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02 April, 2013

West and East and How We Think

What impact does culture have on cognition? Psychologist Richard Nisbett has conducted dozens of studies to find out the answer to this question. Presented in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, the results of his study are fascinating - and their implications far reaching.
"Perception: How Germans and Chinese See Each Other"
from Yang Liu's East Meets West info graphic series.
Image Source: bsix12.com 

Several years ago I had the chance to eat lunch with a few friends from Hong Kong. None of them had been living in America for more than a few months, yet as a group their English was quite good. I do not remember exactly what it was we talked about that day, but I do remember that the longer we talked the more lively we became. To emphasize a particularly humorous point I stood up from my chair. To my surprise my friends did not laugh; they looked positivley horrified.

"What are you doing? People might look at us!"

I glanced about to see if I could find one of the ominous onlookers my friends feared so much. We were in public, but at a venue too busy for anybody to take notice of our small group. I was mystified. As with any campus commons, this one was host to scenes far more spectacular than a person who decided to stand up from his table. Nevertheless,  my friends' distress at the thought that they might be the subjects of undue attention was quite apparent, so I returned to my seat. It was neither the first nor the last time I have had reason to think "These Asians just do not think the same way I do."

The observation that people from East Asia have habits of thought distinctly different from the West is not a new one. Philosophers, anthropologists, and cultural critics have been saying as much since the twain did meet. [1] The problem with these descriptions, however, is that they - like the anecdote I shared above - are inevitably subjective. It is one thing to suggest that Westerners and Easterners think differently; it is another thing altogether to prove that they do so.

And this is where Richard Nisbett's The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently comes in handy.

Richard Nisbett approached this topic skeptically. As he notes in the introduction, "I had been a lifelong universalist concerning the nature of human thought... [I even wrote] a book with a title that made my sympathies clear -- Human Inference. Not Western inference (and certaintly not American college student inference!), but human inference" (xiv). Intrigued by the claims made by anthropologists, historians, philosophers, and his own Chinese PhD students, he sets out to discover if they are true. The Geography of Thought is the result of this effort.

"At A Party" from Yang Liu's East Meets West info graphic series. 
Not every study highlighted in Professor Nisbett's book was conducted by him, but most of these studies share a similar methodology: the psychologists conducting the experiment found tests of inference, logic, or decision making that had previously been administered to Westerners and then adapted them so they could be used to compare two different groups 1) "Asians" and 2) "Westerners."  Here is a small sampling of their remarkable findings:
  • Canadian and Japanese students were asked to to take several bogus 'creativity' tests and then given feedback on how they did on each task. When participants were given the opportunity to work on similar tasks, Canadian students worked longer if they had previously "succeeded;" Japanese students worked longer if they had "failed." (p. 56)
  • Chinese, Korean, and American students were asked to read newspaper reports about mass shootings. When asked why the killings happened, Chinese and Korean students were far more likely to blame situational factors (such as "he was isolated from the rest of his class" or  "availability of guns in the United States") while Americans were more likely to focus on the shooter's personality traits or psychological problems (such as a "suffered from severe depression" or a "political belief that guns were a legitimate means to address grievances"). (p. 112, 129).
  • Most toddlers who grow up in a European language environment learn new nouns at twice the rate at which they learn verbs. East Asian toddlers learn verbs at a faster rate than they learn nouns. (p. 149)
  • When asked to describe themselves either in particular contexts or without specifying a situation (e.g. I work very diligently on school projects, I am a loving child, or I like to cook with my friend vs. I am loving, diligent, or I like to cook ) Japanese people had difficulty describing themselves without referencing context; Americans not only preferred to describe themselves in terms of universal attributes, but many had trouble understanding the concept of describing themselves 'in context' at all. (p. 53)
  • American and Japanese students were asked to view a CGI video of a fish tank that included several fish in the foreground with bubbles, water plants, rocks, and smaller fish in the background.  They were later tested on what they remembered from the scene. Japanese students were twice as likely to remember inert, background objects. When asked to describe what they saw, Japanese students first referred to the environment ("it looked like a pond"), while Americans were three times as likely to refer to something in the foreground ("there was a big fish swimming to the left"). (p. 90)
  • A cross cultural mental health survey of a American and Asian study groups found that "feeling in control of my life" was strongly correlated with happiness for the Americans, but weakly correlated with happiness for the Asians. (p. 97)
  • When shown pictures of grass, a chicken, and a cow and then asked to select which of the three did not belong, American children were far more likely to choose the grass (because the other two are animals), while Chinese children were far more likely to choose the chicken (because the cow eats the grass). (p. 140)
  • Chinese and American students were presented with "plausible" statements that seemed to conflict but were not in true logical contradiction with each other, such as "A social psychologist studied young adults and asserted that those who feel close to their families have more satisfying social relationships" and "A developmental psychologist studied adolescents and asserted those children who had weaker family ties were generally more mature." Participants were asked to rate how "believable" one statement was before they saw the other; once they read the second statement they were to rate how believable both were. When Americans read two statements in seeming contradiction they usually rated one as much more believable than the other; when Chinese encountered the seeming contradiction they rated both statements as more believable than when they read them in isolation! (p. 182)

