Not Exactly Rocket Science

The nice thing about writing features is that they’re often solicited miles in advance so I can write something, totally forget about it and then be surprised when I open my weekly copy of New Scientist to find my name in a byline.

This week’s issue has a feature by me entitled “Beyond east and west: How the brain unites us all” (I like the title; I didn’t write it).

Following the piece I wrote on FOXP2, this is another of those “the media says this, but here’s what’s really going on” pieces. It’s an exploration of the supposed cultural differences between East Asians and Westerners in the ways they see and think about the world. This is a fairly controversial area and my intention was to shed a bit of light on the debate and go beyond the stereotypes that are so often inaccurately presented by the popular media (and rightfully mocked).

I’d encourage you to read the full piece, but for those who want a taster, the thrust is this:

Psychologists have conducted a wealth of experiments that seem to support popular notions that easterners have a holistic world view… while westerners tend to think more analytically. However, the most recent research suggests that these popular stereotypes are far too simplistic. It is becoming apparent that we are all capable of thinking both holistically and analytically – and we are starting to understand what makes individuals flip between the two modes of thought.

A seemingly endless array of  psychological experiments have apparently reinforced the idea of the anlaytic westerner who focuses on prominent objects and uses hard logic, and the holistic easterner, who considers the object’s context and pays special attention to its relationships with its environment. This distinction seems to apply to areas as diverse as perception, attentional biases, use of logic, views of causality and more. Some have suggested that these differences are the result of historical cultural factors harkening all the way back to the relatively independent lives of ancient Greeks versus the more connected existences of the ancient Chinese.

But it seems that it’s a little more complicated than that.

Many of these conclusions are based on limited evidence from a small number of countries, particularly the US, Canada, Japan and China. Factor in people from Europe and other parts of the world and you see more of a continuum rather than a two-sided distinction. And you can find the same distinctions between analytic and holistic thought if you look at a local level rather than focusing on broad sweeps of history or geography. 

It’s also possible to evoke one mindset or another.

For example, psychologists have “primed” east Asian volunteers to adopt an individualistic mode of thought simply by getting them to imagine playing singles tennis, circling single-person pronouns or unscrambling sentences containing words such as “unique”, “independence” and “solitude”. In many of the experiments volunteers from a single cultural background – be it eastern or western – show differences in behaviour as large as those you normally get when comparing people from traditionally collectivist and individualist cultures…

What is clear is that the minds of east Asians, Americans or any other group are not wired differently. We are all capable of both analytic and holistic thought. “Different societies make one option seem to make the most sense at any given moment,” says Oyserman. But instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility.

Obviously, this is a controversial area and it was probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to write yet. I’m pleased with the result though, and Vaughan at Mind Hacks rates it, which is pretty much the highest commendation I could hope for with a neuroscience/psychology piece!

Comments

  1. #1 Wim
    March 5, 2009

    Nice, but watch out with that journal! They might do a “Ed Yong was wrong” cover somewhere in a distant future.

  2. #2 Karen
    March 5, 2009

    I’m a psychology student from the west, living in the east, so this article was fascinating for me. Lucidly written, I can well imagine it did take a horrendous amount of work Ed, much appreciated!

    I often struggle to see the “collectivist” mindset in the western-influenced Asian societies where I’ve lived, and a lot of the cliches based on Confucian values seem much eroded in modern Asia. Sometimes I suspect the East has become hyper-Western, taking the competitiveness of the West, for example, to an extent that’s not experienced in western countries – maybe because we’ve seen its consequences and had to learn balance.

    It would be interesting to see some studies on the changing mindsets between Asian cohorts in countries such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

  3. #3 Sandeep Gautam
    March 5, 2009

    Ed, I disagree profoundly. I wanted to post here, but the comments required a blog post. you can read my comments(sorry for some harsh comments) here. http://the-mouse-trap.blogspot.com/2009/03/cultural-differences-are-vodoo.html

  4. #4 HolfordWatch
    March 7, 2009

    Congratulations on the New Scientist piece – it is well worth seeking out a copy.

  5. #5 James Dean
    March 7, 2009

    Congrats! I’m 100% behind anyone fighting senseless stereotypes.

  6. #7 Tony Jeremiah
    March 16, 2009

    What is clear is that the minds of east Asians, Americans or any other group are not wired differently. We are all capable of both analytic and holistic thought. “Different societies make one option seem to make the most sense at any given moment,” says Oyserman. But instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility.

    Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument

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