Culture and Cognition
What triggered your research into cognitive differences between cultures?
I have always been interested in ethnicity and culture. In 1982, I was an exchange professor at Peking University and delivered a number of lectures there on social psychology. I was really struck with this totally different understanding of the relationship between the individual and the society, and between the individual and the State. It has been different from the trend in the West over the last 2,500 years. Actually, in some way, I was lulled by that trip into thinking that there were few psychological differences between Chinese and Americans, because the Chinese had full, rich and interesting personalities, and I found they matched, or didn't seem unusual compared to the people I knew in the West. I also found that I could gossip with my Chinese colleague about other colleagues–we completely understood one another. It led to the feeling that we were the same.
So at a superficial level, they didn't seem to be that different than Westerners?
That's right, but I didn't really have any clear inkling of what the thinking processes might be like. There was an undergraduate at the time named Kaipingpeng and he was clearly very brilliant. He didn't speak much English but he was interested in what I had to say and we had a couple of conversations. Many years later, after he got his PhD in Psychology at Peking University, he came to the University of Michigan to earn a post-doctoral scholarship, but then decided to stay and get another PhD at Michigan. After working together for a few months he told me that American and Chinese, Westerners and Easterners, thought in completely different ways about the world, and had completely different thinking processes. I didn't believe him for a minute but we talked and it became clear that there were very strong and clear empirical implications of what he was saying. So we started to design experiments and basically, everything that he proposed, and everything that the East-Asian students who worked with me proposed, worked out essentially as they said. After a while, I stopped telling them that nobody thought the way they said people thought because they were always turning out to be right.
Your book, The Geography of Thought, describes the different research and experiments behind trying to prove this hypothesis: Westerner and Asians not only think about different things, but they process information in different ways.
The overall theory is that Westerners tend to think about things in an analytic fashion. They focus on some object and they tend to attribute the object – it can be a person or a thing – and categorize those attributesto try and figure out the rules that apply to those categories. Formal logic is actually used in thinking.
Easterners, by which I mean East-Asians, think in a more holistic fashion, which means that they pay attention to a much broader array of perceptions and cognition than Westerners, and make relationships among those cognitions and perceptions. They don't make much use of categories; they don't make much use of the rules. There is no tradition of formal logic at all. Instead they have a dialectical tradition, which means lots of things, but one of the central things it means is instead of trying to find out which of two propositions was true, the goal is to find out what is the truth that might underlie both of those two propositions.
A Western approach would typically seek out the weaknesses in an argument and use those weaknesses to crush the opposing view and strengthen your argument.
That's right. Our rhetorical tradition, our legal tradition, our scientific tradition all make explicit use of formal logic.
Tell me about some of the methods you used in your research.
The experiments fall under the category of perceptual or cognitive. In a typical perceptual experiment, we would show underwater scenes to Japanese and Americans for about 20 seconds and then we would say: "Tell me what you saw." The Americans go straight for the most salient objects. They say, "You know, I saw a pretty big fish coming off to the left. It had pink stuff over its white belly." The Japanese overwhelmingly start by referring to the environment or fields. So they say, "I saw what looked like a stream. The water was green. There were rocks and shells on the bottom." Only then do they start telling you about the most salient properties or objects.
Easterners and Westerners were saying different things because they were looking at different things. So we put an eye tracking device on people and we gave them three second exposures to a picture with a salient object set against some background. What we find is that the Americans spend more time looking at that object and make fewer eye movements. The Chinese we worked with for this experiment spent much more time looking at the background and made many more eye movements–especially eye movements back and forth between the environment and the object. This would explain why they tend to see more relationships than Westerners.
A typical cognitive experiment might be where we asked people to pick two words that go together : notebook, magazine and pen.The American subject will tell you: "Well, the notebook and the magazine go together because they are both items made of paper and there is writing on them." The Chinese is much more likely to say the pen and notebook go together because the pen writes on the book. So they are seeing the relationship.
You explain these differences in cognitive processing by pointing out the differences in our ancestry–this sort of divide between Confucianism and the Greek philosophy.
At the time I wrote the book, I was very interested in the intellectual history divisions, which are astonishingly different. I certainly think that between Confucian thought and the Aristotelian thought, you see strong echoes of what we find in our lab experiment today. Part of it is, yes, it's inertia from those folks 2,500 years ago, so we continue to think that way. But I think what caused those differences initially was due to the social systems that were characteristic of the East vs. the West. In the East, they were engaged in large scale agriculture, often irrigated agriculture, and such systems are always–or were in ancient times–authoritarian systems, so you had a strong central authority going down to the lowest levels of the peasants. There was also a necessity to pay close attention to what your fellow human beings, your fellow farmers, your fellow peasants were trying to say. Cooperation is particularly important in the case of rice farming. Whereas in the West, people didn't have much close social ties or such need for authoritarian control of the economic system. So Greeks were fishers and hunters and traders and business men of various kinds, which didn't require coordinated action to the same degree with fellow human beings. There was, for whatever reasons, not so much of a tradition of hierarchy. Those economic systems remained characteristic of the differences between East Asia and Europe for the succeeding 2,500 years.