Particularly interesting were studies focused on well known cognitive biases. These cognitive quirks are routinely blamed for humanity's inability to act rationally. Entire realms of study - for example, behavioral economics - are devoted to studying how these types of cognitive bias affect the wider world. It was fascinating to discover that these biases are not uniformly distributed. Again, a short sampling:

  • Psychologists have presented many studies suggesting that humans operate under the illusion of control - a tendency for people to believe that they have more influence over the course of events than they really do.  Several experiments have been developed to test this. When these same tests were applied to samplings from China and America, Americans showed this bias stronger than Chinese did. (p. 101-102).
  • Another common bias well studied by social psychologists is the fundamental attribution error, also called the correspondence bias. When these tests were applied to Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and American groups, the Americans consistently demonstrated a stronger bias than the Asians (p. 120-126). On the flip side, when tested for hindsight bias, Korean test groups consistently demonstrated a stronger bias than American participants.
  • When taking the rod-and-frame test for field dependency (i.e. the ability to separate an object from its context) Chinese test subjects were remarkably more field dependent than American ones. (p. 96)
When dozens of studies of this sort are placed side by side a composite picture of the Eastern and Western mind can be drawn. Asians perceive the world as a complex, constantly changing, and interrelated whole and that is not subject to their personal control; Westerners perceive a world that can be analyzed, categorized, and divided into discrete objects whose attributes can be known and whose future can be predicted. Asians have difficulty understanding an object apart from its context; Westerners often never see the context at all. Asians see themselves as part of one larger whole. They accept hierarchy, value fitting in, and are quicker to notice the feelings of others. Westerners strive to make themselves look good and look unique. Westerners demand social equality; Easterners aim for social harmony. Asians shy away from disagreement and contradiction. Westerners revel in it. When controversy emerges Asians look for a "Middle Way" that satisfies both parties; Westerners are less willing to compromise "the truth."


"Problem Solving Approach" from Yang Liu's East Meets West infographic series.

Personal experience living and working with many Japanese, Chinese, and Cambodian individuals has confirmed all of this to me. From my own life I could draw a story to illustrate each of these points. I was delighted to find that some of the anecdotes in the book closely paralleled my own experience. But Geography of Thought is not without limitations.

 Careful readers will notice that the "East" and "West" so studied are narrower than normally defined, with East meaning "China, Korea, or Japan" (i.e. the Sinosphere) and West meaning "America, Canada, Great Britain, or Australia" (i.e. the Anglosphere). The few studies covered that do include continental Europeans suggest that human cognition cannot be boiled down to simple West/East dichotomy. When the attitudes and intuitions of developed countries are surveyed three distinct groupings emerge: the Americans, British, Canadians, and Australians had a marked 'individualist' orientation, which they shared with Scandinavians and Dutch respondents. As expected, Korean, Japanese, and Singaporean preferences were far on the other side of the scale. Most surprising was the French, Germans, Belgians, and Italians, whose preferences were intermediate between the two. (p. 63-65)


"Complexity of Self Expression" from Yang Liu's East Meets West infographic series.
This is a fatal flaw in Professor Nisbett's larger argument that the cognitive difference between East and West have deep seated historical and sociological roots. Nisbett traces Western individualism to the days of ancient Greece, yet Italy is no less a product of the classical world than Canada. The problem is  worsened by the many studies of bicultural individuals discussed in the book. When given contextual prompts that they were an encountering an "Eastern" or "Western" situation these individuals unconsciously flipped their world views and cognitive biases. (p. 67-68, 118-119, 228-229). This suggests that many of these cognitive quirks are not deeply rooted in history or socioeconomics, as Professor Nisbett suggests. [2]

Despite these weaknesses this book is an important one. The actual data presented is hard to argue with, and its implications are far ranging. To name just a few of the fields impacted by studies of this sort:

