How and why Asians and Westerners think differently (part 2)

In my previous post on how Asians and Westerners think differently, I discussed the differences of thought between ancient China and ancient Greece as contended by the social psychologist Richard Nisbett in The Geography Of Thought (2003). In this post, I would like to list a number of experiments in the book that reflect the differences. In general, what these experiments show is that:

Easterners Westerners
Live in an interdependent world in which the self is part of a larger whole. Live in a world in which the self is a unitary free agent.
Value success and achievement in good part because they reflect well on the groups they belong to. Value success and achievement, because they are badges of personal merit.
Value fitting in and engage in self-criticism to make sure that they fit in and improve themselves. Value individuality and strive to make themselves look good.
Are highly attuned to the feelings of others and strive for interpersonal harmony. Are more concerned with knowing themselves and are prepared to sacrifice harmony for fairness.
Are accepting of hierarchy and group control. Are more likely to prefer equality and scope for personal action.
Avoid controversy and debate. Have faith in the rhetoric of argumentation in arenas from the law to politics to science.

I think that most of the findings in the experiments are well in line with many people’s stereotypes of East-Asians: they are modest, self-reflective, care about social harmony, dependent on their parents, indirect and hard to read, less individualistic, and having an inclination to avoid arguments.

On self-reflection of personal traits
When asked, “Tell me about yourself”, North-Americans tell more about their personal traits (“friendly, hardworking”), role categories (“teacher”, “I work for a company that makes microchips”), and activities (“I go camping a lot”). East-Asians describe themselves more often within contexts (“I am serious at work”, “I am fun-loving with my friends”), and make references to social roles (“I am Joan’s friend”).

On measuring own qualities
When Americans and Canadians had to measure their qualities, they all rated themselves above average. Asians rate themselves much lower in most dimensions, endorsing fewer positive statements and insisting on their negative qualities more. Even when self-ratings occur anonymously, Asians show much more modesty about their qualities. This suggests that they do not only appear more modest, but are indeed more modest.

On preference for distinctiveness
North-Americans characteristically overestimate their distinctiveness. They also prefer uniqueness in the environment and in their possessions. In an experiment where Koreans and Americans had to choose which object in a pictured array of objects they preferred, Americans chose the rarest object and Koreans the most common one. Asked to choose a pen as a gift, Americans chose the least common colour, whereas East-Asians chose the most common.

On self-improvement
When experimenters asked Canadian and Japanese students to take a bogus “creativity” test and then gave the students “feedback” indicating that they had done very well or very badly, the experimenters secretly observed how long participants worked on a similar task. Canadians worked longer on the task if they had succeeded; the Japanese worked longer if they failed. The Japanese weren’t being masochistic. They simply saw an opportunity for self-improvement and took it. The study shows intriguing implications for skill development in both the East and West. Whereas Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with, Easterners seem more likely to become good in all trades.

On dependence on the mother
American, Chinese, and Japanese children aged 7-9 were asked to solve such anagrams as “What word can be made from GREIT?” Some of the children were told to work on a particular category of anagrams, other children were given a choice about which anagrams to solve, and still others were told that the experimenter had spoken to the child’s mom who would like the child to work on a particular category. The American children spent most time working on tasks when they were allowed to choose the category themselves. They showed the least motivation when it was Mom who chose the category. Asian children showed the highest level of motivation when Mom chose the category.

On toddler-mother play
When American mothers play with their toddlers, they tend to ask questions about objects and supply information about them. Japanese mothers, on the other hand, asked questions that are more likely to concern feelings (“The wall says ‘ouch’” or “The toy is crying because you threw it”). This suggests that American parents are preparing their children for a world in which they are expected to act independently, whereas Asian parents are preparing their children to anticipate reactions and coordinate their own behavior.

On awareness of feelings
Asians are more accurately aware of feelings and attitudes of others than Westerners. When Koreans and Americans were shown evaluations that employers had made on their employees on rating scales, the Koreans were better able to infer from the ratings what the employers felt about the employees.

