Oh East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. . . — Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world. — The Dhammapada
The world is orderly and simple; the world changes constantly and is immensely complex. These two ways of thinking have shaped human behavior and culture for millenia—and lately they have been tested in the laboratories of cultural psychology.
Richard Nisbett’s book, The Geography of Thought, builds the case that Westerners and Easterners differ in their fundamental beliefs about the world. As one of his graduate students from China said to him, “You know, the difference between you and me is that I think the world is a circle, and you think it’s a line.” Nisbett, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, was skeptical but intrigued. He’d always thought of himself as a universalist, someone who believed humans perceive and reason in the same way. While their cultural practices may vary widely, he thought, their ways of perceiving the world are generally similar.
He summarizes this tradition in four general principles. First, everyone has the same basic thinking processes when it comes to memory, categorization, inference, and causal analysis. Second, when people from different cultures have different beliefs it’s because they have been exposed to different aspects of the world, not because they actually think differently. Third, reasoning rests upon logic: a proposition can’t be both true and false. And fourth, our reasoning is separate from what we are reasoning about. You can think about a thing many different ways—and you can use your reasoning to come up with wildly different results. Such was the tradition that could be traced back through the Enlightenment to the Greeks. Surely everybody thought in the same way.
But that turns out not to be the case at all. In test after test, Western subjects focused on the objects in the foreground of a video while Eastern subjects took in the whole background. That’s consistent with another finding that Westerners regard objects as most important and Easterners emphasize relationships. Following Greek thought, Westerners think of themselves above all as free agents, individuals who act upon the environment around them, changing their circumstances to match their ambitions. Easterners, following Confucian thought, see themselves as part of a harmonious whole, experiencing the links between people and their environment as continuous. One does not so much wrest control away from Nature as align oneself with it.
Independence, practically a virtue in Western societies, begins at an early age as we teach our children to “stand on their own two feet,” “think for themselves,” and “grow up.” Interdependence, the way of many in Eastern cultures, helps children to understand the reactions of others. One of Nisbett’s research partners, a 6 ft. 2 inch football-playing graduate student from Japan, was dismayed to discover, at his first American football game, that University of Michigan football fans thought nothing of blocking his view of the game by standing up in front of him. “We would never do anything to impair the enjoyment of others at a public function like that,” he said to Nisbett. It seems that compared to the Japanese wide-angle view Americans have tunnel vision.
Sensitivity to others’ emotions provides Easterners with a different set of assumptions about communication also. Whereas Westerners take responsibility for speaking directly and clearly, a “transmitter” orientation, Easterners adopt a “receiver” orientation in which it’s the hearer’s responsibility to make sure the message is understood. Nisbett notes that Americans sometimes find Asians hard to read because Asians make their points indirectly; Asians, on the other hand, may find Americans direct to the point of rudeness.
The differences extend to how we think about causality and how we deal with historical events. Japanese teachers, says historian Masako Watanabe, begin a history lecture by setting the context. They then proceed chronologically through the events, linking each one to the proceeding event. Students are encouraged to put themselves in the mental and emotional states of the historical figures being studied and to draw analogies to their own lives. Students are regarded as thinking historically when they are able to see the events from the point of view of the other, even Japan’s enemies. Questions of “how” are asked about twice as much as in American classrooms.
By contrast, American teachers usually begin with the outcomes and ask why this result was produced. The pedagogical process often has the effect of destroying historical continuity and reversing the flow to effect-cause. This reflects the Greek heritage of the West in which we have the liberty to find our goals and define the means to attain them.
“Easterners,” says Nisbett, “are almost surely closer to the truth than Westerners in their belief that the world is a highly complicated place and Westerners are undoubtedly often far too simple-minded in their explicit models of the world. . . . But Aristotle has testable propositions about the world while the Chinese did not. . . . The Chinese may have understood the principle of action at a distance, but they had no means of proving it.”
No one is making value judgements about these varying perspectives. They are different ways of being in the world and viewing the world. But if this research is true or even close, we should pay attention to it for it could change how we communicate with millions and millions of people.
Occasionally in life we stumble across something that opens a window into our own interior castles. That is the experience I’ve had reading The Geography of Thought. Time and again, as I followed the tests scattered throughout the book, I was taken aback at my unconscious affinity for Eastern thought. More often than not, when I was absolutely honest with myself, I realized how often they are my default positions. That might explain why I found it so difficult to be the ‘answer man’ when working in faculty development at a research university. While some thought I should provide techniques that would work in every classroom—universals in effect—my tendency was to see each teacher and each classroom as distinct. Instead of developing objectives for all to reach my thought was to develop each teacher’s own style to fit their context. Context and background. . . instead of rules and foreground. At the time I lacked the analogies to talk about it, although pushing against that instinctual feeling made me feel off balance much of the time.
Thus we live and learn and discover coves and bays along our spiritual shoreline we did not know were there until we put in to port.