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August 24, 2003

The Geography of Thought

I just read Richard Nisbett's The Geography of Thought. You can read a summary of the book here as a press release from the University of Michigan. The critiques that some of the readers over at Amazon make about the book are spot-on, Nisbett has a collection of studies that he bandies about, which reinforces stereotypes and preconceptions about "Asian thinking" vs. "Western thinking."


  • The West is reductionist, the East is holistic
  • The East is accepts contradiction, the West must be consistent
  • The West focuses on the object, the East observers the context

...and so forth. This is a recapitulation of tried & true generalizations. But I think Nisbett does us a service by showing that psychological tests have indicated quite clearly that these trends are true.

For instance, give a Westerner a series of questions, and they will tend to answer them in a way that it is clear that they have a sense of the whole so that contradiction is minimized. In contrast, Easterners will assent to contradictory assertions far more easily. Now, this could go either way, depending on how you interpret it! Here Westerners are being "holistic," but in a way where they perform a sort of back-reduction, creating a construct that can be reduced to the parts. Easterners accept the individual statements and don't mind that the whole might be a bit out-of-kilter if critiqued with reason, because they accept the whole as existing without a need for justification. There are myriad examples he gives where this is obvious in everyday situations constricted in the laboratory setting, so I won't recapitulate them.

Nisbett's general point is correct, but his specific grander assertions, that there is something deep within the structures of individuals that is shaped by their cultural background seems to fall flat on its face. He shows quite clearly that there are individuals who have bicultural backgrounds who not only often fall in the middle, many of these individuals switch world-views when given contextual cues that this is a "Western" or "Eastern" situation. Nisbett brings this up to rebut any charges of genetic determinism, but his conclusion, that the "Western" or "Eastern" orientation, though ubiquitous in a given context, are easy to transform and shift, makes his thesis rather mundane.

Additionally, Nisbett has a strong bias against genetic factors, as evidenced by the reviews which indicate this is a book that challenges Pinker's The Blank Slate. He tends to ignore genetic explanations, largely because his mind is made up, for instance, he notes that Anglo-Indians fall between Indians & English in terms of their "West" vs. "East" orientation-which could be taken as a point in favor of some genetic factor. Nisbett doesn't address it because he obviously doesn't think that holds any weight, and most of his evidence does lean against that, but the fact that he neglects to counter that option shows what his biases are.

As a psychologist, I assume Nisbett knows of the work of Jerome Kagan, which shows quite clearly that different races have somewhat shifted levels of extroversion from infancy. I don't know where this would fit in in with Nisbett's theories, but it seems likely that a given cultural matrix would shape individuals over generations by selecting for a certain personality type that is congenial to succeeding when certain social assumptions are ubiquitous. A good test would be Asian children adopted by white Americans and raised in The United States.

Also, some of blurbs for Nisbett's book ignores that his dichotomy between "West" and "East" is somewhat artificial. Though Nisbett roots Western individualism with the precedent of the ancient Greeks, continental Europeans tend to fall in between the "East" and the Anglo-Saxon-Scandinavian (ASS) world in terms of their orientation, sometimes having values closer to the ASS (in comparison to East Asia), sometimes not. Nisbett states clearly that East Asia is far more typical of the world in terms of its values than the reverse, that "The West," encapsulated in ASS, is actually an anomaly.

It is interesting then that Nisbett sees the root of this anomaly in ancient Greece, a culture that today has less truck with sophistic debates in the marketplace of ideas than modern America (until recently Greece made it illegal to switch religions-I don't know if that's still in force). Kevin MacDonald et al. have a different explanation for the ASS anomaly, evolution. They assert that northern Europeans developed a K selected strategy that minimized in-group coherence and lacked xenophobia toward the out-group[1]. Much of the laundry list of "Western traits" show up in Kevin MacDonald's work. So who is correct? Well, I think Nisbett's use of the ancient Greek exemplar answers the question, cultures change, and current stereotypes do not always project well back to the past.