The Asian greater awareness of feelings also extends to non-human beings. When Japanese and American students were shown an underwater video and asked what they saw, Japanese students reporting “seeing” more feelings and motivations on the part of fish than did Americans. The Japanese for example said: “The red fish must be angry, because its scales were hurt”.

Similarly, when Chinese and American students were shown animated pictures of a moving group of fishes that appear to be chasing an individual fish and pictures of a group of moving fishes that are approached by the individual fish, the Americans had great difficulty to comply to the request. The Chinese reported much easier the group emotions of the fishes.

On the use of direct and indirect language
Westerners communicate their ideas clearly so that they are more or less understood independently of the context. Asians communicate ideas more indirectly that can only be understood within proper context. If a child’s loud singing annoys an American parent, the parent would be likely just to tell the kid to pipe down. The Asian parent would be more likely to say, “How well you sing a song.” At first the child might feel pleased, but it would likely dawn onto him that something else might have been meant and the child would try being quieter or not singing at all. The consequence is that Westerners are apt to find Asians hard to read, whereas Asians may find Westerners rude.

On individual distinction vs harmonious relations with the group
Managers were asked which of the following types of job they preferred: (a) jobs in which personal initiatives are encouraged and individual initiatives are achieved; versus (b) jobs in which no one is singled out for personal honor, but in which everyone works together. More than 90% of American, Canadian, Australian, British, Dutch, and Swedish respondents endorsed the first choice. Fewer than 50% of Japanese and Singaporeans preferred the first choice. Germans, Italians, Belgians, and French were intermediate.

On the relationship with corporations where one is employed and the connection with one’s colleagues there
When participants were asked to choose between (a) I will most certainly work for a company for the rest of my life; or (b) I am almost sure the relationship will have a limited duration, more than 90% of Americans, Canadians, Australians, British, and Dutch preferred option 1. This was only true for about 40% of Japanese. The French, Germans, Italians, and Belgians were again intermediate.

On relative value placed on achieved vs ascribed status
Participants were asked whether they shared the following view: becoming successful and respected is a matter of hard work. It is important for a manager to be older than his subordinates. Older people should be more respected than younger people.

More than 60% of Americans, Canadian, Australian, Swedish, and British respondents rejected the idea of status being based on any way of age. About 60% of Japanese, Korean, and Singaporean respondents accepted hierarchy based in part on age. French, Italians, Germans, and Belgians were again intermediate.

On universally applicable rules vs special consideration of cases based on their distinctive aspects
Participants are presented the case of an employee whose work for a company though excellent for fifteen years, has been unsatisfactory for a year. If there is no reason to expect that performance will improve, should the employee be (a) dismissed on the grounds that job performance should remain the grounds for dismissal, regardless of the age of the person and his previous record; or (b) is it wrong to disregard the fifteen years the employee has been working for the company?

More than 75% of Americans and Canadians felt the employee should be let go. About 20% of Koreans and Singaporeans agreed with that view. About 30% of Japanese, French, Italians, and Germans agreed and about 40% of British, Australians, Dutch, and Belgians agreed.

On marketing advertisements that emphasize individual benefits vs collective benefits
American advertisements emphasize more on individual benefits and preferences (“Make your way through the crowd”; “Alive with pleasure”). Korean advertisements are more likely to emphasize collective ones (“We have a way of bringing people closer together”; “Ringing out the news of business friendships that really work”). It was found that individualist advertisements were more effective with Americans and the collectivist ones with Koreans.

On rhetoric of argumentation
The whole of rhetoric of argumentation that is second nature in 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 as much argumentation or trafficking in opinions in Asian life.


4 thoughts on “How and why Asians and Westerners think differently (part 2)

  1. Pingback: From Chhay Lin Lim: ‘How And Why Asians And Westerners Think Differently – Chris Navin

  2. Pingback: How and why Asians and Westerners think differently (part 3) |

  3. Pingback: How and why Asians and Westerners think differently (part 4) |

  4. Pingback: How and why Asians and Westerners think differently |

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