How and why Asians and Westerners think differently (part 3)

In addition to my two previous posts on Richard Nisbett’s The Geography Of Thought (2003) that you can read here and here, I would like to list more experiments from the book that reflect the differences in thinking between East-Asians and Westerners. These experiments show that in general:

Easterners Westerners
View the world in holistic terms. View the world in analytic, atomistic terms.
View the world through a wide-angle lens – see a great deal of the field, especially background events. View the world through a narrower lens – see objects as discrete and separate from their environments.
Are skilled in observing relationships between events and explaining them in relation to one another. Are more focused and skilled in explaining events in terms of properties of objects.
Regard the world as complex and highly changeable and its components as interrelated. Regard the world as stable and linear.
See events as moving in cycles between extremes. See events as moving in linear fashion when they move at all.
Feel that control over events requires coordination with others. Feel themselves to be personally in control of events even when they are not.
Believe that changes in personal happiness are unpredictable and more likely to undergo reversals. Have a more linear thought while predicting personal happiness – from bad to good or good to bad.
Are more likely to believe that someone’s personality is more subject to change. Are more likely to believe that someone’s personality is something about them that they cannot change very much.
Are considered to have a good ability to think historically when they show empathy with historical figures, including those who were enemies. “How” questions are raised more often. Are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of outcome. “Why” questions are raised more often.

On seeing the world being composed of continuous substances vs being composed of discrete objects or separate atoms
Japanese and Americans of various ages from less than 2 to adulthood are presented objects composed of particular substances that are described to them in ways that were neutral with respect to whether each was an object or a substance. For example, they might show a pyramid made of cork and ask the participants to “look at this ‘dax’. ” Then they showed the participants two trays, one of which had something on it of the same shape as the object presented but which was made of a different substance and one of which had the same substance in a different shape. The investigators then asked their participants to point to the tray that had their “dax” on it. Americans were much more likely to choose the same shape as the “dax” than were the Japanese, indicating that the Americans were coding what they saw as an object. The Japanese were more likely to choose the same material as the “dax,” indicating that they were coding what they saw as a substance.

On the atomistic attitude
Participants were asked about the following definitions of a company, and which of the definitions they agree most with: (a) A company is a system designed to perform functions and tasks in an efficient way. People are hired to fulfill these functions with the help of machines and other equipment. They are paid for the tasks they perform; or (b) A company is a group of people working together. The people have social relations with other people and with the organization. The functioning is dependent on these relations.

About 75% of Americans chose the first definition. More than 50% of Canadians, Australians, British, Dutch, and Swedes chose that definition, and about a third of Japanese and Singaporeans chose it. Germans, French, and Italians were intermediate between the Asians and the people of British and northern European culture.

On personal experiences of the world
American and Chinese children between 4 and 6 years of age were asked to report on their daily events. They found the following three remarkable things:

  1. The proportion of self-references was more than three times higher for American children than for Chinese children;
  2. Chinese children provided many small details about events and described them in a brief, matter-of-fact fashion. American children talked in a more leisurely way about many fewer events that were of personal interest to them;
  3. American children made twice as many references to their own internal states, such as preferences and emotions, as did the Chinese children.

In short, American kids prefer talking about themselves much more than do Chinese kids.

On taking the orientation of other people into perspective
North-American students and Asian students were asked to recall specific instances of ten different situations in which they were the center of attention. North Americans were more likely than Asians to reproduce the scene from their original point of view, looking outward. Asians were more likely to imagine the scene as an observer might, describing it from a third-person perspective.

On viewing the world through a wide-angle lens vs tunnel vision
Students at Kyoto University and at the University of Michigan were shown eight color animated underwater vignettes with scenes that were all characterized by having one or more “focal” fish, which were larger, brighter, and faster-moving than anything else in the picture. Each scene also contained less rapidly moving animals, as well as plants, rocks, bubbles etc. The scenes lasted about twenty seconds and were shown twice. After the second showing, participants were asked to say what they had seen. Their answers were coded as to what they referred to.

Americans and Japanese made about an equal number of references to the focal fish, but Japanese made more than 60% more references to background elements, including the water, rocks, bubbles, and inert plants and animals. In addition, whereas Japanese and American participants made about equal numbers of references to movement involving active animals, the Japanese participants made almost twice as many references to relationships involving inert, background objects. Perhaps most tellingly, the very first sentence from the Japanese participants was likely to be one referring to the environment (“It looked like a pond”), whereas the first sentence from Americans was three times as likely to be one referring to the focal fish (“There was a big fish, maybe a trout, moving off to the left”).

Then 96 objects were shown to the participants, half of which they had seen before and half of which they had not seen before. Some objects were shown in their original environment and some were shown in a novel environment. The ability of the Japanese to recall that an object was seen before in the original environment than when it was shown in a new environment was substantially greater. This however, made no difference at all to Americans.

The speed of Japanese judgements was also impaired when the objects were presented against a novel background, whereas Americans’ judgement speed was not affected.

