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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #28 (July 8-14, 2003), page 11.

Aristotle vs. Confucius, no holds-barred

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why

By Richard E. Nisbett

The Free Press, 2003

Hardcover, 288 pages, $24.00

By Polo

While every commentator from Kublai Khan’s inscrutable court scribe right up to every elder auntie who’s ever elbowed a rib and whispered into an ear has known it, has conformed his or herself to accommodate it until the barbarian retreats, Richard E. Nisbett has put the unbashful numbers of quantitative research behind the old-old proposition that Westerners and Easterners are different. Very different. Fundamentally so.

The contrasts between present-day European and Asian societies, writes the University of Michigan professor and psychologist, are evidence of different, sometimes even contrary cultural orientations. Professor Nesbitt then brings in the machinery of modern science to prove his point. He argues persuasively, supported by perceptual and cognitive research data, that the reasons underlying our often different social results are actual differences in how Easterners and Westerners think — indeed, the causes for our differences can be mapped to neurological processes occurring at the most fundamental level — the human brain.

Dr. Nisbett admits that, until recently, he "had been a lifelong universalist concerning the nature of human thought" — that is, a believer presuming a priori that the human brain-box is everywhere essentially the same. If people and cultures differ in outputs — thoughts, behaviors, human organization — it is simply on account of differing inputs. The universalist thinking of British empiricists from David Hume and John Locke to modern American cognitive scientists goes something like this: since the primary CPU has always been the same, and is everywhere the same, so too must be the processes whereby all people come to conclusions about our world of creatures and events.

It has been a comforting thought. It has been a tragic intellectual tradition.

British Imperialists actually believed Indians, Malays, Iraqis would become culturally British if only they had enough British inputs. American believers really convinced themselves that Filipinos, Japanese, Iraqis would become essentially American if we just surrounded them with enough American stimuli.

Professor Nisbett’s comparative studies include research he and his students conducted at the University of Michigan, at Beijing University, Kyoto University, Seoul National University, and at the Chinese Institute of Psychology. The results of his work demonstrate "that there are dramatic differences in the nature of Asian and European thought processes."

"The evidence lends support," Dr. Nesbitt goes on to say, "to the claims of nonpsychologist scholars" (and, we might add, elder aunties) that East and West actually see, mentally organize, emotionally evaluate, and behaviorally respond in ways that are organically, and therefore fundamentally, different.

Professor Nisbett’s work is particularly urgent in our times, given the United States’ current temptation for unilateral over-reaching in a world not universally welcoming of American social styles or political habits.

In his tidily organized, carefully documented, and easily digestible summary of his important body of work, Professor Nisbett addresses, among other relevant issues:

w why Asians are better able to see relationships among events, where Westerners see actors as primary causes for things happening;

w why Westerners are likely to overlook the influence of context on behavior;

w why Western children learn nouns (names for things) first, while Asians learn verbs (interaction) earlier;

w why Westerners rely on logic when reasoning about daily events, and how is it that Asians can hold any number of contrary propositions at the same time.

While these findings are inherently interesting, and will prove unfailingly fun for excited kitchen table-talk, Professor Nesbitt’s conclusions have profound import for the fractious world we have to share, East and West.

"The societal differences are sufficiently great," Professor Nesbitt concludes, "that future international conflicts will be more nearly cultural in origin than economic or political.…"

"Islam," Dr. Nesbitt notes, "… and the West are on divergent cultural paths … the relative influence of the West, because of the economic advances of the Far East and the demographic growth of Islam, is going to decline. The world is not necessarily going to be safe for democracy and free markets."

What a relief it is, to have Dr. Nesbitt say it. Finally. His big "yikes" has of course, been our elder aunties’ big "duh."

More than just posing our inevitable quandary, however, Professor Nesbitt leaves us an option — either one side deliberately destroys its counterpart, or we accept our deep differences, embrace his research, and manage the dynamic in a way best serving our precious planet. This may sound like Lao Tze, it may be old hat, but Western monotheism is not a lot prettier.


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