College Quarterly
Summer 2006 - Volume 9 Number 3
Reviews The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently
Richard Nisbett
New York, NY: The Free Press, 2003

Reviewed by Marina Engelking

Cultural psychology has only very recently become a central force in explaining human cognition and psychologist Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought is a welcome addition to the field. Documenting his international research at a time when cross-cultural understanding has never been more important, Nisbett challenges several long-held assumptions: (1) everyone has the same cognitive processes; (2) people in different cultures differ in their beliefs not because of different cognitive processes, but because they have been taught different things and are exposed to different aspects of the world; (3) “higher order” thinking rests on rules of formal logic, e.g., the law of contradiction; and (4) reasoning is different from what is reasoned about.

Drawing from his own research and the work of other theorists, Nisbett argues that cultures differ not only in their metaphysics, but also in their characteristic thought processes. People use the cognitive processes that seem to make sense – given the sense they make of the world. The Geography of Thought aims to address the nature of these differences and how these differences may have evolved. Nisbett cites and reports the findings of a large number of experimental studies that address the former; he provides a somewhat less complete picture in addressing the latter (I will address this shortfall later on). Space, perhaps not enough, is given to stating the implications of these differences for perceiving and reasoning in everyday life. The book concludes with a brief epilogue, The End Of Psychology Or The Clash Of Mentalities? (the reader will recognize the references to Fukuyama and Huntington) that only whets the reader’s appetite for what is a much more interesting political question that emerges from this research, namely: What does all this mean in a “globalized” world?

The first order of business for Nisbett is to apologize for, yet legitimize, the grouping of China and the countries influenced by its culture (foremost Japan and Korea) under the heading “East Asians,” and the people of European culture, particularly American Europeans wherein he includes Blacks, Whites and Hispanics (anyone but people of Asian descent) within the term “Westerners”. He fully understands the complexities and controversy contained in these categories, but argues for their legitimacy for the purposes of this book. I agree with him.

The Geography of Thought is an empirical rather than a theoretical work. A conceptual extension of Nisbett’s ground-breaking studies would be very welcome. The book’s important conceptualization is offered early on. Strongly reminiscent of Jared Diamond’s work in Guns, Germs and Steel, it is a useful and important schematic model of influences of cognitive processes. Materialistic at its base, the model attempts to explain culture in terms of physical facts with reference to regional ecology and the economic and social structures that emerge from it. While acknowledging that physical factors can influence culture, values and attitudes, it rejects a strong deterministic relationship. At the same time, however, the model is non-materialistic in its recognition that important social forces that are not economic in nature also generate and sustain habits of mind.

Nisbett spends a considerable portion of the book grounding the differences in Eastern and Western approaches to thought in the philosophies of Confucius (and the religions of Taoism and Buddhism to a lesser degree) and Aristotle and the ancient Greeks respectively. He appropriately claims that these differing philosophies and the social life that both bred and resulted from them led to fundamental differences in social practices, view of Self, and metaphysics (the fundamental beliefs about the nature of the world), and that these beliefs and practices in turn directed the reasoning patterns of Easterners and Westerners. He dedicates the core chapters of the book to providing the experimental evidence to illuminate these differences.

On the social front, the life of ancient Greeks was characterized by independence and personal liberty. The Greeks valued and spent time on aesthetic pursuits, one of which was schooling. Social life in ancient China, in contrast, centred on family events. Society was organized hierarchically where roles were clearly defined. People were interdependent and behaved according to the mutual obligations between them in their various roles and their relations to each other. Above all, the ancient Chinese valued harmony. Differences in social relations led to fundamental differences in how the two groups came to view the Self.