Psychology: Professor Nisbett's work is the tip of a much larger movement shaking the foundations of experimental psychology. The concerns of this movement were encapsulated in a 2010 essay for Behavioral and Brain Sciences titled "The WEIRDest people in the world?" The authors point out that almost all psychological studies published during the last 40 years reached their conclusions through the study of individuals from "Western, Educated, Industrialized, and Developed" societies. 68% of research subjects came from the United States, and of those, 67% were themselves psychology undergraduates. [3] Geography of Thought points to the problem: Americans (to say nothing of the educated ones) do not think like the rest of the world.  One cannot make broad claims about "human nature" if the only humans studied are Americans!  This takes a particularly hard toll on fields which extend the study of cognitive quirks to much larger systems, such as evolutionary psychology or behavioral economics.

History: The research presented in Geography of Thought touches on a wide variety of debates near and dear to the historical community. World historians have nearly burned themselves out debating why Western Europe was the site of the Industrial Revolution and all that came from it. Nisbett explicitly argues that Westerners' inability to accept contradiction and their penchant for reducing the world down to universal laws (as opposed to the Eastern preference for 'middle way' solutions and their implicit belief that the world is too complex to break down into parts) was at the center of the scientific revolution, a prerequisite for the 19th century industrial take off. There are problems with this approach; these arguments will remain speculative until there is evidence to prove that these cognitive differences extend into the past. Yet with this weakness conceded, culture-based habits of thought can still serve as a useful "lens" to give new perspective on tired historical debates. 

Strategy: Is there a "Chinese Way of War?" It is one of the more interesting questions posed by the emerging field of strategic studies. Many commentators have tried to answer this question through an appeal to Chinese history, strategic thought, or political theory. This is a fundamentally flawed approach. The 3,000 years of recorded Chinese history are a lot like the Bible: you can find justification for almost anything in it. The Chinese philosophical and strategic traditions (to say nothing of China's actual history!) are just as varied and diverse as the philosophical and strategic traditions of Western civilization. Pulling the 'essence' of Chinese statecraft out of the mess is not possible. A different approach is provided by the studies discussed in Geography of Thought. If the Chinese strategist acts and thinks like other Chinese, then he will be less subject to the illusion of control and have a keener eye for background detail than his Western counterparts. This will change how he creates and implements strategy. If there is a difference between the way Easterners and Westerners wage war, it may have more to do with these kind of unconscious cognitive differences than their respective literary canons. 

There are other fields (such as marketing, organizational science, public diplomacy, the nature/nurture debate, and second language learning) that can make good use of these studies. (Now I finally understand why Cambodian was such a difficult language to learn!) The studies presented in Geography of Thought are really just the beginning. This is one of the most exciting areas of research offered by modern psychology - and every other field touched by it. 


FURTHER READING:

"East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait by Yang Liu."
Rainer Falle. b-Six-12. 28 February 2013. 

All of the pictures in this post were created by Ms. Yang, a graphic artist who moved from China to Germany when she was 14. The rest of the infographics are worth seeing.

"We Are Not The World"
Ethan Watters. Pacific Standard. 25 February 2013. 

A fascinating review of cross-cultural psychology as it stands in 2013.

"Review: The Geography of Thought"
Razib Khan. GNXP. 24 August 2003.


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[1] The comparative philosopher and translator Robert T. Ames often writes on this theme. Surprisingly, his most concise summary of these ideas is not found in any of his works of comparative philosophy, but in the introduction to his translation of Sunzi's Art of War. See Robert T. Ames, trans. "The Classical Chinese World View" in The Art of Warfare (Classics of Ancient China). (New York: Ballantine Books). 1993. p. 43-64.

As for less scholarly treatments of this topic, I have never been disappointed (and often entertained) with Robert Collins. Japan-Think, Ameri-Think: An Irreverent Guide To Understanding the Cultural Differences Between Us. (New York: Penguin Books) 1992.  Few cross cultural surveys match it.

[2] Or genetics, which Nisbett never considers.

[3] Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. "The Weirdest People in the World?" Behavioral and Brain Sciences. vol. 33 (2010). p. 61-135


12 comments:

Ishaan said...

I've noticed that although most of these studies are done with East Asian vs. Western populations, many of the results could generalize to India as well - less individualism, more hierarchy, more conformist, more context driven, more consensus based, more emphasis on social bonds. I don't know much about Eastern Europe, but by my limited experience this is true for some Eastern European cultures as well.

