How Culture Molds Habits of Thought
August 08, 2000
By Erica Goode
For more than a century, Western philosophers and psychologists have based their discussions of mental life on a cardinal assumption: that the same basic processes underlie all human thought, whether in the mountains of Tibet or the grasslands of the Serengeti.
Cultural differences might dictate what people thought about.
Teenage boys in Botswana, for example, might discuss cows with the
same passion that New York teenagers reserved for sports cars.
But the habits of thought -- the strategies people adopted in
processing information and making sense of the world around them --
were, Western scholars assumed, the same for everyone, exemplified
by, among other things, a devotion to logical reasoning, a
penchant for categorization and an urge to understand situations
and events in linear terms of cause and effect.
Recent work by a social psychologist at the University of
Michigan, however, is turning this long-held view of mental
functioning upside down..
In a series of studies comparing European Americans to East
Asians, Dr. Richard Nisbett and his colleagues have found that
people who grow up in different cultures do not just think about
different things: they think differently.
"We used to think that everybody uses categories in the same way,
that logic plays the same kind of role for everyone in the
understanding of everyday life, that memory, perception, rule
application and so on are the same," Dr. Nisbett said. "But we're
now arguing that cognitive processes themselves are just far more
malleable than mainstream psychology assumed."
A summary of the research will be published next winter in the
journal Psychological Review, and Dr. Nisbett discussed the
findings Sunday at the annual meetings of the American
Psychological Association in Washington.
In many respects, the cultural disparities the researchers
describe mirror those described by anthropologists, and may seem
less than surprising to Americans who have lived in Asia. And Dr.
Nisbett and his colleagues are not the first psychological
researchers to propose that thought may be embedded in cultural
assumptions: Soviet psychologists of the 1930's posed logic
problems to Uzbek peasants, arguing that intellectual tools were
influenced by pragmatic circumstances.
But the new work is stirring interest in academic circles because
it tries to define and elaborate on cultural differences through a
series of tightly controlled laboratory experiments. And the theory
underlying the research challenges much of what has been
considered gospel in cognitive psychology for the last 40 years.
"If it's true, it turns on its head a great deal of the science
that many of us have been doing, and so it's sort of scary and
thrilling at the same time," said Dr. Susan Andersen, a professor
of psychology at New York University and an associate editor at
In the broadest sense, the studies -- carried out in the United
States, Japan, China and Korea -- document a familiar division.
Easterners, the researchers find, appear to think more
"holistically," paying greater attention to context and
relationship, relying more on experience-based knowledge than
abstract logic and showing more tolerance for contradiction.
Westerners are more "analytic" in their thinking, tending to
detach objects from their context, to avoid contradictions and to
rely more heavily on formal logic.
In one study, for example, by Dr. Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda, a
graduate student at Michigan, students from Japan and the United
States were shown an animated underwater scene, in which one larger
"focal" fish swam among smaller fishes and other aquatic life.
Asked to describe what they saw, the Japanese subjects were much
more likely to begin by setting the scene, saying for example,
"There was a lake or pond" or "The bottom was rocky," or "The
water was green." Americans, in contrast, tended to begin their
descriptions with the largest fish, making statements like "There
was what looked like a trout swimming to the right."
Over all, Japanese subjects in the study made 70 percent more
statements about aspects of the background environment than
Americans, and twice as many statements about the relationships
between animate and inanimate objects. A Japanese subject might
note, for example, that "The big fish swam past the gray seaweed."
"Americans were much more likely to zero in on the biggest fish,
the brightest object, the fish moving the fastest," Dr. Nisbett
said. "That's where the money is as far as they're concerned."
But the greater attention paid by East Asians to context and
relationship was more than just superficial, the researchers
found. Shown the same larger fish swimming against a different,
novel background, Japanese participants had more difficulty
recognizing it than Americans, indicating that their perception was
intimately bound with their perception of the background scene.
When it came to interpreting events in the social world, the
Asians seemed similarly sensitive to context, and quicker than the
Americans to detect when people's behavior was determined by
Psychologists have long documented what they call the fundamental
attribution error, the tendency for people to explain human
behavior in terms of the traits of individual actors, even when
powerful situational forces are at work. Told that a man has been
instructed to give a speech endorsing a particular presidential
candidate, for example, most people will still believe that the
speaker believes what he is saying.
Yet Asians, according to Dr. Nisbett and his colleagues, may in
some situations be less susceptible to such errors, indicating
that they do not describe a universal way of thinking, but merely
the way that Americans think.
In one study, by Dr. Nisbett and Incheol Choi, of Seoul National
University in Korea, the Korean and American subjects were asked
to read an essay either in favor of or opposed to the French
conducting atomic tests in the Pacific. The subjects were told
that the essay writer had been given "no choice" about what to
But subjects from both cultures still showed a tendency to "err,"
judging that the essay writers believed in the position endorsed
in the essays.
