal category. The Chinese participants showed a preference for grouping on the basis of thematic relationships (e.g., monkey and banana) and justified their answers in terms of relationships: Monkeys eat bananas.
My girlfriend, who's into homesteading, thought the cow goes with the grass without knowing the context of the question.
China is 45% rural, while the US is 14% rural. Maybe the fact that the US appears to be much more urbanized leads more of its people to lean on abstract groupings? What would the results be if restricted to rural vs. rural or urban vs. urban samples of the population of each country? Even then, I would have to assume the average Chinese college student tends to have more connections with rural lifestyles than the average American college student.
This study reminds me of a similar association-based intelligence test given to rural inhabitants of Soviet Siberia before the Industrial Revolution hit them. They, like the rural Chinese, classified objects together by use instead of taxonomy. The Soviet study is supplemental evidence that the difference comes from urban vs rural distinction rather than one based on philosophical lineage.
Another reason the average Chinese person has more connections with rural lifestyles is how hometown villages work. An enduring theme in Chinese culture is that the city is a place you work but your ancestral village is "home".
I'm Dutch, and not into homesteading or anything like that at all, but I also chose the cow going with the grass. Maybe it's because I'm not a native speaker of English? Do you interpret 'goes with' as 'is more like'? I'd have thought it means 'belongs together'. (Of course the cow and the chicken also belong together, in the sense that both live on a farm, but 'one eats the other' seems like a more direct relationship.)
"X goes with Y" is vague in English. Even "belongs together" could mean that the two things belong together in a category, rather than belonging together physically.
My intuition is that American kids are pretty used to exercises where you're supposed to sort things by classifications like "animal vs. non-animal", so they're to some extent expecting that when you show them this kind of picture.
To be more explicit: I think in a visual test like this in English, "What goes with this?" would almost never mean "physically belongs in the same place" or "causally relate" -- except as special cases of "belongs in the same category". An exception would be something like clothing/fashion, where "does X go with Y?" is used idiomatically to mean "do X and Y look nice if you wear them together?"
Great review, and very interesting. I'm now really curious about the implications for Hanson and Simler's The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. Would an analysis of hidden motives in East Asian subjects require an entirely new book? For that matter, I wonder what kind of things would show up on Hanson's blog if he lived over there for a while.
Just happened to notice an interesting paper on another cultural difference: in the US, children who have better self-control tend to believe more strongly in free will; in China, Singapore and Peru, self-control and belief in free will are not correlated.
The authors hypothesize that this is because of different cultural models about the nature of behavior: US culture explains self-control as a property of the individual, whereas the culture in the other countries explains it as a property of the social context the individual is in. As a result, when US children successfully practice self-control, they see it as affirming the existence of free will, whereas when children in other countries practice self-control, they see it as affirming the effect of their context on their behavior.
Four-year-old children in the U.S. generally say that if a person “really wants” to do something – play a fun game, for example – she has to do it (cannot choose not to do it). Similarly, 4-year-olds say if someone “really doesn't want” to do something – e.g. look in a scary closet – they cannot choose to do it. (Kushnir et al., 2015; Wente et al., 2016). Six-year-olds and older children in the U.S. are more optimistic about their own and others' ability to perform undesirable actions and to inhibit desirable ones – they have a conception more like the classic Western notion of absolute free will. [...]
Children in different cultures grow up surrounded by these different folk-psychological theories of mind and self. For example, children growing up in middle-class North American cultures are raised by adults who often view intentional actions as stemming from individual desires, preferences, and subjective mental states. Children growing up in Asian cultures are raised by adults who more frequently view agents as responding to situations, social roles, and the expectations of other individuals. Of course, all children across these cultural contexts develop understandings of individual minds and mental states and learn the importance of social roles and expectations. However, culture plays a role in how we emphasize and weigh these different factors in ordinary causal-explanatory reasoning about actions (Morris & Peng, 1994). Culture also plays a role in how we talk to children about actions: a large body of work shows that, in conversations with children about events and experiences, parents in individualistic versus collectivistic cultural contexts consistently emphasize individual mental states versus relational roles and social expectations respectively, and through these conversations transmit different cultural views on agency and self to their children (Wang, 2006; Wang & Leichtman, 2000). It is therefore conceivable that, even for children as young as four, self-control experience could be interpreted through a cultural lens. [...]
