How Asians and Westerners Think Differently

Thursday, June 5th, 2014

Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought explores how Asians and Westerners think differently:

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)

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