For instance, look at one of my favorite examples, Germany. In 1750 Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, spoke French in his court because the Germans were a fractious and uncultured people (less so the Austrians, who though have always been more cosmopolitan than the north Germans as they ruled many Slavic people and a strong role in northern Italian politics). And yet 100 years later Germany was a cultural maelstrom, preeminent in the sciences, a beacon of light in the arts and the center of world philosophy, from Kant to Hegel. Similarly between 800 BCE & & 400 BCE Athens went from being an unknown semi-literate trading town living in the shadow of its Mycenaean past to the most cultural vibrant star in the firmament. Times change, and the self-perception and stereotypes change, during the Wars of Religion you would have been laughed at if you had spoken of "German efficiency." (oh, and Germans are less "Western" that the ASS groups and closer to the rest of Continental Europe)

I don't reject the importance of genetic capital in the development of culture, but attempting to unravel confounding factors is very difficult, and rather than make the attempt many give up and re-write the past or re-cast the present to fit into a more static and simpler conception of the world. For this reason the northern Europeans from 1800 onward created vast theories explaining away their barbarous past and lack of achievement in comparison to the peoples of southern Europe and beyond. In contrast, modern day Islamists always point the past glories and dismiss the modern day squalor of the House of Islam by appealing to conspiracy theories. The truth is cultures & contexts change, but people do not want to admit that the static nature of their own personalities over their lifetime does not imply that culture is individual writ large.

Now, on the point of difficulty unraveling causes and factors in any given phenomena, Nisbett has an interesting point to make on this. The Chinese tendency to accept compromise, to see the truth in every point, and accept that some things are just beyond rational modeling, has been very detrimental to any stab toward a true science. The European tendency to be dogmatic about rational points and attack and tear down contradictions until a coherent model emerges is much more fruitful in the context of scientific progress-Europeans have made many mistakes (phlogistan? ether?), but for every hundred errors one discovers a gem of truth. In contrast the Chinese seemed to accept that the natural world as capricious because humans could not conceive of all under heaven and that the focus should be on social harmony, something which intelligent apes have a much better grasp of[2]. Just because it is difficult does not mean that one should give up the quest, that is the Western view, and the view of those of us who accept that evolutionary psychology might be a bullshit factory, but it is the only game in town and gives us a better grasp of the understanding of human nature than just cordoning off certain avenues of research because they are difficult and prone to error.

Speaking of intelligent apes, Nisbett takes a parting shot and Murray & Hernstein near the end of the book, throwing cold water on the idea of psychometry. Nisbett points out that Westerners are trained from childhood to categorize and see patterns extrapolating from the traits of any given object. In contrast, Easterners see relationships, purposes, and the situational context. Nisbett illustrates two "culture fair" tests-one based on recognizing geometric patterns, and another assembling the geometric patterns into a greater whole, the former was a strength of Westerners, the latter of Easterners. "How can we test abstraction" seems to ask Nisbett when people think in such different manners. Well, Nisbett answers his own question, Asian-Americans can assimilate Western modes of thinking, and he gives examples of the reverse situation where whites can think like the East. Though somewhat different, these tests are still abstract, and Nisbett states in the book people can be trained to think differently rather quickly. Nisbett also doesn't seem to answer the question of why Asian-Americans, early 20th Chinese & Japanese who weren't as selection-biased as modern immigrants, do so well on Western oriented IQ tests. The easiest answer seems to be that they had no problem re-orienting their thinking because "Western" or "Eastern" conceptions of the universe are not highly contingent the structure of one's brain, but rather on preferences dictated by culture & personality[3].

