Book review: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why, by Richard E. Nisbett.
It is often said that travel is a good way to improve one’s understanding of other cultures.
The Geography of Thought discredits that saying, by being full of examples of cultural differences that 99.9% of travelers will overlook.
Here are a few of the insights I got from the book, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten from visiting Asia frequently:
There’s no Chinese word for individualism—selfish seems to be the closest equivalent.
Infants in the US are often forced to sleep in a separate bed, often in a separate room. That’s rather uncommon in Asia. Does this contribute to US individualism? Or is it just a symptom?
There are no Asians in Lake Wobegon. I.e. Asians are rather reluctant to rate themselves as above average.
Westerners want contracts to be unconditionally binding, whereas Asians want contracts to change in response to unexpected contexts.
Asians are likely to consider justice in the abstract, by-the-book Western sense to be rigid and unfeeling.
Chinese justice is an art, not a science.
Origins of Western Culture
Those cultural differences provide hints about why science as we know it developed in the West, and not in Asia.
I read Geography of Thought in order to expand my understanding of some ideas in Henrich’s WEIRDest People.
Nisbett disagrees somewhat with Henrich about when WEIRD culture arose, writing a fair amount about the Western features of ancient Greek culture.
Nisbett traces some of the east-west differences to the likelihood that the Greeks met more apparent contradiction than did Asians, via trade with other cultures. That led them to devote more attention to logical thought. (Here’s an odd claim from Nisbett: ancient Greeks were unwilling to adopt the concept of zero, because “it represented a contradiction”).
Nisbett agrees with Henrich that there was some sort of gap between ancient Greek culture and the Reformation, but believes the gap came later than Henrich does. These two quotes are about all that Nisbett has to say about the gap:
As the West became primarily agricultural in the Middle Ages, it became less individualistic.
The Romans brought a gift for rational organization and something resembling the Chinese genius for technological achievement, and - after a trough lasting almost a millennium—their successors, the Italians, rediscovered these values … The Reformation also brought a weakened commitment to the family and other in-groups coupled with a greater willingness to trust out-groups
Neither Nisbett nor Henrich convinced me that they know much about any such period of reduced individualism—they don’t seem to consider it important.
Reductionism and Categorization
I used to interpret attacks on reductionism as attacks on a valuable aspect of science. I now see an alternate understanding: a clash of two cognitive styles, reflecting differing priors about how much we can usefully simplify our models of the world.
The Western goal of finding really simple models likely helped generate the study of physics. I’m guessing it also contributed a bit to the West’s role in eradicating infectious diseases.
However, it may have been counter-productive at dealing with age-related diseases. Let’s look at the example of Alzheimer’s.
Western researchers have been obsessed with the simple model of beta amyloid being the sole cause of the disease. Drugs targeting beta amyloid have been failing at a rate that is worse than what we should expect due to random chance if they were placebos. Yet some researchers still pursue drugs that target beta amyloid.
Some of that focus on single causes is due to the way that medical research depends on patents, but don’t forget that patent law is a product of Western culture.
Meanwhile, outside of the mainstream, there are some signs of progress at treating Alzheimer’s using approaches that follow a more holistic cognitive style. They posit multiple, overlapping factors that contribute to dementia, and entertain doubts about how to classify various versions of dementia.
I also see some hints that traditional Asian medicine has done better than mainstream Western medicine at treating Alzheimer’s. The results still seem poor, but the risk/reward ratio seems good enough that I’m trying a few of them.
High modernism, combined with excessive reification of categories, may have led the medical establishment on some dead-end paths.
In addition, Western medicine has been much more eager to adopt surgery than China - presumably due to an expectation that cutting out “the cause” of a disease will cure it. I’m moderately confident that Western medicine does too much surgery. I don’t have any guess about whether Asian cultures do too little.
Chuang Tzu is quoted as saying, “Classifying or limiting knowledge fractures the greater knowledge.”
it’s been suggested that the distinction between “human” and “animal” insisted upon by Westerners made it particularly hard to accept the concept of evolution. … Evolution was never controversial in the East because there was never an assumption that humans sat atop a chain of being and had somehow lost their animality.