When the Korean subjects were first required to undergo a similar
experience themselves, writing an essay according to
instructions, they quickly adjusted their estimates of how
strongly the original essay writers believed what they wrote. But
Americans clung to the notion that the essay writers were
expressing sincere beliefs.
One of the most striking dissimilarities found by the researchers
emerged in the way East Asians and Americans in the studies
responded to contradiction. Presented with weaker arguments
running contrary to their own, Americans were likely to solidify
their opinions, Dr. Nisbett said, "clobbering the weaker
arguments," and resolving the threatened contradiction in their own
minds. Asians, however, were more likely to modify their own
position, acknowledging that even the weaker arguments had some
In one study, for example, Asian and American subjects were
presented with strong arguments in favor of financing a research
project on adoption. A second group was presented both with
strong arguments in support of the project and weaker arguments
Both Asian and American subjects in the first group expressed
strong support for the research. But while Asian subjects in the
second group responded to the weaker opposing arguments by
decreasing their support, American subjects actually increased
their endorsement of the project in response to the opposing
In a series of studies, Dr. Nisbett and Dr. Kaiping Peng of the
University of California at Berkeley found that Chinese subjects
were less eager to resolve contradictions in a variety of
situations than American subjects. Asked to analyze a conflict
between mothers and daughters, American subjects quickly came
down in favor of one side or the other. Chinese subjects were more
likely to see merit on both sides, commenting, for example, that,
"Both the mothers and the daughters have failed to understand each
Given a choice between two different types of philosophical
argument, one based on analytical logic, devoted to resolving
contradiction, the other on a dialectical approach, accepting of
contradiction, Chinese subjects preferred the dialectical
approach, while Americans favored the logical arguments. And
Chinese subjects expressed more liking than Americans for proverbs
containing a contradiction, like the Chinese saying "Too modest is
half boastful." American subjects, Dr. Nisbett said, found such
contradictions "rather irritating."
Dr. Nisbett and Dr. Ara Norenzayan of the University of Illinois
have also found indications that when logic and experiential
knowledge are in conflict, Americans are more likely than Asians
to adhere to the rules of formal logic, in keeping with a
tradition that in Western societies began with the Ancient Greeks.
For example, presented with a logical sequence like, "All animals
with fur hibernate. Rabbits have fur. Therefore rabbits
hibernate," the Americans, the researchers found, were more
likely to accept the validity of the argument, separating its
formal structure, that of a syllogism, from its content, which
might or might not be plausible. Asians, in contrast, more
frequently judged such syllogisms as invalid based on their
implausibility -- not all animals with fur do in fact hibernate.
While the cultural disparities traced in the researchers' work
are substantial, their origins are much less clear. Historical
evidence suggests that a divide between Eastern and Occidental
thinking has existed at least since ancient times, a tradition of
adversarial debate, formal logical argument and analytic deduction
flowering in Greece, while in China an appreciation for context
and complexity, dialectical argument and a tolerance for the "yin
and yang" of life flourished.
How much of this East-West difference is a result of differing
social and religious practices, different languages or even
different geography is anyone's guess. But both styles, Dr.
Nisbett said, have advantages, and both have limitations. And
neither approach is written into the genes: Asian-Americans, born
in the United States, are indistinguishable in their modes of
thought from European-Americans.
Dr. Alan Fiske, an associate professor of anthropology at the
University of California at Los Angeles, said that experimental
research like Dr. Nisbett's "complements a lot of ethnographic
work that has been done."
"Anthropologists have been describing these cultures and this can
tell you a lot about everyday life and the ways people talk and
interact," Dr. Fiske said. "But it's always difficult to know how
to make sense of these qualitative judgments, and they aren't
controlled in the same way that an experiment is controlled."
Yet not everyone agrees that all the dissimilarities described by
Dr. Nesbitt and his colleagues reflect fundamental differences in
Dr. Patricia Cheng, for example, a professor of psychology at the
University of California at Los Angeles, said that many of the
researchers' findings meshed with her own experience. "Having
grown up in a traditional Chinese family and also being in Western
culture myself," she said, "I do see some entrenched habits of
interpretation of the world that are different across the
cultures, and they do lead to pervasive differences."
But Dr. Cheng says she thinks that some differences -- the Asian
tolerance for contradiction, for example -- are purely social.
"There is not a difference in logical tolerance," she said.
Still, to the extent that the studies reflect real differences in
thinking and perception, psychologists may have to radically
revise their ideas about what is universal and what is not, and
to develop new models of mental process that take cultural
influences into account.
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