The ancient Greeks had a strong sense of individualism and personal agency. They saw themselves as unique individuals with distinct attributes and goals who were free to choose courses of action. The Eastern view of Self centred on a strong sense of collectivism and the resulting need for harmony. People saw themselves primarily as members of multiple collectives (family, clans, and villages) with a collective rather than individual sense of agency. In terms of metaphysics, the ancient Greeks believed that there was a fundamental nature of the world and they were keen to discover it. They believed the background scheme for the nature of the world was a collection of objects composed of particles. The world was simple and knowable. The Greeks developed a keen curiosity for knowledge. They speculated about the nature of the world and developed models for it by categorizing objects and events and describing them based on a system of rules. Because there was a fundamental nature of the world, the Greeks believed the world was basically static and unchanging.

The ancient Chinese, in contrast, believed that cosmic events (e.g., comets) could predict important occurrences on earth. Yet once they observed regularities in cosmic events, rather than creating a model, they lost interest. They saw the background scheme for the nature of the world as a mass of substances: objects were seen as a seamless whole composed of a single substance. Where the ancient Greeks emphasized clashing atoms, the ancient Chinese emphasized influences. They believed that the world was complicated, that events were interrelated and that to attempt to understand an object without its relation to a context was doomed. The ancient Chinese had a genius for practicality. Confucius claimed that thought or knowing without some consequence for action was useless. Chinese philosophers explicitly favoured most concrete sense impressions over abstraction. Further, where the ancient Greeks valued and were interested in controlling the environment, the ancient Chinese valued and were interested in controlling oneself to maintain social harmony. For them, the world was constantly changing and was full of contradictions. While ancient Greek philosophy set out to find “truth”, ancient Chinese philosophy set out to find “the way” to live.

Nisbett goes out of his way throughout the book to emphasize that differences in Eastern and Western thinking are not to be pitted against each other in a battle for superiority. He convincingly illustrates that ancient China was technologically more advanced than the West and, as he describes the differences in patterns of reasoning, he is careful to point out the advantages and disadvantages of each.

The implications of these grounding differences to subsequent habits of mind are laid out in the core chapters where Nisbett investigates some key hypotheses that he articulates in response them: Nisbett posits that we should see differences in: (1) patterns of attention and perception; (2) basic assumptions about the composition of world; (3) beliefs about controllability of the environment; (4) tacit assumptions about change; (5) preferred patterns of explanations for events; (6) habits of organizing the world; (7) use of formal logic rules; and (8) the application of dialectical approaches. Indeed, he provides numerous studies to support the claims that East Asians perceive and attend more to environmental factors than Westerners, who are more inclined to see and attend to objects outside of their context; Easterners are more likely to detect relationships among events than Westerners. Where Easterners see substances, Westerners see objects. East Asians believe less in controllability than Westerners. East Asians emphasize relationships, where Westerners prefer categories. Easterners are less inclined to use formal logic than Westerners to understand events. East Asians are more likely to look for Middle Way when confronted with contradictions, while Westerners are more likely to insist on the correctness of one belief vs. another.

Nisbett makes the case that cognitive processes will develop in accordance with how we see the world: if the world is a place where relations of objects and events are important in determining outcomes, then it will seem important to observe all the elements in a field, to see relations among objects and between the parts and the whole. If the world is a place where the behaviour of objects is governed by rules and categories, then it will seem important to isolate the object from its context, infer what categories it belongs to and infer how rules apply to this category. Our thinking develops in the direction of what we attend to.

Nisbett goes further, though, than simply citing studies that show East Asians and Westerners do differ in what they attend to and perceive, how they understand causal inferences, how they organize knowledge and how they reason. He states the implications of these differences for perceiving and reasoning in everyday life. For example, the Western obsession with self-esteem, our belief that people strive to feel good about themselves and that having personal successes and assurances that they have positive qualities are important to their well-being may derive from our viewing the Self as unique, individuated, and objective. The social-psychological characteristics of most people in other parts of the world are somewhat different, however. Nisbett argues that East Asians are less concerned with personal goals and self-aggrandizement, that individual distinctiveness is not particularly desirable, and that feeling good about themselves has more to do with being in harmony with the wishes of their group and meeting its expectations.

