Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Eastern" vs. "Western" thinking   posted by Razib @ 11/21/2006 08:13:00 PM

Chris of Mixing Memory has a review of a paper which confirms the finding that East Asians think more holistically than Westerners. Specifically, East Asians often tend to look at context, while Westerners focus more specifically on the object of interest. In this case this model seemed to fall in light with the fact that East Asians, specifically Japanese, seemed to see wider web of repercussions for events, while Europeans tended to look at things in a more narrow frame, both temporally and in regards to social networks and what not. This is not a new field. Three years ago I reviewed Richard Nisbett's Geography of Thought, which made the same arguments based on the author's research. But, some qualifications need to be made: the paper above uses Japanese and Americans whites as exemplars of the two categories. Nisbett found an important geographical pattern: in terms of "analytic" vs. "holistic" thought, and a whole range of attitudes, English speaking cultures tended to be at one pole, and East Asians at another, with contintental Europeans in the middle. Additionally, most non-Europeans clustered with East Asians. This is important, because of course readers of this weblog will want to consider a possible innate genetic element to these cross-cultural differences. Obviously continent Europeans are not phylogenetically equidistant between East Asians and English speaking whites! Additionally, Nisbett found (and this is confirmed by Judith Richard Harris in No Two Alike) individuals of Asian ancestry raised in the United States clustered with other Americans, not with Asians. Significantly, individuals who arrived in North America (some subjects were Canadian, poor souls) during their teenage years from Asia (China) tended to exhibit cognitive styles which were hybridized between Western and Eastern modes. Finally, Nisbett found that citizens of Hong Kong (a former British colony) were particularly adept at "switching" between cognitive modes dependent on context, and, he found individuals from both cultures could be "trained" to think in the opposite mode relatively easily.

This is not to say that no differences in allele frequencies with behavior/cultural impact exist between the groups. Consider the variation in the frequency of DRD4 & MAOA across populations. But the differences are not, I suspect, going to be as easy as tallying up character differences between populations when cultural plasticity, along with wild cards like Toxoplasma gondii, are important components of the variance. Finally, I do have to wonder as to the popularity of analytic philosophy in the Anglo-American world, vs. "Continental" philosophy in places like France.