On controlling vs adjusting to the world
When Japanese and American students were asked to tell about incidents in their lives in which they had adjusted to some situation and incidents in which they had been in control of the situation, the incidents of adjustments were apparently more common for the Japanese. Incidents of control were more common for Americans. The Americans also said that they felt awkward, anxious, and incompetent when they had to adjust to a situation.

On beliefs about change
Students from the University of Michigan and Beijing University were asked how likely they thought it was that some state of affairs would undergo a radical change. Chinese thought change was likely about 50% of the time and Americans thought change was likely about 30% of the time.

In addition, the students were shown graphs with alleged trends like world economy growth rate or world cancer death rate. When asked for their predictions, Americans made more predictions that were consistent with the trends shown to them than did the Chinese. The Chinese are more likely to predict a reversal in direction of change than Americans were.

On predicting the course of their own life happiness
When students were asked to predict their own life happiness, they were shown 18 different trends to choose from. Six trends were linear and twelve were non-linear, either stopping or reversing. Almost half of the Americans chose one of the six as the most probably, whereas fewer than a third of the Chinese choices were linear.

Westerners believe that their own futures will move continuously in a single direction – from bad to good or good to bad. East Asians might expect their lives to undergo reversals of fortune – from good to bad to good, or from bad to good to bad.

On newspapers’ portrayal of criminals
When a physics student at the University of Iowa lost an award competition and failed to obtain an academic job, he shot his adviser, the person who had handled his appeal, several fellow students and bystanders, and himself.

The American campus newspapers focused almost entirely on the student’s presumed qualities – murderer’s psychological foibles, attitudes and psychological problems. Chinese reporters emphasized causes that had to do with the context in which the student operated. Explanations centered on his relationships, pressures from Chinese society and aspects of the American context. Systematic analysis of the New York Times and the Chinese-language newspaper the World Journal reflected that in general, the Chinese newspaper focused more on context and less on personal attitudes and psychological attributes.

On causes of behavior
Korean and American college students were asked about their agreement with the following three statements:

  1. How people behave is mostly determined by their personality;
  2. How people behave is mostly determined by the situation in which they find themselves;
  3. How people behave is always jointly determined by their personality and the situation in which they find themselves.

Koreans and Americans regarded personality (1) as equally important in determining behavior, but Koreans rated situational factors (2) and the interaction between situations and personality (3) as more important than Americans did.

On malleability of personality
When the students were asked whether they thought that someone’s personality is something about them that they cannot change very much, the Koreans thought that personalities are more subject to change than the Americans did.

On “Fundamental Attribution Error”
East-Asian and Western students were asked to read an essay written by another student called the “target”. It was made clear that the target had been required to write the speech or essay upholding a particular side of a particular issue. All students reading the target’s essay were inclined in error to believe that what they were reading reflected the actual beliefs of the target. However, there is a difference between East-Asian and American susceptibility. East-Asians don’t make the error if they have been placed in the target’s shoes first. Americans’ dispositional inferences about others were as strong as if they had not themselves experienced exactly the target person’s situation.

On causal attributions
Japanese history teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. Emphasis is put on the initial event that serves as the impetus to subsequent events. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. The students are encouraged to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures by thinking about the analogy between their situations and situations of the students’ everyday lives. Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently – about twice as often as in American classrooms.

American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of outcome. “Why” questions are asked twice as frequently in American classrooms as in Japanese classrooms.

On estimation that a past event could have been predicted
Participants were told about a young seminary student who was a very kind and religious person. Heading across campus to deliver a sermon, he encountered a man lying in a doorway asking for help. The participants were told that the seminarian was late to deliver his sermon.

In condition A, participants did not know what the seminary student had done, and were asked to estimate the probability that the target would help and how surprised they would be if they were to find out that he had not helped. Both Koreans and Americans reported about an 80% probability that the target would help and indicated that they would be quite surprised if he did not.

In condition B, participants were told that the seminary student had helped the victim and in condition C, that the target had not helped the victim. Participants in conditions B were asked what they believed would have regarded as the probability that the student would have helped – if in fact they had not been told what he did – and also how surprised they were in his actual behavior. Again, both Koreans and Americans in condition B indicated they would have thought the probability of helping was about 80% and both groups reported no surprise that he did help.

Americans in condition C, in which the student unexpectedly did not help the victim, also reported that they would have thought the probability was about 80% that the student would have helped and they reported a great deal of surprise that he did not do so. Koreans in condition C, however, reported that they would have thought the probability was only 50% that the student would have helped and they reported little surprise that he did not. So Americans experienced surprise where Koreans did not and Koreans showed a pronounced hindsight bias, with many indicating they thought they knew something all along which in fact they did not.

Easterners are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world. Easterners’ failure to be surprised as often as they should may be a small price to pay for their greater attunement to a range of possible causal factors.

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2 thoughts on “How and why Asians and Westerners think differently (part 3)

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

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

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