Asians and Westerners also explain and interpret events differently because they literally see and perceive different things. Asians are more apt to pay attention to relationships in the environment and to attribute human behaviour to environmental factors than Westerners, who are more likely to focus attention on a target object and to attribute human behaviour to fixed characteristics of the person. In 1991 a Chinese physics student at University of Iowa, Gang Lu, lost an award competition. He appealed unsuccessfully and subsequently shot his adviser, the person who handled the appeal, several students and bystanders and then himself. American campus and New York Times reports attributed this behaviour to Lu’s presumed qualities (bad temper, sinister edge to his character), attitudes (believed guns were important means to redress), and psychological problems (darkly disturbed man). The Chinese newspaper World Journal reports attributed Lu’s behaviour to situational factors: Lu’s relationships (he did not get along with his advisor; he was isolated from the Chinese community); pressures in Chinese society (Lu was a victim of the Chinese “Top Student” educational policy); and aspects of the American context (the availability of guns). The Americans blamed the perpetrator who happened to be Chinese. Chinese reporters blamed situational factors. The same pattern appeared in Eastern and Western media in the reports on the shooting and suicide rampage of American postal worker, Thomas McIlvane, the same year. McIlvane’s situation closely mirrored Lu’s. Americans attributed behaviour to personal dispositions (attitudes, traits) inferred from past behaviour. The Chinese blamed situational factors.

In another study historian Masako Watanabe investigated how Japanese and American elementary schools teach history differently. Not only were there differences in how the sequence of historical events were treated (setting the context followed by chronological order of events in Japan; outcome of the event, then backward reasoning where chronological development was interrupted in America) but, more importantly, the focus of attention was entirely different. In Japan pupils were encouraged to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures via analogy between their situations and the situations of pupils’ everyday lives. Actions were explained in terms of feelings. “How” questions were asked twice as often as in the American classroom. In the U.S. there was extended discussion about the causes of events. “Why” questions were asked twice as often as in Japanese classrooms. Japanese pupils were considered good “historical thinkers” when they showed empathy with historical figures including Japan’s enemies. American pupils were considered good “historical thinkers” when capable of producing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome. According to Nisbett this explains why the Greeks and not the Chinese engaged in causal modeling of natural phenomena. “Backward reasoning” (causal analysis) comes more naturally if you are at liberty to set your own goals with respect to an object and to come up with schemes to achieve them.

Nisbett dedicates a whole chapter to show how cognitive orientations develop in their interrelationship with language. Cultures use language differently. In the West, children learn nouns at a faster rate than verbs. Yet East Asian children learn verbs at same rate as nouns and possibly even faster. Verbs are more salient in East Asian languages than in Indo-European ones: Chinese, Japanese & Korean verbs usually come at beginning or end of a sentence. In English, verbs are placed in the middle. Also, Western parents are noun-obsessed, pointing out objects, naming them and providing attributive features. Developmental psychologists Anne Fernald and Hiromi Morikawa conducted a study in Japanese and American homes with children 6, 12 and 19 months old. The researchers had parents clear away toys and brought out their own stuffed dog, pig, truck and car. They asked mothers to play with their children with these toys as they normally do. The findings showed that American mothers used twice as many “object labels” (e.g., doggie, piggie) as Japanese mothers. Japanese mothers, on the other hand, used twice as many “social routines of politeness forms” (empathy, greeting). Nisbett concludes that American children are learning that the world is a place of objects while Japanese children are learning that the world is a place of relationships.

The implications of this to thought are significant. How we structure and organize information and how we abstract categories are influenced. Easterners and Westerners both use attributive categories, but Easterners don’t abstract them in the same way. For example, they might speak of the “white of snow” or “the white of a swan” rather than “whiteness”). Western abstraction allows for “essence”, and decontextualizing the “essence” of an object allows for predictions about the behaviour of objects. For East Asians objects have concrete properties that interact with environmental circumstances to produce behaviour. Still, Nisbett cautions that it doesn’t appear that it is the structure of language that makes the difference to reasoning patterns, but rather how language is used as a cultural tool. The debate about linguistic relativism continues.

All of the above differences also impact on differences in the use of formal logic, which is centred on the ordination of categories and classes. It was the Greek tradition of debate (absent in China) that found a utilitarian use for formal logic according to Nisbett. Here the studies offer three key insights: Firstly, Americans are more in the habit of applying logical rules to everyday experiences and are, therefore, better able to ignore plausibility in arguments. East Asians are more likely to set aside logic in favour of typicality and plausibility of conclusions and they are more likely to set aside logic in favour of the desirability of conclusions. Also, Americans are more likely to perceive and avoid contradictions and engage in logical thinking, but they do not engage in (Eastern) dialectical thinking. East Asians are more likely to engage in dialectical thinking than logical thinking. They apply dialectical thinking to the analysis of conflicts and prefer dialectic arguments in which a Middle Way is found that recognizes what is true or right in all opposing positions.

Finally, Westerners tend to generate more counter-arguments than the Chinese because of life-long conditioning and practice. They are inclined to search for principles that will justify beliefs. In this way they avoid contradiction and show consistency in beliefs. Moreover, Westerners are more inclined to use principles to guide their making choices. They are more likely to explain their choices with rule-based justification. Asians, on the other hand, are more likely to explain their choices with compromise-based justifications. It’s not that Asians have trouble with formal logic, cautions Nisbett, but they are less likely to use it in every day situations where experience or desire conflicts with it. The Eastern lack of concern with contradiction and an emphasis on the Middle Way does lead to logical errors, but so can the Western contradiction phobia.

In the final chapter of the book Nisbett attempts to broaden the implications of the cognitive differences in Eastern and Western thinking further. He touches on how cognitive differences between Easterners and Westerners influence epistemology, debate and rhetoric, conflict management and decision-making. He too briefly describes how these differences are manifested in more concrete terms in international relations, science and religion.

An interesting note to Nisbett’s studies is that the groups “Asian-Americans” and various European cultures consistently produced findings that placed them between American and East Asian results. It’s an interesting observation and begs the question of how work in cross-cultural psychology should be taken up in a multicultural society like Canada. More research in “intercultural” contexts seems warranted.
I have two complaints with respect to this text.

Firstly, despite grounding his work in a Vygotskian socio-cultural framework, I’m not sure Nisbett has fully succeeded in providing the necessary socio-historical account of the differences in Asian and Western thinking. Despite the elaborate (and necessary) treatment of the philosophical and social roots of Eastern and Western cultures, there are important economic and political developments in both regions that directly influenced the social structures, behaviours, beliefs and attitudes that in turn influenced reasoning patterns in the two groups. Continental Europe shares its Greek roots with the United States and yet central Europeans appear to have different cultural thought patterns than Americans. The psychological and social planes are tethered not only in historical roots but also historical development. For a fuller understanding of the sociocultural nature of thinking in the East and West, the reader will need to layer this text within her own knowledge and understanding of the economic and political developments in the “two” cultures. This is potentially where Nisbett’s grouping of East and West may run into difficulty.

Secondly, I’m not quite sure where this book ends. Nisbett does an excellent job in illustrating the differences in Eastern and Western thinking styles; he supports his claims with ample experimental evidence. This alone is important work. But his final chapter left me dissatisfied. In it he moves into a new domain: the implications of cultural differences in cognition to society, psychology and philosophy. I’m afraid this goal was too ambitious. Such an analysis requires much more depth and breadth than Nisbett provides. Someone needs to take up Nisbett’s important work and give it the philosophical attention it deserves.

The greatest achievement of this book, though, is not so much in showing all the ways in which cognition differs across these cultural groups, but in Nisbett’s broader challenge of the universalist myth that cognitive processes are everywhere the same. In The Geography of Thought, Nisbett successfully makes the case that not all cultures “reason” the same way nor do they even endorse the same principles of reasoning, and the implications of that are monumental.

Professor Marina Engelking is Coordinator, Building Intercultural Competencies in the English Language Institute at Seneca College in Toronto. She can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology