Book Review: The Geography of Thought

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … And Why
By Richard E. Nisbett
Free Press, New York, 2003

clip_image002[4] The Geography of Thought got me hooked with an intriguing observation right on page one: Westerners tend to view the world as a line while Asians see it as a circle.

From that starting point, Richard Nisbett, professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan, examines the ways Asians perceive and think about the world differently than Westerners. He’s spent years researching, cataloging and experimentally verifying these differences using a seemingly inexhaustible supply of U of M undergrads as test subjects. The core of the book presents detailed findings from this research.

But before I get into that, who exactly are Asians and who are Westerners? Somewhat apologetically, Nisbett defines Asians as primarily Chinese, Japanese and Korean, and Westerners as mainly Europeans and North Americans. I say apologetically because he recognizes there are wide differences within each group, but he argues that important similarities justify these broad definitions. This is the closest Nisbett gets to acknowledging that he’s treading dangerously close to stereotyping or profiling. Maybe he thinks he’s immune to controversy because he’s examining cognitive processes in minute detail in an academic setting, or because he’s not taking the position that these differences are innate or hard-wired (in fact he shows the exact opposite). I don’t even know whether this is a deliberate or accidental omission, but either way it struck me as odd.

In any case, here’s a brief recap of how he describes the two groups:

  • Westerners see the world as made up of discrete objects that can be grouped into categories according to their attributes. The individual-class relationship is a central organizing principle. They see themselves as distinct too, independent agents largely in control of their own lives. Western thought is governed by logic and rhetoric. Westerners seek Truth through linear, reductionist reasoning and abhor contradiction; a statement and its opposite cannot both be true. They attempt to discern the underlying laws or principles that describe the world.
  • Asians, by contrast, perceive the world as made up of continuous substances that are grouped according to their relationships to one and other. The part-whole dichotomy is key: the part cannot be understood without also considering the whole. They see themselves as parts of a whole too, members of a collective bound to each other by a web of obligations and responsibilities. Asian thinking is less concerned with a competitive intellectual quest for truth than with seeking a Middle Way towards harmonious co-existence. They embrace contradictions as two aspects of a larger more complex and ever-changing whole.

I was really fascinated by the early chapters of the book where Nisbett looks at some of the geographical, historical and economic origins of these differences.

  • In the democratic city states of Ancient Greece, for example, decisions were debated by an assembly. Only one side could win so you needed rational arguments to convince others to vote with you. The mountainous terrain lent itself to herding and hunting where success, even survival, depended largely on individual skill and effort.
  • In China, the fertile plains of the Yellow and Yangtze rivers led to the early development of agriculture. Village life centered on the rhythms of planting and harvesting which forced intensive cooperation and gave rise to the need for harmony and self-restraint. The aim of conflict resolution was to reduce hostility and animosity and maintain balance within the community.

In the last chapters of the book Nisbett surveys how the differences between Asian and Western approaches affect real world situations in areas such as law, medicine, international relations, human rights and religion.

More importantly he examines some of the strengths and weaknesses of each system, using one to critique the other. He notes that Westerners are more likely to make the Fundamental Attribution Error, failing to account for situational factors when looking for explanations of events. A common example of this occurs when people say something like, “I’m successful because of my own hard work. Anyone else who’s less successful than me just doesn’t work as hard as I do.” This line of thinking doesn’t account for contextual factors that might have helped the successful person, or impeded the less successful one.

Conversely, the Asian preference for finding a middle way that can accommodate two contradictory positions may cause them to hold on to beliefs that are just plain wrong. Sometimes vigorous debate does shed light on the truth, or at least helps identify what is demonstrably not true.

The Geography of Thought ends on an optimistic note, theorizing that Western and Asian modes of thought may converge into a blended approach as we move to a more globalized world.

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This book came highly recommended, by Satya Nadella no less, so my expectations were pretty high. They weren’t quite met, though of course I won’t blame Satya for that.

The Geography of Thought is definitely worth reading. By exploring differences in the way we think and perceive, laying them out clearly, and even attempting to quantify them experimentally, the book helps us to understand each other better and learn from each other. It suggests we may be able to live and work together more productively and more peacefully as individuals, as work groups, and as nations. In that sense the book does a great service.

On the other hand, it seems like a deep dive into the blindingly obvious. Is anyone really surprised that Asians and Westerners think and perceive differently? After all, many of Nisbett’s well-researched observations just confirm traditional stereotypes. Perhaps it was a shock to psychologists, but diplomats, businesspeople, scientists, and historians have recognized these differences for a long, long time.

My one disappointment with the book, though, is about the questions it did not address.

What about people from other parts of the world? How do Indians, Africans and the Middle Easterners think and perceive? Are they like Westerners or Asians or somewhere in between? (Clearly I’m a Westerner since I frame this question in terms of a line!)

Actually it might not be a line at all. While Asian and Western modes of thought and perception might be two points along a continuum, as Nisbett strongly suggests, maybe people from other regions differ in completely different ways, along entirely different dimensions.

Finally, how can we put our understanding of these differences to practical use? When we encounter each other as individuals, as members of teams, and as countries, how should we behave? How can this knowledge help us communicate better, work together better and live together better?

Nisbett doesn’t directly answer these questions but I’d like to take a shot at them. We encounter people from different cultures more often these days thanks to globalization, immigration and technology. It’s critical for us to develop ways of relating to each other on a day-to-day basis.

From this practical perspective I think Nisbett’s research into the precise differences between Westerners and Asians is less important than the general idea that people from different cultures think in different ways.

It’s inappropriate and maybe even dangerous to apply the findings in this book to particular individuals. When I meet someone at a party or at work, for example, it would be wrong for me to automatically assume this person thinks about the world in the specific ways Nisbett outlines. In fact it would be condescending and insulting. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, “no generalization is worth a damn … including this one.” And the greatest, often tragic, mistakes come from applying a generalization to a specific individual. On the other hand, being aware of my own patterns of thought and perception, and recognizing that this other person might think differently than I do can be very helpful. It opens the possibility for a deeper connection and understanding between us.

Similarly, when we work together in teams – say a team in Silicon Valley working on a project with a team in Beijing – acknowledging differences in thinking might help the group become more cohesive and productive. In their formative stages teams often go through an explicit process of developing norms and practices for how the team will operate. In this situation an open yet respectful discussion of differences could be really helpful.

What about when we interact as countries? Well I’m neither a politician nor a diplomat, but I guess that having a better understanding of how people from other cultures think and perceive, and at minimum not assuming they think the same way we do, would be a prerequisite for building understanding and trust. Looking at the headlines on any given day tells us we have a lot more work to do here.

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