Therefore, the social relations were different and remained different. There is the question of how much they'll ever change. Japan remains quite essentially Eastern, despite the fact they've had capitalist and industrial traditions for a hundred years. They remain highly collectivist socially and, in our terms, highly holistic perceptually and cognitively.
Is this your classic Nature versus Nurture argument that you are putting forth? In a sense what you are saying is that we are not hardwired either to think all the same, or to think differently?
I think there is very substantial hardwiring but I just don't think that the hardwiring for perception and for cognition is different initially for East Asians vs. Westerners. However, it does change over time and recent experiments in neurosciences are proving that.For example, it's very clear that East Asians have more activity in the region of the brain which registers perceptually, and you get more activity in the portion of the brain that attends to focal objects in Westerners. One of the very most eloquent experiments that's been done in those traditions is by a very brilliant social psychologist, Shigeru Kuriyama. He would show Japanese and Westerners a square with a line drawn in it, then take them to another table and show them a square of a different size. He then instructed them either to draw a line of the same length as the one they had just seen, or to draw a line that was the same proportionally to the previous line.Westerners found it easier to draw the absolute line to scale and were more accurate than the Japanese. The Japanese were more accurate than the Westerners on the relational or proportional line drawing. When brain activity was measured, the conflict area of the brain lights up more for Americans when they were doing the more difficult task of a relationship, and the conflict area lights up more for the Japanese when they were doing the absolute drawing.
Do the cognitive processes change over time?For example, in Asian Canadians or Asian Americans?
This is an extremely interesting question and there is conflicting data. On the social side, Westerners have much higher self-esteem than Easterners. We have more positive views about ourselves. A Canadian psychologist named Steven J. Heine researched the acculturative effects on the self-concept. In his experiment, he looked at six categories of people: Japanese who have never been out of Japan; Japanese who have been abroad; Asian-Canadian first generation immigrants; Asian-Canadian second generation immigrants; Asian-Canadian third generation immigrants and European-Canadians. What he found is just exactly that kind of linear order with regard to self-esteem.
The greater the contact with the West, the more history within the family of contact with the West, the more the Asians resemble Canadians. Third generation Asian-Canadians are indistinguishable from European-Canadians in terms of their self-esteem. Now in terms of cognition, in all of the experiments we find that people who are, say Asian-Canadian or Asian-American, are always intermediate between Asian and European-Americans. Sometimes they are usually closer to European-Americans and sometimes identical to European-Americans. In one study we did, we looked at extremely Westernized first-generation, upper-middle class Taiwanese-Americans living in the Silicon Valley. Ten years living in this country was enough to make them look indistinguishable from European-Americans. You can get them to look perceptually and cognitively North American. I think it's conceivable that at least some kinds of cognitive and perceptual changes occur within a single generation. I suspect that the cognitive and perceptual changes are easier and more quickly made than the more social and temperamental changes.
What real world applications can we derive from your research? For example, what if I'm working in Asia on bilateral trade agreements, or as a Canadian exporter?
Firstly, I think it's helpful to know where other people are coming from socially and cognitively.Secondly, if I were setting up a team of researchers or other types of workers, rather than getting yet another analytic Westerner on my team, I'd add a holistic Easterner, and vice-versa. As I've done this research, it's become very clear to me that a lot of the characteristics of Eastern thinking and perception are extremely useful.For example, in our perceptual studies, the Japanese pick up 60% more information about the environment than Americans do–it's huge! So the broader perceptual and cognitive net that they cast is something I'd like to have on my team. Americans, and maybe Westerners in general, can be hyper-logical. They can throw away a proposition when they ought to think about it a little bit more. And the Asians know very well that our perceptual and cognitive methods can be very useful and are learning them very quickly.
To wrap things up, what kind of research are you working on currently?
Actually, I have switched my interest to intelligence and how modifiable it is. There is an extremely strong tradition in the intelligence literature of assuming that intelligence is very substantially inherited. Not an awful lot you can do about it, it just unfolds.
And that's perfectly clear now that that's not true. The evidence comes from many different sources; some genetic information, some neuroscience information. This is what I am interested in now.
Professor Nisbett, thank you for your time.