The University Record, August 14, 2000

East, West cultures may see things differently, says ISR researcher

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Those from Western cultures may see this picture differently than those from Eastern cultures.
As multiculturalism comes to Main Street, and to boardrooms and classrooms around the globe, new evidence suggests that international collaborations may have unexpected advantages as well as challenges, particularly when East meets West.

Cultural differences in the way the mind works may be greater than most people suspect, according to a U-M psychologist who presented new research on culture and cognition at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.

“When you have a diverse group of people from different cultures, you get not just different beliefs about the world, but different ways of perceiving it and reasoning about it, each with its own strengths and weaknesses,” says Richard E. Nisbett, a social psychologist at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), the world’s largest academic survey and research organization.

In his presentation and an article forthcoming in Psychological Review, Nisbett discusses the substantial differences in East Asian and Western thought processes, citing experimental, historical and social evidence. His findings run counter to a longstanding psychological assumption: that the way the human mind works is universal.

“East Asian thought tends to be more holistic,” Nisbett says, “attending to the entire field, and making relatively little use of categories and formal logic. Holistic approaches emphasize change, recognize contradiction and the need for multiple perspectives, and search for the ‘Middle Way’ between opposing propositions.

“Westerners are more analytic, paying attention primarily to the object and the categories to which it belongs and using rules, including formal logic, to explain and predict its behavior.”

In study after study, Nisbett and colleagues from China, Korea and Japan have found that East Asians and Americans responded in qualitatively different ways to the same stimulus situation.

In one experiment, designed to test whether East Asians are more likely to attend to the whole while Westerners are more likely to focus on a particular object within the whole, Japanese and Americans viewed the same animated underwater scenes, then reported what they had seen.

“The first statement by Americans usually referred to a large fish in the foreground,” says Nisbett. “They would say something like, ‘There was what looked like a trout swimming to the right.’ The first statement by Japanese usually referred to background elements: ‘There was a lake or a pond.’ The Japanese made about 70 percent more statements than Americans about background aspects of the environment, and 100 percent more statements about relationships with inanimate aspects of the environment, for example, that a big fish swam past some gray seaweed.”

In another experiment, researchers found that Americans responded to contradiction by polarizing their beliefs whereas Chinese responded by moderating their beliefs. In still another study, Nisbett and colleagues found that when making predictions about how people in general could be expected to behave in a given situation, Koreans were much more likely than Americans to cite situational factors rather than personality characteristics as reasons for someone’s behavior.

Social practices and cognitive processes support or “prime” one another. For example, “the practice of feng shui for choosing building sites may encourage the idea that the factors affecting outcomes are extraordinarily complex,” he writes, “which in turn encourages the search for relationships in the field. This may be contrasted with the more atomistic and rule-based approaches to problem-solving characteristic of the West. Consider, for example, the nature of approaches to self-help in the West: ‘The Three Steps to a Comfortable Retirement’ or ‘Six Ways to Increase Your Word Power.’”

According to Nisbett, Asians move radically in an American direction after a generation or less in the United States. “But it might be a mistake to assume that it’s an easy matter to teach one culture’s tools to individuals in another without total immersion in that culture,” he says.