一方水土养一方人 / We Are What We Think

一方水土养一方人

最近,我看了一本非常有意思的书,书名是《地域性思考——论东西方的思维差异及成因》。作者是美国著名的心理学家理查德•尼斯贝特。

尼斯贝特毕生致力于对文化及认知的突破性研究,探索文化差异为何、以及如何造就出了思维方式的不同。

在本书的自序中,尼斯贝特坦陈自己曾一直对人类思考的本质持普遍主义观点。普遍主义者相信,所有人类种群皆拥有相同的感知及思维方式,之所以出现文化差异,更多是由于接触的世界或教育不同所致,而非认知过程存在差异。

数年前,尼斯贝特曾与他人合著《人类推理》一书,书名本身就让他当时的思想倾向暴露无遗:全世界的思维过程从本质上都具有普遍性。

后来,如尼斯贝特在《地域性思考》一书中所述,一位优秀的中国留学生开始与他合作,共同研究社会心理学和思维学;而这一过程中迸发出的质询和调查让尼斯贝特开始重新审视自己早先的观点,并最终成就了本书的研究、创作和出版。

这本身就是一个耐人寻味的故事,原因如下:

首先,作为知名教授,他没有固步自封,骄傲自满,而是以开放的心态面对自身专业领域内出现的新思想,接纳一位聪颖的年轻留学生扮演的催化剂角色,让自己重新评估并转变了想法,堪称楷模。

优秀的学者应该解放思想,就如同优秀的领导人应该乐于听取属下提出的创新性、突破性建议一样。但遗憾的是,许多学者和领导都丧失了这种品质,被已有的成功桎梏了思想,沉迷于固有的思维模式。

其次,中国留学生提出的问题引发了尼斯贝特的重新评估,这一过程本身精确地诠释出本书的要点:中国人和西方人在思维上的确存在着差异,但如果二人同心,其利断金。

尼斯贝特在书的开篇中讲述了古希腊和古中国,以及两国在大约2500年前在哲学、成就、社会结构、生态以及对各自社会的自我认知上存在的巨大差异。西方国家从古希腊继承了大量的知识遗产,同样,古老的中国文化也对当代中国乃至亚洲产生了巨大影响。

接下来,他继续探究了西方人和中国人、以及其他亚洲人在典型思维过程上的广泛差别,引经据典,并辅以调查和心理测试作为依据,其中有些是专为创作本书而设计的题目。

他还对印欧语系及东亚国家的语言结构进行了比较,发现语言上的重大差异在某种程度上与思想的差异是平行存在的。

尽管对如此庞大而多样,却又表面极其相似的人群进行总结和概括有点儿冒险,但尼斯贝特的研究成果还是意义重大,并有很强的说服力。

有时候,中国人会问我外国人是怎么思考或行动的。我通常会反问:“哪些外国人?”原因很简单,非中国人从个头、体形、人种和文化上区分,包括很多类型。同样,外国人也常常会犯类似的错误,以为凡是中国人、凡是中国文化就都一模一样。

根据我在中国和西方的生活经验,我认为尼斯贝特这本书包含了非常重要的真谛,尤其是在如今全球化和流动加剧的年代,出版得非常及时。

他还讨论了母语在何种程度上造就并定义了感知差异,以及外语学习会对此产生的影响。

他谈到了“混合双语”与“并列双语”的区别。这两个说法都与外语学习者有关。前一类人从很小的时候就开始学习外语,因此在大多数情况下都能运用自如。而后一类人则在年龄稍长时才开始学习,所以熟练掌握的语境也就有限。

已有证据表明,一个人的思维过程不仅受语言影响,也受到文化的影响。因此,一个人对外语的吸收程度越深,其思维方式所受的影响也就越大。

尼斯贝特认为:“人们坚信由于所处的社会性质,自己才会有所思而有所为,也会有所为而有所思。”

而对于真正的“双文化”人来说,尼斯贝特认为“事实证明,这些人不仅具有居中的价值观和信仰,其认知过程也位于两者之间——或者至少可以在两种文化的推理方式中灵活游走。”

他还举例证明,认知过程可以简单地通过在不同文化中的短暂生活得以改变。

对此,大多数已在异域文化中生活过一段时间的人都会说:“当然,这是显而易见的。”除非他们对当地文化进行自我隔离。

不过,能看到一份分析亚洲人和西方人思维差异的观察报告,并由对这一问题有深入研究的著名心理学家给出阐述,还是让我们受益匪浅。

对我来说,有一件事无需著名教授提点我也知道,在当今21世纪,我们需要更多的有彼此文化背景经历、掌握对方语言的亚洲人和西方人。这样双文化的人越多,我们生活得也就会越好。

We Are What We Think

I recently read a very interesting book called “The Geography of Thought — How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why” written by a distinguished American psychologist named Richard E. Nisbett.