Nisbett's book is worth a read, at least if you are a business-person or a marketer, but he really does not present any new axiomatic constructs that shift anyone's paradigm. This is a good read, though I suggest you skim over the sections that don't deal directly with studies, as they tend to be speculative and bleed into philosophy rather than social science.

fn1. Nisbett uses such terminology to contrast East & West, though of course not in a racial/genetic context, but MacDonald is correct as a matter of fact to contrast the lack of in-group coherence of Western man in comparison to other groups.

fn2. There is a 100,000 year gap between the emergence of material culture as we know it and anatomically modern man. I suspect that the brain grew in this period due to selective pressures to socialize, something which does not leave evidence for the palaeoanthroplogists to root through.

fn3. By this, I mean that if Chinese are on average more shy than Europeans, the former would have a greater susceptibility and propensity for a culture that values interpersonal harmony and focus on situation, context and a lack of emphasis on adversarial debate.

Godless comments:


But I think Nisbett does us a service by showing that psychological tests have indicated quite clearly that these trends are true. ...Now, this could go either way, depending on how you interpret it! Here Westerners are being "holistic," but in a way where they perform a sort of back-reduction, creating a construct that can be reduced to the parts.

I will have to read the book to render my verdict, but this sort of rationalization seems inconsistent to me. How many times is Nisbett's interpretation tendentious like this? Seems like a just-so story, though I do feel there is a kernel of truth there. Also, does the "East" mean Chinese/Japanese/Korean, or does it mean "anything east of the Middle East"?

MacDonald is correct as a matter of fact to contrast the lack of in-group coherence of Western man in comparison to other groups.

MacDonald tries to have it both ways, actually. The thesis of his book is that American Jews were responsible for antiracist ideology and its consequences (civil rights, nonwhite immigration, and so on). He portrays this altruistic ideology as an unnatural transplant...but then turns around and depicts Western man as an innately tragic individualist. Needless to say, these views are inconsistent: either altruism was forced on the West, or they were innately altruistic. In my opinion, in-group coherence among Europeans only really evaporated after 1945, for obvious reasons.[4] My thoughts on MacDonald are here.

Also, it's worth noting that semi-Western India has substantial internal self criticism, where anti-Hindu rhetoric on the Indian left is very comparable to anti-Christian rhetoric on the Western left:


I think it is to do with an ancient fear of writers. I think the clarity of what you are saying is threatening," Roy said. Despite her towering literary status abroad, she is something of a hate figure for India's powerful Hindu right. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads India's coalition government, has been one of the most vigorous supporters of the Sardar Sarovar dam project. Roy has directed her polemical energies against it since scooping the Booker in 1997. The BJP controls Gujarat - one of three Indian states supposed to benefit from the grandiose hydroelectric project. Its power base is in northern India - a world away from Roy's lush, green native Kerala, lyrically evoked in her novel. It is hardly surprising, then, that Roy should have few fans among the BJP or its Hindu revivalist allies.

Other prominent left-wing India haters include Praful Bidwai and Dilip D'Souza[5], the latter of whom actually called for an invasion of India.


Saturday morning, last week was a bad one for me – the first thing I read, was an article from Dilip D'Souza. He pontificated,

"Then what do we say about those who might plot against the obscenity that blights their land, as Stauffenberg did, who fight to free India of it? Are they patriots? If so, what if they welcomed a force from abroad that toppled this hypothetical regime, as many Iraqis did? Are they still patriots?" (rediff.com)

I was stunned. D'Souza, a recognized and very visible journalist, was insinuating and subtly recommending a foreign invasion of India to get rid of the current government; pretty much like the US did in Iraq. Let's be sure of one thing- I will die defending D'Souza's right to criticize, fight legally against, decry or vote out of office the current Indian government – but, calling for foreign invasion?? Now, that's beyond hate.

All this, when I was just beginning to get over the fact that after the Indo-Pakistani thaw had been announced, Praful Bidwai gleefully announced that India "must give up its inalienable right to Kashmir". No word on strategic goals for India, nothing about not rewarding terrorism. When did this happen? Leading journalists, openly publishing anti-India, hate-India propaganda in Indian dailies, and not a word is said – not a single editorial, no public criticism, nothing?

