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31.3.03

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

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."


I certainly agree with the general conclusion here -- that different brains work differently, and we should be skeptical of generalizing how our own cultural group thinks. However, I worry about the way the study is set up as a contrast between Euro-Americans and East Asians. There is an implication (not necessarily intended by the author) that there are two diametrically opposed ways of thinking, one used by "us," and the other used by whatever "them" is being considered (East Asians being a popular choice). The strangeness of this paradigm is apparent when you think of the diversity of "them"s that have been used. Taking into account the whole body of literature about how Euro-American forms of thought are not universal, we would be led to the conclusion that East Asians, hunter-gatherers, women, African Americans, and Indians (to name the most popular) all think alike, in contrast to some uniquely unusual Western consciousness. I'd like to see someone trying to contrast the thinking of, say, Chinese and Navajos.

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