Review: “The Geography of Thought”

March 5, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThe Geography of Thought
Richard E. Nisbett

Comparisons are odious if you’re a Westerner so this book might rub the wrong way, but from an Asian perspective it is a very confirming body of work. And that coincides with the first observation of the book which is that, to a Westerner especially an American (and probably more so a Californian), individual choice and self-determination is the defining factor of the human experience. While to the Asian citizen, context is everything. This is not a new insight so the book seems a little dry and academic, but the actual studies that confirm this opening premise pin down what might before be taken for gross stereotypes. Mention is also made of how Europeans tend to fall in between the two and so do American women when given a choice. Bicultural people can be persuaded to go either way depending on what context comes before.

The first of these studies show how East and West actually see differently. Americans identified an individual fish in a picture as the same fish in different pictures no matter what the background was, while their Asian counterpart were likely to identify it as a different fish when it appeared against a different background. Numerous other tests also show that Asians tend to attribute the motivation of said fish to external circumstance, while Americans give the fish internal reasons. Thus the fish are seen to want to behave a certain way. This leads Americans to fall for the “fundamental attribution error”—assuming people given certain characteristics when introduced will behave a certain way, while Asians will be more likely to look for situational clues to how a person will behave. This has all been confirmed for me in my own bicultural experience.

It also pointed out to me my aversion to the tools of Western self-determination such as the popular use of goal setting and “visioning” the future you want for yourself as if you (and your immediate family) was all that needed to be dialed into such strategic planning. Rarely is the thought “for the greater good of all” featured in these goal planning sessions. That is seen as a spiritual factor while in Asia much more thought is given to a social interdependence.

I was also amused by the Asian neglect of categories, prompting Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer, to create categories more reflecting of a Chinese emphasis on relationship. Thus he tells us that in the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge the following classifications of animals appears: “a) those that belong to the emperor, b) embalmed ones, c) those that are trained, d) suckling pigs, e) mermaids, f) fabulous ones, g) stray dogs, h) those that are included in this classification, i) those that tremble as if they were mad, k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, l) others, m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies at a distance.”

Of greater interest to me, was the way the two cultures see change. Americans are far less likely to predict radical change and to assume that things will continue as they have been doing, while Asians are more likely to predict change in the opposite direction especially if there has been an acceleration. For instance, if the economy is experiencing mega growth, the Chinese are likely to expect a reversal in fortune, while the Americans expect more of the same.

It was suggested that I read this book because I was looking for a Western proclivity for apocalypse fever. My conclusion after reading it is that change is simply scarier for the Westerner, while in Asia, change is so much the expected norm that it is taken in stride. I would add that Americans tend to spin out their horror far into the future or, as one therapist I know puts it, to awful-ize a situation. Watching Bangkok friends and family face the recent flood crisis with a remarkable amount of equanimity confirmed this for me.

In the arena of argument and debate in social discourse, I well knew the assessment of my mother of why the Thais were unwilling to engage in discourse that might be viewed as confrontational. They were unwilling to rock the boat, she said, because they suffered from a village mentality. This, thankfully, is now an outdated psychological view of the question, but when I first heard the phrase “village mentality” it made me wary of the entire body of Western intellectual thought. It’s no wonder I barely made it through any form of higher education.

The author, Richard E. Nisbett a social psychologists, comes with impressive credentials, but has a humble approach and appreciation of the difference in perspective between East and West. He traces the two different thought processes back to the Ancient Greeks for classical Western thought construction and to the philosophies of the Tao for informing social discourse in the East.

The Greeks made popular the concept that things could be analyzed and broken down into their component parts, then reassembled. In this manner they gave logic precedence and forbid contradictions. While in the East, contradictions were embraced in an attempt to transcend them and resolve them in a dialectical fashion. Since, it is assumed that change is constant thus creating ongoing, new sets of contradictions, everything is seen to depend on relationships and context. It isn’t seen as a valuable exercise to take things out of context because everything is seen as interdependent. Because of their proclivity for taking things out of context to test them against a hypothesis, Westerners got a leg up on scientific studies (while Asians I’ll conclude became adept at looking for the Middle Way).

From studying martial arts I have developed the ability to face conflict, and through intellectual appetite and the British love of language, I have learned to knock back a good debate as well as the next Westerner. But I am doing it out of self-defense while my American partners seem to engage in argument for the pure fun of it. In a group I tend not to attach myself to any one stand, preferring to step back and comment on why each person is choosing that particular perspective. That way I get my Eastern preference for context plus non-attachment to outcome. (But if someone really steps on my toes, especially if they are using sloppy assumptions, I tend to come down on them hard because I am not forgiving of it in a sportsmanlike way.)

The author having illustrated the pointlessness of dualistic thinking, does not make any conclusions about nature vs. nurture, but does seem to weigh in heavily on culture and upbringing having produced this difference. Interesting details of the difference in child rearing also investigated. The Eastern mother introduces a toy to her child while teaching about it’s relationship to it and the impact of his/her actions on others while playing with it, while the Western mother teaches hers to name the toy and learn its use.

In his conclusion he suggests the world is not so much becoming more Western, but more likely the two perspectives are converging. Published in 2003.

Amanda Kovattana

Amanda Kovattana's book, The Girls Guide To Off-Grid Living, is available from Amazon in both hard copy and as an ebook. As might be expected, the book is self-published - yet another off-grid adventure as she learned to format and work with this new publishing technology. In her previous book, Diamonds In My Pocket, Kovattana came to terms with her mixed race heritage and  the three cultures that formed her: England, the country of  her birth; Thailand, the country of her childhood; and finally the U.S., the country of her coming of age and journey to resilience. (Reviewed at Resilience.)

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior