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East Versus West: One Sees Big Picture, Other Is Focused

March 28, 2003

Copyright The Wall Street Journal

East Versus West: One Sees Big Picture, Other Is Focused

You ask two new acquaintances to tell you about themselves. The Japanese gent describes himself as "outgoing with his family," "competitive on the soccer field" and "serious at work." The Briton doesn't parse it so finely, saying he is "friendly, intellectual and goal-driven."

Then you ask each to decide which two -- of a panda, a monkey and a banana -- go together. The Japanese man selects the monkey and the banana; the Brit, the panda and the monkey.

Like many scholars of human thought since at least Hume and Locke, today's cognitive psychologists tend to be "universalists," assuming that everyone perceives, thinks and reasons the same way.

"There has long been a widespread belief among philosophers and, later, cognitive scientists that thinking the world over is basically the same," says psychologist Howard Gardner of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Although there have always been dissenters, the prevailing wisdom held that a Masai hunter, a corporate raider and a milkmaid all see, remember, infer and think the same way.

But an ever-growing number of studies challenge this assumption. "Human cognition is not everywhere the same," concludes psychologist Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in his new book, "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why." Instead, he says, "the characteristic thought processes of Asians and Westerners differ greatly."

The book compares people from East Asia (Korea, China and Japan) with Westerners (from Europe, the British commonwealth and North America).

AS THE MONKEY-PANDA example shows, Westerners typically see categories (animals) where Asians typically see relationships (monkeys eat bananas). Such differences in thinking can trip up business and political relationships.

The cognitive differences start with basic sensory perception. In one study, Michigan's Taka Masuda showed Japanese and American students pictures of aquariums containing one big fast-moving fish, several other finned swimmers, plants, rock and bubbles. What did the students recall? The Japanese spontaneously remembered 60% more background elements than did the Americans. They also referred twice as often to relationships involving background objects ("the little frog was above the pink rock").

The difference was even more striking when the participants were asked which, of 96 objects, had been in the scene. When the test object was shown in the context of its original surroundings, the Japanese did much better at remembering correctly whether they had seen it before. For the Americans, including the background was no help; they had never even seen it.

"Westerners and Asians literally see different worlds," says Prof. Nisbett. "Westerners pay attention to the focal object, while Asians attend more broadly -- to the overall surroundings and to the relations between the object and the field." These generalizations seem to hold even though Eastern and Western countries each represent many different cultures and traditions.

Because of their heightened perception of surroundings, East Asians attribute causality less to actors than to context. Little wonder, then, that West and East see North Korea's nuclear threats very differently. "Understanding how other people think and see the world is crucial in international disputes," says psychologist Robert Sternberg of Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

Divergent East-West thinking also has produced some tense business conflicts. In the 1970s, Japanese refiners, having signed a contract to buy sugar from Australia for $160 a ton, asked to renegotiate after world prices dropped. The Aussies refused. To the Asians, changing circumstances dictated changes in agreements; to the Westerners, a deal was a deal.

One striking east-west difference centers on drawing inferences. Imagine a line graph plotting economic growth in which the rate of growth accelerates (that is, the line gets steeper to the right). Researchers asked college students in Ann Arbor and Beijing whether they thought the growth rate would go up, go down, or stay the same. The Americans were more likely to predict a continued rise, extrapolating trends, than were the Chinese, who saw trends as likely to reverse.

Westerners prefer abstract universal principles; East Asians seek rules appropriate to a situation. For example, when researchers in the Netherlands asked people what to do about an employee whose work has been subpar for a year after 15 years of exemplary service, more than 75% of Americans and Canadians said to let her go; only 20% of Singaporeans and Koreans agreed.

Cognitive differences likely originate in child rearing and social practices, but are far from hard-wired: Asians living in the West and Westerners in Asia often find that their cognitive style goes native. Similarly, bicultural people, like those in Hong Kong with its British and Chinese history, show thinking patterns intermediate between East and West. That's a model that workplaces might do well to emulate, says Prof. Nisbett: The more cultural diversity and, hence, thinking styles in a workforce, the likelier it is to see problems clearly and solve them.

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Updated March 28, 2003