The results from Study 1 show a culturally moderated relationship between self-control abilities and beliefs about the “free will” to act against or inhibit strong desires. Though we found similar self-control performance across the three cultures, Singaporean children reported weaker belief in the free will than Chinese and U.S. children. These findings on their own indicate that free will beliefs and self-control abilities do not necessarily align, at least when contrasting samples across cultures. Second, controlling for age, U.S. children who held a stronger belief in their ability to act against or inhibit strong desires performed better on tasks requiring self-control. No such correlations were observed in the two East Asian cultures, again despite overall similarities in the main developmental trajectory of both their self-control abilities and their free will beliefs. [...]
One explanation for the culturally moderated link between beliefs and abilities is that it reflects both cultural and experiential influences. If children in our U.S. sample experience their self-control as internally guided, then they may interpret their first-person experiences in situations that require self-control as evidence in support of the possibility that they can successfully control impulses and desires at will. As they get older, they more readily endorse the idea that agents have the free will to act against their desires because they actually see themselves get better at practicing self-control. On the other hand, children from Singapore and China may experience their self-control as externally guided, caused by social norms or external influences without the intermediary influence of an internal “will”. In that case, the experience of self-control might have no effect on beliefs about free will. [...]
These data suggest that the Western causal-explanatory framework– which include an emphasis on internal mental states – frame children's experience of their own self-control. As further support for this idea, we found some indication that the culturally-moderated link has a causal basis. In Study 2, self-control behaviors influenced children's free will beliefs, at least in the short-term. In particular, children who failed two self-control tasks had a lower belief in free will compared to children who completed one or both self-control tasks successfully. We did not find a causal influence in the opposite direction, suggesting that improving or depleting self-control in the short term involves more than simply affirming that one believes it is possible. [...]
Our results imply that developing beliefs about internal struggles between desire and “will” are only one of many possible cultural models for action understanding. U.S. children are socialized to connect their emerging understanding of desires – how they operate, how they conflict and how they can be overridden – with the struggles of the will. Thus, they may naturally interpret the experience of self-control as an internal struggle of conflicting desires, and learn to attribute self-control performance to an act of will. Children in Singapore, China, (and perhaps Peru) may be learning to view the same struggle in the same type of self-control task through a different attributional framework. Speculatively, experiences of successful and failed self-control experiences might lead to attributions about norm compliance, without necessarily invoking internal “will” as an intermediary. In China, for example, parents place a strong emphasis on consequences towards others (e.g. family members) and group norm-following as causal explanations for actions (Wang, 2006; Yau & Smetana, 2003). In Singapore, children reference punishment for norm violations as an explanation for why norms must necessarily limit the possibility of acting on desires (Chernyak et al., 2019). Thus, for children in these cultures, beliefs that matter most for self-regulation, and thus the beliefs that are most influenced by evidence from self-control success and/or failure, may be those that govern the extent to which social norms constrain personal autonomy. With regards to Peruvian children, our findings here are necessarily preliminary. More background is needed about socio-cognitive development of young children in Peru and how it connects to the transmission of cultural values. Thus, the variety of causal-explanatory frameworks, and how they emerge in development, and how (or whether) they connect to children's self-control remain open questions for future research.
What does "Asia" refer to here? As far as I can see your excerpts mention only one country in Asia, namely China. Do these findings about "Asia" apply only to China (and countries culturally related to China, such as Japan)? Or do some of them also apply to other countries in Asia such as India?
Similarly, does "the West" mean specifically "the United States of America", or were any other Western countries considered?
When talking at a high level, the author refers to cultures that were heavily influenced by China, versus European cultures. But many specific research results or anecdotes are only available for one Eastern and one Western nation. For those, he mostly refers to the specific nations, and leaves it to the reader to make inferences about how well those apply to similar nations.