Tuesday, August 23, 2005
A reader pointed me to this new research out in PNAS that suggests that "...Westerners attend more to focal objects, whereas East Asians attend more to contextual information." Scientific American has a popular press piece up on this as well. The reader wondered why the researchers focused on cultural rather than biological factors. To understand, I think you need to have read Nisbett's book, The Geography of Thought (see my review), where he introduces many of the ideas that loom in the background of this paper. In the book Nisbett notes that Anglo-Saxons1 and East Asians are his two model cultures, but that Continental Europeans tend to "think" in a hybrid fashion, while most other peoples view the world as East Asians do. Phylogenetically Europeans are not located between East Asians and Anglo-Saxons, they are on a continental scale almost indistinguishable from Anglo-Saxons. Similarly, various non-European groups are not particularly closely related to East Asians vis-a-vi Anglo-Saxons. Also, Nisbett even presents evidence in his book that Anglo-Saxons and East Asians can be "trained" to respond to questions like the other group by simply giving them explicit instructions on what to look for (the training can last as little as an hour). But there is a more important piece of evidence. Here is a fragment from a paper titled Cultural Preferences for Formal versus Intuitive Learning:
Certainly formal and intuitive reasoning are genetically controlled to some extent, and I am willing to bet that many cognitive biases on the individual level can contribute to whether one prefers formal or intuitive reasoning. Perhaps the "central tendency" in terms of formalism vs. intuition of different populations might be different assuming the same environmental background. But the results from Asian Americans suggest that a great deal of the bias is culturally mediated. One could posit Baldwin Effects strengthening the cultural bias but it seems plausible that this process has not gone very far along. For example, I would argue that the individualism of Anglo-Saxon cultures as a mass society value is a relatively recent affair (though the aristocratic perception of Rights and Prerogatives are eternal!).
Related: Chris has much more on this topic. John expresses skepticism.
1 - Short hand for the English speaking world.
* This is why I give props to the Greeks for popularizing the formal proof in mathematics. I don't think it is a "normal" way to think, and the Chinese, certainly not a dull people, tended not to stab at problems in this fashion. Neither did Indian mathematicians, and even the great Ramanujan was not much of a formalist from what I gather.