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.