I've always wondered why that is, since India haven't had much meaningful cultural exchange or shared cultural history with any East Asian culture.

My running hypothesis has been that these differences are less a matter of historically rooted cultural differences and more an expression of differences that naturally arise as a result of being raised agricultural, industrial, or service economy. Specifically, resource scarcity raises the value of social bonds and group cohesion.

This is the first time I am hearing about the finding that France, Germany, Italy and Belgium cluster in between the anglosphere and the sinosphere. Germany to be a service economy with very little scarcity. If the attitude surveys in question were concerning things related to group cohesion (let me know - were they?) that completely throws a wrench in my current hypothesis.

ooh...just discovered uw library has this book :D

T. Greer said...

@Ishaan-

Several years ago I highlighted a video by Devdutt Pattanik that focused on the differences between the Western worldview and the Indian "Eastern" world view. His portrayal of the "relative" Indian was, IMHO, is spot on.

"I've always wondered why that is, since India haven't had much meaningful cultural exchange or shared cultural history with any East Asian culture."

That is one way to look at it. I see the question in a different way: it is not "why are Indians and Chinese similar?" but "Why are Europeans (especially in the Anglosphere) so different?" The individualists are are the outlier. It is not just East Asia and India, but almost all of the world. Americans really are the "Weirdest."


"If the attitude surveys in question were concerning things related to group cohesion (let me know - were they?)"

That is exactly what they were about. Here are a few of the questions:

"Do you prefer: a) jobs in which personal initiatives are encouraged and individual initiatives are achieved; or b) jobs in which no one is singled out for personal honor, but in which everyone works together."

""Is it important for a manager to be older than his subordinates? Should older people be more respected, or is respect the result of hard work?"

"If there is no reason to expect that performance will improve, should [a poorly performing employee who worked excellently for 15 years, then poorly for 1] be a) released on the grounds that job performance should remain the grounds of dismissal b) it is wrong to disregard the fifteen years the employee has been working for the company?"

The survey was given to business managers, thus many of the questions related to management. Apparently they have published some of their results in a book called Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business

The results suggest that continental Europe is closer to the Anglosphere than East Asia, but still intermediate.

As a final thought - I would be very interested in cross cultural studies of India, East Asia, and Southeast Asia. Personal observation suggests that there are some very basic differences in how the groups view the world: Indians have a much higher tolerance for diversity and showiness than their East Asian counterparts, whilst East Asians are far more obsessed with not losing face. I also suspect that Indians are even more context based than the East Asians are. But I do not have data to prove that, just subjective opinion.

One reason I would love to see this type of data is the light it would shed on the question of Indianization. Cambodia and Thailand trace their higher culture to India; Vietnam traces its higher culture (and many elements of popular culture) to China. Yet, in my experience, people from both countries act, react, and understand new concepts in a very similar manner. It makes me think that "Indianization" or "Sinicization" in Southeast Asia was more cosmetic than real, part of the higher culture but never reaching the level of cognition.

But that is just speculation. The studies that would prove this hypothesis one way or another have not been conducted yet.

Ishaan said...

"The individualists are the outlier"

Well, my notion was that WEIRDness stems from education (especially literacy), lack of scarcity, and other features of information economies. Yes, Individualists are outliers...but I had chalked that up to western levels of education and wealth being global outliers.

Basically, I thought uncommonly high education / wealth results in uncommon culture. I thought that as education and resources increase, individualism increases as well, and that this was a process which could happen in any country.

I'm reconsidering that notion now. Why should Germany/France be any less individualist than USA/Britain/Australia? I'm not really sure how to explain that.

One counterpoint to your speculation - Western culture has to some extent impacted the Indian film industry. I don't think it's a stretch to say that film Westernizes Indians in some small ways. Couldn't Indianization/Sinicization work in similar ways?

T. Greer said...

@Ishaan-

"Basically, I thought uncommonly high education / wealth results in uncommon culture. I thought that as education and resources increase, individualism increases as well, and that this was a process which could happen in any country. "

The "We Are Not the World" article placed in the "further reading" section of my post discusses some of the differences between industrialized and agrarian minds. They ascribe these differences to the environments in which children grow up - more 'natural' and what not.

"Western culture has to some extent impacted the Indian film industry. I don't think it's a stretch to say that film Westernizes Indians in some small ways. Couldn't Indianization/Sinicization work in similar ways?"

That is exactly how it could work. But has it worked that way? This is the question this type of research could answer. It could apply to 'Americanization' as well - conservative Hindutvavadis might decry the Westernization of the Indian pop culture, but is it affecting Indian culture (and cognition) writ large? It is a fascinating question that deserves to be researched.

