The Geography of Thought

I’ve wondered idly whether the naming game between adults and infants was universal, or culturally-specific. It turns out that Western children learn nouns faster than verbs “that’s a ball. see, ball” and East Asian children learn verbs just as fast.
Richard Nisbett’s “The Geography of Thought” includes a variety of experimental evidence showing how East Asians and Westerners think differently.
When shown pictures of a cow, a chicken, and some grass westerners are more likely to group the cow and the chicken, while East Asians are more likely to group the cow and the grass. Westerners are more likely to organize things in categories, while Asians are more likely to organize by relationship (the cow eats grass).
Westerners perceive things as objects (a bowl), easterners as substances (wood). Westerners will group a wooden bown and a silver bowl; easterners will group a wooden bowl and a wooden spoon. Westerners more likely to group items by rule, Easterners by similarity. Westerners are more likely to attribute human behavior to essential traits, Easterners to social context.
Some of the differences covered in the book are well-known — the individualism of the west, compared to eastern group identity. Western culture — particularly US culture — thrives on debate, while East Asian cultures value harmony.
The book seems naive at times — ancient Chinese images of bucolic scenes are taken as typical of Chinese life, rather than as conventional subjects of art, produced (I don’t know, but guessing) for the wealthy. The book makes broad-brush assumptions about how East Asians are content with the hierarchical structures of their societies, an assumption that’s falsifiable with the barest minimal familiarity with literature.
The most compelling evidence in the book was about low-level thought constructs that one might think are universal but aren’t.

3 thoughts on “The Geography of Thought”

  1. I’m very suspicious of any theory of culture which lumps people into “easterners” and “westerners”. Even if one assumes that European-derived culture is some sort of monolith (an assumption which, among other things, excludes non-European elements of “western” culture), Asian culture most certainly is not.
    Of course I haven’t read the original, so I don’t know whether Nisbett defines his terms more carefully.

  2. The book is a popularization of academic work. The book’s evidence is a series of studies with different populations, conducted by the author and other research groups.
    Some of the specific research showing differences in categorization, for example, looks quite interesting — would need to look up sources for sample size, method, citations, etc to really figure out whether it is reputable. I haven’t looked up the papers from the footnotes.
    The author is a professor at the University of Michigan, with brand name grant funding from Guggenheim, NSF, etc. for what it is worth.
    The book’s generalizations are pretty superficial. One randomly selected example: “the intellectual history of the Continent is more holistic than America and that of the Commonwealth.”
    The book shares flaws with other popularizations of academic works. It leaves out information presumed to be uninteresting to non-technical readers, such as sample size. And the author feels free to make sweeping generalizations about topics outside of his field, like Chinese art where, if the author does have strong background, it is not evident in the writing. Popularization is taken as license, as if freedom from the constraints of peer review meant freedom from any need to support assertions.

  3. I have read the book…and tested it on my coworkers from Swedes to Turks to PRC Chinese and Yugoslavs. The book is an interesting read, but I do not agree with his conclusions.
    The thing that was extraordinary was that ‘every’ swede I asked about the cow, chicken, grass and monkey, banana, panda thing answered exactly the same way…like an East-Asian was supposed to. Yes, the Chinese answered as he ‘should’ have, but I answered more like a ‘Westerner’ than my European coworkers. Why is that?
    I would have liked to see how or where, geographically the author would place Iraqis, for example.

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