Orienting the East


In 1944, the eminent Chinese anthropologist and sociologist Fei Xiaotang accepted an offer from the State Department to spend a year working in the United States. Fei’s stint began with all of the excitement and wonder promised by this still-rising star among nations, but as the months drew on he grew exhausted with the fidgety, restless nature that outlined every feature of American life. He returned to China wiser and more attuned to American customs, but thankful that they were not his own: “American children hear no stories about ghosts. They spend a dime at the drugstore to buy a Superman comic book. . . . Superman represents actual capabilities or future potential, while ghosts symbolize belief in and reverence for the accumulated past. How could ghosts gain a foothold in American cities? People move like the tide, unable to form permanent ties with places, still less with other people. . . . In a world without ghosts, life is free and easy. American eyes can gaze straight ahead. But still I think they lack something and I do not envy their life.”

Fei’s ennui would lead to a complete turnabout in thought as he went from a fascinated student of American culture to a strident critic. But rather than causing us to write him off as someone who, say, hates us for our freedom, Fei’s comments suggest deeper assumptive differences. University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett explores the psychological dimension of this gap in his new book, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why (Free Press). “The Easterner lives in a very complex social world where role relations are much more important than in the West,” he explains over the phone from his office in Ann Arbor. “The person is literally a different person if they’re taken out of their web of relationships. That’s just not the attitude in the West—in the West, I’m a bundle of attributes. What I am is my wants, needs, traits, and abilities. I am a package of those things, and I am that package regardless of the social milieu in which I find myself.”

Geography rests on a simple premise: Due to a variety of socio-historical factors, Asians (defined as those from China, Korea, and Japan) and Westerners (defined as people of European culture, but mostly focusing on Americans) possess different cognitive approaches to understanding their place in the world and solving problems. Asians approach the world with a holistic, field-oriented sensibility, paying careful mind to an object or act’s web of relations and context; Westerners are more object-oriented, training their eye on that object or act’s prominence and often slighting the surrounding field.

All of these distinctions trickle down to individual self-perception and mark the different approaches Easterners and Westerners may have to solving problems. According to Nisbett, deference toward field relations and interconnectedness allows Asians to find meaning or peace in contradiction. The stubborn primacy of the individual in Western thinking lends itself to ideas of control, and as a result it’s more difficult for a Westerner to leave contradiction alone.

“In the individualistic West, you have the luxury of paying attention just to your relationship to some object or to your own goals, so the social field and physical field become less important,” he says. Westerners have a sense of personal control. To the extent there is a feeling of control, it’s in league with other people—I have to do this in some sort of harmonious set of relations with other people, I can’t just go off like a cowboy.”

The idea for Nisbett’s work came from one of his Chinese graduate students, Kaiping Peng. Peng, who now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, believed that there were fundamental differences in the way he and his adviser understood the world, gaps that couldn’t be reconciled by culture, religion, or history, but rather through a re-examination of cognition and epistemology. Nisbett explains: “He would propose an experiment to do, and I would say, ‘But nobody thinks the way you say the Chinese do,’ and I always turned out to be wrong.”

Nisbett eventually grew enamored with his own conclusions, and he cheekily describes this period of research as “dancing with the devil.” Though it seems fairly intuitive to say that people are differently socialized, and that these differences trickle down to the level of thought and action, it was an unpopular idea in Nisbett’s home field of psychology. It was fine to say that people held different thoughts but not that people could possess different approaches to thinking. Nisbett and his graduate researchers collaborated with psychologists throughout the U.S., Japan, China, and South Korea to get to the bottom of Peng’s suspicion.

The teams ran a battery of experiments in each nation and concluded that these different cognitive approaches were very real. One of the most basic experiments involved showing Japanese and American subjects an animated underwater scene and asking them to describe what they saw. Japanese subjects made 70 percent more statements about the scene’s background, while American subjects usually focused their observations on the single biggest, fastest, or most strikingly colored fish. Another experiment gave subjects a picture of a cow and then asked them to pair it with either a chicken or a patch of grass. Researchers found that Westerners invariably linked cow with chicken since they were both classifiable objects. The more field-oriented Asians matched the cow with grass.

Nisbett points to newer data collected in the past year that would suggest the possibility of change at a young age. “I’m certainly not an essentialist in that I think that these differences are genetic . . . and I’m not an essentialist in that I think these things aren’t changeable. We don’t know at what point these differences become ingrained, and we don’t even know how fixed they are in being ingrained.”

You’d be forgiven for regarding Nisbett’s conclusions with a wary eye. On the surface, they run counter to the conventions about human difference we would like to believe, particularly at a time when culture and nation are misread as a difference that can only be reconciled by violence. Universalism is good—it sounds fair, bears no grudges, and offers a hopeful understanding of the world. What if it’s just a fiction?

Nisbett himself was worried that his work would be interpreted as something that condemned, rather than celebrated, human difference. “Universalism is kind of a religion,” he explains. “It wasn’t just that I had a deep intellectual conviction; it was really a religion for me that we were all the same. It was very important. But if we are really different, we ought to know that. Otherwise, we can attribute difference to the other person being a jerk, or to them belonging to a group that’s inferior in some way.”

Ever since Samuel Huntington’s jarring Clash of Civilizations (1996) recast the seemingly peaceful post-Cold War world as an array of rigid, potentially antagonistic cultures, there has been a heightened interest in acknowledging, explaining, and understanding the world’s differences. In particular, recent books like Kishore Mahbubani’s Can Asians Think?, William Hannas’s The Writing on the Wall: How Asian Orthography Curbs Creativity (2003), and C. Fred Alford’s Think No Evil: Korean Values in the Age of Globalization (1999) have fixed on that nebulous space dividing Asian and American. Though Nisbett’s book glosses over some of the obvious historical or linguistic reasons separating Asian and Western thought—and though it invests itself in a simplistic promise of even cross-cultural exchange—it’s a vital contribution to the discussion of how humans differ and how they can get along in spite of those differences.

I spoke to Nisbett the day before the war on Iraq officially began and we wondered aloud whether this was an appropriate time to ditch universalism. Interspersed among Geography‘s flat details of theory and experimentation, you read Nisbett himself struggling with his conclusions, and you eventually find him relinquishing one kind of hope for another. “Now that I know that we’re different, my crusade is a little different,” he explains. He closes the book with an inspired call for a more humane globalism, one that departs from foundational differences but aspires toward universal values and compassion.

“It’s a little harder to believe [in convergence] today than it was four or five months ago,” Nisbett says. “It doesn’t seem quite so likely today.” He pauses, considering the weight of his words. “That’s the hopeful conclusion.”