LFC said...

Re Nisbett's argument about the Scientific Revolution as conveyed in the post:

One need not be an historian of science to find this dubious in the extreme. What about Chinese and esp. Islamic achievements in mathematics, e.g., long before the scientific revolution? And I'm reasonably sure there were 'Eastern' achievements in the experimental sciences too, though I don't much about that.

The European scientific revolution of the 17th cent. was no doubt 'caused' by various factors, as was the Industrial Rev., but to draw simple causal arrows thus:


psychological traits -> scientific revolution -> industrial revolution

is absurdly simplistic, as you suggest in the post though you don't put it that strongly.

The problem is partly that he is a psychologist, I gather, and thus not v. conversant presumably with the enormous literature on the 'divergence' of the West from the 'rest', for which the key period is the 'long' 19th cent. (and which divergence is now of course being narrowed substantially).

The closest affinity to Nisbett in the social scientific /historical literature is probably 'culturalist' explanations along the lines of Landes, 'Wealth and Poverty of Nations' (which I've not read). But this is a minority view, I think. More common is some form of 'institutionalist' explanation where the focus is on 'unique' (or allegedly unique) Eur. insts., whether parliamentarism, capitalism, strong states of a particular kind, or etc.

LFC said...

correction 1st paragraph:
don't know much about that

T. Greer said...

@LFC-

"What about Chinese and esp. Islamic achievements in mathematics, e.g., long before the scientific revolution?"

He addresses the issue, though not in great depth. He poses as one of his opening questions:

"Why would the ancient Chinese have excelled at algebra and arithmetic but not geometry, which was the forte of the Greeks? Why do modern Asians excel at math and science but produce less in the way of revolutionary science than Westerners?" (xix).

And then again on the differences between the intellectual heritage of each tradition:

"Except for this brief interlude [the philosopher Mozi] the Chinese lacked not only logic, but even a principle of contradiction. India did have a strong logical tradition, but the Chinese translations of Indian texts were full of errors and misunderstandings. Although Chinese made substantial advances in algebra and arithmetic, they made little progress in geometry because proofs rely on formal logic, especially the notion of contradiction. (Algebra did not become deductive until Descartes. Our educational system retains the memory trace of their separation by teaching algebra and geometry as separate subjects).

The Greeks were deeply concerned with foundational arguments in mathematics. Other peoples had recipes; only the Greeks had derivations. On the other hand, Greek logic and foundational concern may have presented as many obstacles as opportunities. The Greeks never developed the concept of zero, which is required both for algebra and for a Arabic style number system. Zero was considered by he Greeks, but rejected on the grounds that it represented contradiction... and understanding of zero, as well as of infinity and infinitesimals, ultimately had to be imported from the East." (p. 26)

Then one last relevant passage:

"Easterners are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place [that cannot be truly modeled]. ...On the other hand, it seems fairly clear that simple models are the most useful ones -- at least in science -- because they're easier to disprove and consequently to improve upon. Most of Aristotle;s physical propositions have turned out to be demonstrably false. But Aristotle had testable propositions about the World and the Chinese did not. It was the Westerners who established what correct principles are. The Chinese may have understood the principle of action at a distance, but they had no means of proving it. When it was proved true, it was by Western scientists actually trying to establish that all motion was of the billiard ball type [which is incorrect]." (p. 134)

So the way he sees it - if I am reading him correctly - is that the Western 'analytic, non-dialetical' mind had an easier time formulating proofs and laws. The Chinese were brilliant but practical. They did not try to create universal laws that could be separated from context and thus had trouble creating a real "scientific method."

He says very little about Arabs in general. This is prob. because he has no studies about them. I suspect, however, that their cognitive quirks are closer to continental Europeans than they are East Asians. I have always found it strange that they get placed on the 'East' side of the East/West divide.

LFC said...

Thanks for the passages. I think he is saying on p.134 pretty much what you suggest. Hard to judge a book on the basis of excerpts, of course, so I'll refrain from further comment on this pt.

Your post was interesting: I think many of his experimental results that you report conform to the somewhat expected Sinosphere=more community/group- oriented/contextual, Anglosphere=more individualistic.

Except for the noun/verb thing, which may have to do w the structure of the languages -- not sure.

One other note of caution I would enter is that his experimental subjects are apparently (as one would expect) mostly univ. students. One has to be a *bit* wary of generalizing from that pop., it seems to me, though this is not a major pt.

swisspenelope said...

I was relieved that you made reference to "The WEIRDest people on Earth" in this interesting article.

As an English-speaker who has lived in South Africa, the UK, Ireland and Switzerland, I find most of the discourse about "East-West cultural differences" surreal, precisely because they assume the Western norm is the individualistic, over-confident seeker for the easiest answer to everything. Maybe it's my German roots and Swiss everyday life, but I find many, many things about this kind of "Western" (mostly English-speaking) viewpoint detestable. For this reason - among others - I would not want to live in the USA or UK any time soon.

There is a kind of "screw everyone else, I'm the only one who matters" ethos which is a mainstream attitude in the English-speaking world, yet in the parts of Europe I have lived in and visited, is considered terribly stupid and immature. Some people in Europe certainly live by this belief, but they are likely to hide it and pretend greater empathy. In the US no one even bothers to pretend - this attitude is considered perfectly acceptable.

As for verb/noun thing, this may be related to the specific languages studied. In 25 years of living my daily life in French, I see all the time how spoken English is far more verb-based than spoken French, which is heavy on nouns, specially abstract nouns. Example: E: "Do not lean out the window." F: "Interdiction de se pencher dehors."

T. Greer said...

1. I suppose it is all a matter of taste. I have not had nearly as many meaningful interactions with Europeans as SwissPenelope, so I can make no judgements there. But at sundry times and places I have had daily and/or continual interactions with East Asia, Southeast Asians, Indians, and Latin Americans. There are certain things about the American psyche (and to a certain extent, the Latin American psyche) I much prefer - the Eastern obsession with 'losing face' is entirely off putting to me, and the way in which so many Asians refuse to tell you hard truths or even say anything that might be seen as leading to conflict is wearisome. (And I have never liked Karaoke parties!)

But that is coming from a particularly blunt, theatrical American (who prefers to dance), so take that how you will.


I think Alexis de Tocqueville was right when he said that America's individualism was her greatest strength and her most frightening curse. Tocqueville noted that America's individualism was channeled (or tempered, depending how you look at it) through a huge array of social causes, clubs, and associations that did things Europeans of his day could not really imagine. The last few generations have by and large abandoned this decentralized, frenzied, civic life. Individualism's benefits are gone, but the curse remains.

2. Nisbett devotes an entire chapter to the "Verb/Noun" idea. I wanted to talk about it more, but my review was long as it was and I was afraid I would never finish it, so I cut this part out. I found this to be one of the most interesting parts of the book, partly because I have studied Chinese and speak functional Cambodian, and so was able to assess his analysis "from the inside." Basically, he discusses how many of these cognitive biases and attitudes seem to be built into the languages. (For example: many Asian languages - Cambodian for example - do not have a word for "I." The word used to refer to oneself changes depending on who you are talking to. Linguistically you exist only in relation to others.) The noun/verb distinction is another interesting example of this: nouns are discrete objects. Verbs are words that describe what one thing is doing to, for, or with another. Nouns exist independent of other words; verbs take their meaning from context. Is it an accident that speakers of Western languages are more object-focused than East Asians and that speakers of East Asian languages think more contextually than Westerners?

George Orwell created "Newspeak" for the dystopian society of his novel 1984, suggesting that if a totalitarian government could change the words of a language then they could also change the way in which people think. A similar idea is given here. Perhaps the reasons East Asians and Europeans think differently is because they speak differently.

Anonymous said...

"Easterners aim for social harmony. Asians shy away from disagreement and contradiction. Westerners revel in it."

With all the political correctness, I'm not sure if this is true.

Anonymous said...

the book sets out with wrong assumptions, or more accurately a cursory look at history. first India had a profound effect on Asia because of Buddhism, it is very difficult to say that people like the Chinese would think differently from Europeans without such an effect. there are those who strongly argue that Greek philosophy itself was started because of the Persian empire linking the Greek and Indian worlds together during Cyrus the greats time and fragmentary texts stating that the Greeks themselves credited Indian philosophers. so again without Greek philosophy it is still unlikely that the majority of Europeans would be very different from middle eastern cultures in their thought processes given Christianity.

last, the book leaves out a fundamental part of thinking, deductive and inductive logic. while India came up with and primarily uses inductive logic, Europe only used deductive logic until the introduction of Indian mathematic systems during the Muslim period in Europe. so at the very least maybe a more precise book should be written asking how similar Europe, the Middle East and East Asia would be if India did not exist.