Book Reviews

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why.
By Richard E. Nisbett.

Review by William A. Spriggs, June 4, 2003

This is an important book because of its extreme importance that it bears in the "Nature vs. Nurture" debate. I personally find the book exciting because it strongly supports an argument that I made several years ago concerning interpersonal human behavior that "conforms," to what I have labeled, "Cultural Longitude and Latitude." [The American and German Holocausts]. That, despite the biological roots that all humans share, we humans must reshape our obvious, and many, not so obvious, internal biological yearnings (perfect example: sexual lust) to the social norms that emerge from group participation in the local environments where we reside. And, quite simply, that means behavior is influenced by Location, Location, Location. In my theory, the behavior even varies from house to house and street to street and adapts to appropriate influences as each circumstance arises.

Before the discovery of brain scans, laboratory research, and psychological cross-cultural survey tests, the overwhelming variations of cultures around the planet have always tipped the scales towards nurture in the nature vs. nurture debate. For several decades now, as these "hard" scientific studies emerged and presented overwhelming evidence of the biochemical importance on human behavior, the tide has shifted toward the biological left (left -- meaning an early timeline on the left when we humans really acted like "animals" and moving to the present and future on the right to where we are now "civilized" -- [yeah, right]). We have witnessed something like a giant tug-of-war rope game between these two intellectual camps; the last time I peeked at the score for both sides in the game, the biological side was excited at the thought of winning all the marbles with the publication of Steven Pinker's book, The Blank Slate.

Now along comes The Geography of Thought that presents compelling evidence that regional geographic influences have the final say in cognitive thoughts that regulate human behavior -- and that tips the scale back toward nurture. However, before the nurture side of the debate cheers themselves horse with delight, I must interject here that although Mr. Nisbitt gives convincing evidence to his arguments as to how Easterners and Westerners differ in their overview of the world, I can not come away from embracing this book's premise and not feel that I am being forced to believe that our species is divided into two distinct biological camps of cognitive thought. Perhaps I am wrong, but from the title of the book, to the front cover synopsis, to countless references within the text, I feel that I am being led down a path that argues the bedrock philosophical foundations of Chinese and Greek civilizations that have spread their influences in each of their respective regions somehow created two distinct types of subspecies that think differently. No way, Jose.

I sense, that although the author is an American and most likely receives his financial support from the Western world that Mr. Nisbett feels a deep respect and love for the Asian world view of inter-connectiveness in the cosmos, and that ultimately, humans must take this worldview in order to survive as a species. I also believe that this overview has biased his research and that his conclusions are misleading -- not wrong -- but misleading. I don't want to dwell solely on the weakness of his arguments, but to embrace that which I feel is correct and presented in an honest and forthright manner. The following citations are, what I consider to be important points raised by Mr. Nisbett; but just before we get to those points, we must first present the premise of the book, that leads us down, what I consider the misdirected path:

"Everyone knows that while different cultures may think about the world differently, they use the same equipment for doing their thinking. Everyone knows that whatever the skin color, nationality, or religion, every human being uses the same tools for perception, for memory, and for reasoning. Everyone knows that a logically true statement is true in English, German, or Hindi. Everyone knows that when a Chinese and an American look at the same painting, they see the same painting.

But what if everyone is wrong?" From the front flap.

What this introduction in the flap has done is to "prime" us with influences (see p. 119 and then again on p. 227) before we receive the proof of the claim stated in the premise. In other words, your cognitive thought is being framed to fit the arguments that you are about to receive, and you, being the trusting, loving soul that most of us are, give the theory the benefit of the doubt. It is also the beginning of the unraveling of the author's main premise of two bipolar cognitive worlds.

Now, let's take a look at the author's auguring points.

"My research has led me to the conviction that two utterly different approaches to the world have maintained themselves for thousands of years. These approaches include profoundly different social relations, views about the nature of the world, and characteristic thought processes. Each of these orientations -- the Western and the Eastern -- is a self-reinforcing, homeostatic system. The social practices promote the worldviews; the worldviews dictate the appropriate thought processes; and the thought processes both justify the worldviews and support the social practices....The individualistic or independent nature of Western society seems consistent with the Western focus on particular objects in isolation from the context and with Westerners' belief that they can know the rules governing objects and therefore can control the objects' behavior." p. xx.

"...Westerners (Primarily Europeans, Americans, and citizens of the British Commonwealth)...[European] thought rests on the assumption that the behavior of objects --- physical, animal, and human -- can be understood in terms of straightforward rules. Westerners have a strong interest in categorization, which helps them to know what rules to apply to the objects in question, and formal logic plays a role in problem solving." p. xvi.

"East Asians [Easterners] (Principally the people of China, Korea, and Japan)...The collective or interdependent nature of Asian society is consistent with Asians' broad, contextual view of the world and their belief that events are highly complex and determined by many factors." p. xvii.

Before placing facts before our feet, the author presents to us well established research, and brilliantly crunches them down into five domains with ten questions:
" "Science and Mathematics: Why would the ancient Chinese have excelled at algebra and arithmetic but not geometry, which was the forte of the Greeks? Why do modern Asians excel at math and science but produce less in the way of revolutionary science than Westerners?
" Attention and Perception: Why are East Asians better able to see relationships among events than Westerners are? Why do East Asians find it relatively difficult to disentangle an object from its surroundings?
" Causal Inference Why are Westerners so likely to overlook the influence of context on the behavior of objects and even of people? Why are Easterners more susceptible to the "hindsight bias," which allows them to believe that they "knew it all along?"
" Organization of Knowledge Why do Western infants learn nouns at a much more rapid rate than verbs, whereas Eastern infants learn verbs at a more rapid rate than nouns? Why do East Asians group objects and events based on how they relate to one another, whereas Westerners are more likely to rely on categories?
" Reasoning Why are Westerners more likely to apply formal logic when reasoning about everyday events, and why does their insistence on logic sometimes cause them to make errors? Why are Easterners so willing to entertain apparently contradictory propositions and how can this sometimes be helpful in getting at the truth?" p. xix.