You won't be surprised to know that Roy is friends with Noam Chomsky. What's the point? Economically speaking, India's GDP-per-capita is nowhere near the West despite notable growth in recent years. But politically speaking, lefty self-criticism is alive and well. If you believe that Western self-criticism is inherently a racial thing rather than a cultural thing, this is an interesting phenomenon.

I suspect that leftist anti-nationalist speakers are probably vocal in the advanced East Asian democracies (Taiwan, Japan, South Korea), but I'm not as familiar with the media in those countries. Comments from readers with further examples of non-Western self-criticism would be appreciated.

fn4. The "obvious reasons" being the awfully destructive effects of Hitler's Germany upon most of Europe, which made many people receptive to the idea that racism, war, and hatred were correlated. There were important egalitarian gentile movements before this time, most notably emancipation of the American slaves, women's suffrage, and Bismarck's welfare state...but open advocacy of white racial supremacy, "white interests", and racially based immigration policy was common place until just a few decades back.

fn5. NOT to be confused with American right-winger Dinesh D'Souza! ;)

Update from Razib: Nisbett's book is good for this one reason-it reiterates just how special the Anglosphere is! The book is based on a duality between East (China, Japan & Korea) and the West (the Anglosphere), but Nisbett does state that the East has a psychological make-up that is far more typical of humanity. Even Continental Europe, fellow white members of Christendom, are somewhere between the East and the Anglosphere + Scandinavia (ASS), rather than shifted toward their racial & cultural kin. The traits of the Anglosphere are obvious in their formal & public manifestations, liberty & individual rights, strong contracts and little clannishness, etc. But Nisbett's book shows how psychological traits on the individual level is just as unique as the superstructure of law & institutions that characterize government and civil society in the ASS cultures (ergo, no one is falling into social preconceptions shaped by conscious propoganda).

Posted by razib at 03:18 PM




>> until recently Greece made it illegal to switch religions-I don't know if that's still in force

It has never been illegal to switch religions in Greece.

Posted by: Dienekes at August 24, 2003 04:28 PM


Thank you for a very interesting post...

There is a view that much of Western style 'subject-object duality' (as opposed to Zen style 'non-duality') originated with Descartes...

Would GNXPers know of any articles or books that contrast such 'duality' with 'non-duality' and use it to explain the explosion and evolution of Western scientific research and achievement after Descartes?

Posted by: Computer Professor at August 24, 2003 07:57 PM


Needless to say, these views are inconsistent: either altruism was forced on the West, or they were innately altruistic.

It's not inconsistent at all - MacDonald argues that whites naturally lean toward individualism and a lack of ethnocentrism (relative to Jews), but the acceptance of Jewish-promoted ideologies pushed whites towards a fundamentally suicidal extreme.

Posted by: Oleg at August 24, 2003 10:35 PM


I will have to read the book to render my verdict, but this sort of rationalization seems inconsistent to me. How many times is Nisbett's interpretation tendentious like this? Seems like a just-so story, though I do feel there is a kernel of truth there. Also, does the "East" mean Chinese/Japanese/Korean, or does it mean "anything east of the Middle East"?

mostly east asia, china, japan & korea. the problem lay more in terminology than anything else-nisbett does show that anglospherens & chinese/japanese/koreans tend to clump at each end of the spectrum on a variety of psychological tests.... i don't think "holistic" is a good word to use, but he uses it a lot....

Posted by: razib at August 25, 2003 12:38 AM


>> What are anti-proselytism laws other than legal barriers against change-of-religion?

The case you referred to was a case of proselytism, not of "change of religion". In Greece, everyone is free to believe in whatever religion they want to believe and they are free to change their religion. That is simple enough to understand.

Posted by: Dienekes at August 25, 2003 02:10 PM