31 July 2007

'The Geography of Thought' by Richard Nisbett (2003)

The Geography of Thought
I found this book among the remainders the other day, and I’m glad I picked it up. It’s an exploration of the differing perspectives and thought processes between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ (actually looking at data for Americans, Europeans, and East Asians). It’s an easy read, but seems grounded in real science, referring to multiple studies that point out these differences.

Very broadly, in the West people are more ‘object-oriented’; they identify objects, think about the properties of the object, and think of objects essentially as stand-alone (objects certainly includes people as well). In the East there’s apparently much more tendency to see ‘the field’; a set of related things in a certain context, where the individual objects have less distinct identity and more context-dependent behavior. These distinctive ways of seeing the world apparently start at a very early age.

I find such work very interesting, because it can help you identify some of your own cognitive biases, and just may help you to understand other ways of seeing the world.

Here’s a lengthy review that provides more details on the book.

Update: A few more interesting distinctions (note that these are all simply tendencies that are not followed by all members of the group, and through priming can be encouraged or discouraged):

Westerners: tendency to categorize, use either/or, right/wrong distinctions, and think of objects as having static properties (thus less likely to predict change).

Asians: tendency to focus on context and relationships, social importance on harmonious relations, less debate and rhetoric, more comfort with contradiction and complexity, more likely to see change as possible due to shifting contexts.

Nisbett also notes some interesting differences in culture that seem to flow from these different ways of seeing things; for instance, the preponderance of lawyers in the West vs. the East, the notion of holistic medicine in the East, the lack of scientific breakthroughs from the East.