The book is well thought out and glides the reader through the proper historical timelines, laboratory research, modern social science observations, and philosophical evidence to support its arguments. In the first chapter, the author anchors his theories at the fountainhead of Aristotle and Confucius explaining their cognitive perceptions of the world in lucid terms and he returns occasionally to these two great thinkers to buttress those arguments. In chapter two and three, Mr. Nisbitt argues convincingly that the social norms found in today's societies create or sustain cognitive patterns; in chapters four through seven, the author presents laboratory research on remembering, thinking, and how people perceive. He then concludes with the implication of his theory on the vast cultural gap, and the epilogue contains his speculations on the future

One is convinced of his arguments as one sails through the book because we know that there are vast differences between the two poles of Eastern and Western philosophies, but beginning on pages 119, 226, 227, 228 and 229, we suddenly hit a wall of conflicting evidence that things are not so polar. It is very confusing to me why he placed it toward the end of the book where normally one would one reemphasis one's arguments in their closing summation. Perhaps it is my misinterpretation, but the following quotes seem to unravel his theory of a strict bi-polar world.

"There is fact evidence that changes in social practices, and even changes in temporary states of social orientation, can change the way people perceive and think."... "Other work suggesting that cognitive modifiability is possible comes from the study of genuinely bicultural people. Evidence suggests that such people do not merely have values and beliefs that are intermediate between two cultures, but that their cognitive processes can be intermediate, as well -- or at least that they can alternate between forms of reasoning characteristic of one culture versus another."... "Shinobu Kitayama and his colleagues found evidence that cognitive processes could be modified even after relatively limited amounts of time spent in another culture."..."Then Kitayama and colleagues went a step further and looked at the behavior of Americans who had been living in Japan for a period of time (usually a few months) and Japanese who had been living in America for a period of time (usually a few years). Americans living in Japan were shifted in a decidedly Japanese direction. Japanese living in America were virtually indistinguishable from native Americans. The study does not really prove that time in another culture produces such dramatic changes in behavior; other interpretations are viable, including the possibility that people who go to live in another culture are very much like them before they ever get there. But the results are strongly suggestive that cognitive processes can be modified by dint of merely living for a time in another culture."..."Thus we all function in some respects more like Easterners some of the time and more like Westerners some of the time. A shift in characteristic social practices could therefore be expected to produce a shift in typical patterns of perception and thought."

Regardless of the conflict, what Mr. Nisbitt has done with his arguments is to bring to the nature vs. nurture debate an 800-pound Gorilla that pushes the scale overwhelmingly in favor of nurture. (As I was putting the finishing touches to this review, Matt Ridley has written a magnificent cover story for Time magazine that moves the debate back to the center: "What Makes You Who You Are: Which is stronger -- nature or nurture? The latest science says genes and your experience interact for your whole life," June 2, 2003, p. 55. In quick summary, the article argues that local environment could alter the switching on and off of genes, and thus, change behavior).

As you can tell from my review and from all of my essays, you know that I strongly agree in the middle approach that argues that nature and nurture are a connected and we can not separate them. How did Mr. Nisbitt conclude that the planet is divided up into two distinct cognitive camps and not one based on a varying continuum depending on the cultural influences of other cultures? I really can't answer that because I have no communication with the author, however my own speculation leads me to believe that the only way to make the theory work would be to focus only on the two ends of the pole and to minimize the results from the middle. Or perhaps, "two extremes are different and will never meet approach," was an insistence by the publisher to create controversy, and thus, increase sales. However, despite this obvious, what I consider a, fatal flaw, I am still placing the book in my Recommended Reading List because he raises arguments that can not be denied from the nature camp in the nature vs. nurture debate: that thought, the end product of mind, is ultimately adapted to the social norms of groupings found in all societies today; and those norms are solidly rooted in ancient philosophies, included those divided into Western and Eastern poles. (Supporters of Mr. Nisbett may argue that since I have only made quotes from the introduction and the concluding areas of the book, I have only glanced at the book. This is not the case -- I have read every word. It does however seem that the book was written as a magazine article and then all the scientific citations were dropped into the middle to produce a book).

All students of evolutionary biology must recall the first commandment of natural selection that guides adaptation -- LOCAL ENVIRONMENT, LOCAL ENVIRONMENT, LOCAL ENVIRONMENT. And if you need a translation of that, that means GEOGRAPHY, GEOGRAPHY, GEOGRAPHY. The way I envision the approaching future in terms of using this seminal knowledge, I see graduate students engaged in plotting these behavioral differences, consequences, conflicts, and solutions with a computer program based on geography. Imagine yourself for a moment looking at the all the land masses of planet Earth as a flat map on a computer screen; As the program opens, there are no boarders, no governments, nor distinct cultural differences -- just as one views our planet from space. Students then click on their "zoom in" magnifying glass until they reach a human behavior trouble spot with identifiable longitude and latitudes -- say the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland -- from this point, they can devise a conflict resolution plan based on their knowledge of biology, anthropology, primate sociology, evolutionary psychology, economics, and all the social sciences -- (pay particular attention to the Social Dominance theory). A personal note to these students in the future: I am overwhelmed with envy at the challenge and potential accomplishments that you face; and when you face these problems, remember the contribution that Mr. Nisbett and Geography of Thought has given you.

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