Nisbett’s life work involves groundbreaking research on culture and cognition, examining how and why different cultures produce people who think in very different ways.

By his own admission in the introduction to this book, Nisbett had previously been a lifelong universalist concerning the nature of human thought. Universalists believe that all human groups perceive and reason in the same way, and that differences between cultures arise more as result of exposure to different aspects of the world, or differences in education, rather than differences in cognitive processes.

Some years back Nisbett even co-authored a book entitled “Human Inference”, the title of which clearly suggests where his sympathies had been, namely that thought processes around the world were fairly universal in nature.

Later, as Nisbett recounts in “The Geography of Thought”, a brilliant student from China began working with him on questions of social psychology and reasoning; and in the process sparked a process of inquiry and research which led Nisbett to reappraise his earlier views. This ultimately lead to the research, writing and publication of this book.

This in itself is an interesting story for several reasons.

First it is an example of a distinguished professor who, rather than becoming stuck in his ways and arrogant, remained open-minded to new ways of thinking about his field of specialization, in this case with a bright young student from overseas playing the role of catalyst for re-evaluation and change.

Good professors should be open-minded, just as good leaders should be open to innovative, ground-breaking ideas from those who report to them. Unfortunately many professors and leaders have lost sight of this quality, letting their success block their vision, and getting too comfortable in established ways of thinking.

Second, the story of Nisbett’s process of reappraisal which began with the questions posed by his brilliant Chinese student illustrates precisely what the book is all about: namely that Chinese and Westerners do tend to think in different ways, which when combined can produce better results than when left solely to their own means.

The opening chapter in Nisbett’s book talks about ancient Greece and ancient China, and the very big differences in the philosophies, achievements, social structures, ecologies, and self-conceptions of both societies some 2,500 years ago. The intellectual inheritance of Western countries from ancient Greece is enormous, and likewise the impact of ancient China on contemporary China and other parts of Asia.

He goes on to examine broad differences in the typical thought processes between Westerners and Chinese as well as other Asian groups, drawing on scholarly sources old and new, surveys, as well as psychological tests, some of which were designed and conducted as part of the research for this book.

He also examines the comparative structure of Indo-European languages and East Asian languages, finding important differences which to some extent parallel differences in thought processes.

Nisbett’s findings are interesting and persuasive, even though it is perilous to try to generalize about such large yet diverse groups of people who appear quite similar on the surface.

Sometimes Chinese people ask me questions about how foreigners think or act, to which my standard response is a question: “Which foreigners?” for the simple reason that non-Chinese people come in many sizes, shapes, varieties and cultures. Foreigners commonly make the same mistake in thinking that Chinese people and Chinese culture are somehow homogenous.

Still, my own experience living in both Chinese and Western cultures suggests that Nisbett’s book contains some important and timely insights, especially relevant in the present era of globalization and heightened mobility.

One question he discusses is the extent to which cognitive differences are produced and defined by one’s native language, and the effects of learning a second language on this.

He talks about the differences between “compound bilinguals” and “coordinate bilinguals”. Both terms refer to people who have learned a second language. The first group tend to begin their second language study earlier in life and attain a higher degree of comfort with it in a wider variety of circumstances; whereas the second group tend to begin at a later age and achieve a more limited range of comfortable second language contexts.

The evidence is clear that an individual’s thought processes are effected not only by language but also by culture, so that the more deeply one absorbs a second language, the more impact it has on the way one thinks.

Nisbett says “People hold the beliefs they do because of the way they think and they think the way they do because of the nature of the societies they live in.”

On genuinely bicultural people, Nisbett says “Evidence suggests that such people do not merely have values and beliefs that are intermediate between two cultures, but that their cognitive processes can be intermediate, as well — or at least that they can alternate between forms of reasoning characteristic of one culture versus another.”

He also offers evidence that cognitive processes can be modified by virtue of merely living for awhile in another culture.

This is one of those statements to which most people who have lived for a time in another culture would say “Of course. That’s obvious!” Unless, of course, they isolated themselves from the local culture of the place in which they lived.

Still, it is useful to have that observation placed within the context of how Asians and Westerners think differently, as expounded by an esteemed psychologist who has studied the matter in some depth.

One thing which I don’t need a distinguished academic to tell me is that in this 21st century we’re going to need a lot more Asians and Westerners who have lived in each others’ cultures and studied each others’ languages. The more of them who are bicultural, the better off we’ll be.


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