Westerners needed to overcome the habit of classifying humans and animals as categories with different essences. Asians are much less comfortable with attaching importance to categories and essences, so evolution required less change in their worldviews.
Doesn’t the Western lead in reductionist science conflict with the evidence of Asian students doing well at math and science? Nisbett says that’s partly explained by Asians working harder:
due at least in part to the greater Western tendency to believe that behavior is the result of fixed traits. Americans are inclined to believe that skills are qualities you do or don’t have, so there’s not much point in trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Asians tend to believe that everyone, under the right circumstances and with enough hard work, can learn to do math.
There’s some important tension between this and the message of The Cult of Smart. Nisbett tells us that American math-teaching isn’t as good as the Asian version. But that can’t be the full answer—Cult of Smart indicates that schools rejected key elements of Western culture in the past few decades. Key parts of that trend happened just before Geography of Thought was published.
So the US seems to be adopting parts of Asian culture that make schools more cruel, and more effective at producing excellent graduates. But that trend seems unstable, due to the delusion that it’s promoting the Western ideal of equality.
For a long time, I believed that the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test was culture-neutral.
Nisbett compares an example from a CFIT test (like Raven’s, but with “culture fair” in the name) with an example from an IQ-like Chinese test. The Chinese test is more focused on relationships between parts. It was easy for me to see that the two tests were optimized for mildly different notions of intelligence, so I was unsurprised when Nisbett reported that Chinese subjects showed higher scores on the Chinese test, and Americans showed higher scores on CFIT.
I’m a bit frustrated that Nisbett is vague about the magnitude of the differences, and that he cites only an unpublished manuscript that he co-authored. Publish it now, Nisbett!
Both notions of intelligence seem quite compatible with common notions of smartness, differing only in which skill subsets ought to be emphasized most. So this isn’t like the usual commentary on bias in IQ tests that’s looking for an excuse to reject intelligence testing.
I’m surprised to find large differences in how much various cultures care about distinguishing intentional and accidental harm, with WEIRD people caring the most, and a few cultures barely distinguishing them at all.
Nisbett hints that some of that is due to the WEIRD expectation that actions have a single cause, and can’t result from a combination of intentional and accidental factors. Some of it might also be due to Westerners doing more causal attribution in general.
I wonder how cultural differences affect attitudes toward ethics?
In particular, I wonder whether Asian cultures care less about virtue ethics, due to less influence from Fundamental Attribution Error?
Some hasty research suggests that the answers are controversial.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says:
What makes the characterization of Confucianism as a virtue ethic controversial are more specific, narrower senses of “virtue” employed in Western philosophical theories. Tiwald (2018) distinguishes between something like the broad sense of virtue and a philosophical usage that confers on qualities or traits of character explanatory priority over right action and promoting good consequences. Virtue ethics in this sense is a competitor to rule deontological and consequentialist theories. There simply is not enough discussion in the Confucian texts, especially in the classical period, that is addressed to the kind of questions these Western theories seek to answer.
There are other narrower senses of “virtue” that are clearly mischaracterizations when applied to Confucian ethics. Virtues might be supposed to be qualities that people have or can have in isolation from others with whom they interact or from their communities, societies, or culture. Such atomistic virtues could make up ideals of the person that in turn can be specified or realized in social isolation. … influential critics of the “virtue” characterization of Confucian ethics … seem to be supposing that the term is loaded with such controversial presuppositions.
Geography of Thought is a great choice if you want to understand the cultural differences between the US and China. It complements WEIRDest People fairly well.
Geography of Thought is mostly about two sets of cultures, with little attention to cultures other than those of eastern Asia and the West.
Nisbett seems a bit more rigorous than Henrich, but Henrich’s cultural knowledge seems much broader. Geography of Thought doesn’t quite satisfy the “and Why” part of it’s subtitle, whereas Henrich makes an impressive attempt at answering that question.