Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A geography of thought

U of Michigan Psychology Prof Richard Nisbett in 2003 wrote an intriguing book entitled "The Geography of Thought". This book says that the differences between Asians and Westerners are not mere cultural but cognitive. In short Asians and Westerners view the world differently due to different ecologies, culture and philosophy. In other words Asians and Westerners think differently. The conventional wisdom in psychology is that all people think the same, we can peel the cultural onion to find that at the center things are the same whether you are Japanese or German.

Looks like Nisbett has cast doubt on this paradigm. He lists the probable reasons why Chinese excel in algebra and arithmetics but bomb out in geometry. (The first Jesuits in China noted that the Chinese had not much use for geometry (aside from surveying) as compared to the Greeks who used it to derive aesthetic principles).

He also says that Asians find it so hard to remove an object from its context. The reverse is true for Westerners.

He also says that Asian babies learn verbs first while Western babies learn nouns first.

There's more to these trivia

Asians value group harmony and hierarchy while Westerners value individualism and equality goes the oft quoted cliche. While this is true this has significant consequences for cross-cultural interactions. Asians don't like western values imposed on them. While they are open to incorporate western influences in their cultures, Asians decide what is accepted and rejected. Of all Asian societies, Japan is a classic example of this.

One timely and important chapter in the book described Asian and American reactions to the shooting of a professor, fellow students and the appeals officer by a Chinese PhD Physics student in 1991 The Chinese student did not win an award and he appealed. His appeal failed.

A year after an American postal worker lost his job. He appealed but failed. He shot the postmaster and other employees. Both homicides had similar causes.

Nesbitt's students did a content analysis of newspaper accounts from the US and China and came out with startling results. The newspapers in the US focused on the Chinese's psychological profile, while in China journalists focused on the situation that may have led to the crime. Both US and Chinese papers reported on the post office massacre too. The Americans again focused on the postman's psychological profile and pathology while the Chinese focused on the situation. The content analysis shoots down the hypothesis that views are conditioned by race. It goes beyond that.

Obviously Americans focus on the perpetrator while the Chinese focus on the situation. These are two divergent ways of assessing the crime.

In the recent Virginia Tech massacre, the same trend is observed. American journalists are hot on dissecting Cho's patho-psychological profile. As far as I have heard and seen on CNN, Koreans who were interviewed and knew the troubled Cho looked at his family relationships, dynamics and situation as a migrant as possible factors for why he did the horrible act. We see the differences Nesbitt earlier pointed out.

Another interesting chapter for Filipinos is the one that examines Hong Kong citizens' views. As we all know, HK was ruled by the British until 1997. The city has maintained its British heritage while strongly emphasizing its Chinese culture. Hong Kong is a laboratory of cross-cultural interactions.

Nisbett concludes that HK citizens can be encouraged to think either in a Western or Asian way if they are shown images that suggest Western or Asian cultures. I wonder if the same applies to us Filipinos. Can we think as if we're American if we are at McDonald's and can we think we are Pinoy if we are in a turo-turo?

Interestingly Asian-Americans can also switch on their Asian or Western side depending on the context.

The book has other interesting insights. Grab a copy.

The Geography of Thought: How Aisans and Westerners Think Differently and Why. by Richard E Nisbett. Free Press Publishing, Simon and Schuster, New York

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