The cognitive fallacy of East is East and West is West

New Scientist has an excellent article on East-West psychological differences and why they may be more to do with local lifestyle than broad cultural generalisations.

Experiments that compare the responses of, for example, Americans and East Asians, are often used to support theories that Westerners have an analytical, individualistic world-view, while Easterners have a holistic, collectivist outlook.

This has been reported in studies that have compared how Westerners and Easterners categorise objects (shared features vs functional relationships), reasoning about causes for people’s behaviour (individual state of mind vs social situation) and, most famously in recent years, how people view visual scenes (focus on objects vs focus on background).

However, the NewSci article discusses a number of studies suggesting that these differences may not be to be with broad cultural definitions but to do with the lifestyle of the local population. In fact, these exact same differences can be found within both Eastern and Western cultures.

So it’s not all that surprising, perhaps, that other studies find that local and current social factors rather than the broad sweeps of history or geography tend to shape the way a particular society thinks. For example, Nisbett’s group recently compared three communities living in Turkey’s Black Sea region who share the same language, ethnicity and geography but have different social lives: farmers and fishers live in fixed communities and their trades require extensive cooperation, while herders are more mobile and independent.

He found that the farmers and fishers were more holistic in their psychology than herders, being more likely to group objects based on their relationships rather than their categories: they preferred to link gloves with hands rather than with scarves, for instance (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol 105, p 8552). A similar mosaic pattern of thought can be found in the east. “Hokkaido is seen as the Wild West of Japan,” says Nisbett. “The citizens are regarded as cowboys – highly independent and individualistic – and sure enough, they’re more analytic in their cognitive style than mainland Japanese.”

Even more surprisingly, the article describes how these same cognitive tendencies are malleable – they can be changed in individuals by simply priming them with individualistic or collectivist concepts.

The article is a thought-provoking challenge to the East – West psychological stereotypes common in both the popular press and the scientific literature and discusses some intriguing studies I was completely unaware of.

By the way, the author is Ed Yong, who writes the Not Exactly Rocket Science blog we often link to.

An excellent article that is highly recommended.

Link to ‘Beyond east and west: How the brain unites us all’.

3 Comments

  1. Posted March 5, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the kudos Vaughan – much appreciated. Writing that article took a horrendous amount of work and much background reading, and obviously the topic’s quite controversial so I’m glad you think it worked out in the end!

  2. Posted March 5, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    That’s really interesting. It doesn’t sound to me like it contradicts earlier studies as much as it goes further by uncovering the underlying social differences that lead to these different cognitive styles and how they can vary within much smaller regions. And as a happy coincidence, my husband and I are both avid readers of Not Exactly Rocket Science.

  3. Posted March 6, 2009 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    Vaughan, I disagree. You may like to check my post on the same. the link is http://the-mouse-trap.blogspot.com/2009/03/cultural-differences-are-vodoo.html


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