The Geography of Thought: How Asians & Westerners Think Differently ... and Why - Richard E. Nisbett
I found this book at the library and thought the subject was interesting; plus it sort of counts as a second book about Asian culture. Nisbett discusses various areas of thought and resulting behavior, examining the differences between Asians and Westerners and then citing studies on each topic. He also proposes theories about how these different ways of thought might have arisen, often referring to the Greeks as a major influence on Western thought, and Confucius, Buddhism, and Taoism as influences on Eastern thought. Rather than simply stating a bunch of stereotypes, Nisbett relies on research and explains where a lot of stereotypical behavior comes from.

The cons: First, there are parts of the book which simply aren't edited very well. Closer to the beginning of the book, I remember finding several awkward sentences with too many clauses. The thing that bothered me the most was that there was a particular passage (about the Western tendency to isolate an attribute from its object) which was repeated, almost verbatim, two more times in the book. It seemed as if he had written this passage, couldn't decide where to put it, and ended up forgetting to remove it from its multiple locations. Another weakness (in my opinion) is that quite often when Nisbett refers to a study, the result is exaclty as expected. Very rarely does any study turn out differently from the initial hypothesis, which makes me wonder a little about the objectivity of these studies.

However, despite these weaknesses, the book is fascinating and fairly well-organized. Reading this helps me to understand errors that I may make myself, and places where misunderstandings may arise between, say, my family and Robyn's. I felt the book was pretty easy to understand; the author explained most of his terms and concepts, without spending too much time on statistical analysis (although I suppose scientists might want more hard figures). Especially helpful were examples given to illustrate the sorts of tests that they used—I often found that my own responses fell somewhere in between the "typical" Westerner's and Easterner's responses (as expected, of course!).

A few things I learned, in case you're curious: Westerners have a tendency to isolate things from their context and focus on individual subjects whereas Easterners tend to have a broader perspective and consider context to be very important. This leads to differences in family life (importance of the individual vs. the family as a unit), ideas about causality (are a person's actions based on their own personality traits or their circumstances?), and even the way we learn language (Westerners focus on nouns, Easterners focus on verbs). Nisbett also suggests that culture and language both influence and are influenced by the way we think: the oft-repeated passage I mentioned above mentioned how easy it is to add "-ness" to an adjective to make it a noun, an isolated property, such as "whiteness." But in Eastern languages, there is no counterpart: you can talk about a white horse, or the white snow, or a white flower, but to separate "white" from its object makes little sense.

Westerners are more susceptible to the Fundamental Attribution Error: that is, they often attribute the cause of, say, a person's actions to incorrect assumptions because they ignore surrounding circumstances. Easterners are more susceptible to the hindsight fallacy: after the fact, they often believe that things turned out as they would have expected, even if in fact they could not have predicted the outcome beforehand.

Nisbett also discusses the differences between the Western logical mindset and the Eastern dialectical mindset. The dialectical view is to find the Middle Way between extremes and isn't concerned with contradictions, so Easterners often prefer compromise to taking a strong stance in one direction or another. The logical view, however, holds to the principle of noncontradiction, and Westerners are more likely to espouse one extreme or another, avoiding middle ground for fear of appearing wishy-washy.

In summary, the book isn't the most well-written book I've read recently, but I did find it educational and illuminating in many respects. For anyone who's experienced culture clashes between the East and West, this book may prove helpful in understanding the sources of those differences.

P.S. One infuriating thing about the book is the complete lack of explanation of the cover graphic. It appears to be a chart of some sort, with two axes with four circular diagrams of varying orientations, one in each quadrant. However, it is never explained in the book and apparently doesn't have any correspondence with any particular studies or statements—my guess is that it was simply made up by some graphic designer who was given the title of the book. Phooey.

Fed to jonathan's brain | April 29, 2003