New York Times

August 8, 2000

How Culture Molds Habits of Thought


For more than a century, Western philosophers  and psychologists have

based their discussions of  mental life on a cardinal assumption:

that the same  basic processes underlie all human thought, whether

in the mountains of Tibet or the grasslands of the  Serengeti.

Cultural differences might dictate what people  thought about.

Teenage boys in Botswana, for example, might discuss cows with the

same passion that  New York teenagers reserved for sports cars.

But the habits of thought -- the strategies  people adopted in

processing information and making sense of the world around them --

were, Western  scholars assumed, the same for everyone, exemplified

by, among other things, a devotion to logical  reasoning, a

penchant for categorization and an  urge to understand situations

and events in linear  terms of cause and effect.

Recent work by a social psychologist at the  University of

Michigan, however, is turning this  long-held view of mental

functioning upside down..

In a series of studies comparing European  Americans to East

Asians, Dr. Richard Nisbett and  his colleagues have found that

people who grow up in  different cultures do not just think about

different  things: they think differently.

"We used to think that everybody uses categories in the same way,

that logic plays the same kind  of role for everyone in the

understanding of everyday life, that memory, perception, rule

application  and so on are the same," Dr. Nisbett said. "But  we're

now arguing that cognitive processes themselves are just far more

malleable than mainstream  psychology assumed."

A summary of the research will be published  next winter in the

journal Psychological Review,  and Dr. Nisbett discussed the

findings Sunday  at the  annual meetings of the American

Psychological  Association in Washington.

In many respects, the cultural disparities the  researchers

describe mirror those described by  anthropologists, and may seem

less than surprising  to Americans who have lived in Asia. And Dr.

Nisbett and his colleagues are not the first psychological

researchers to propose that thought may be  embedded in cultural

assumptions: Soviet psychologists of the 1930's posed logic

problems to Uzbek  peasants, arguing that intellectual tools were

influenced by pragmatic circumstances.

But the new work is stirring interest in academic circles because

it tries to define and elaborate on  cultural differences through a

series of tightly controlled laboratory experiments. And the theory

underlying the research challenges much of what has  been

considered gospel in cognitive psychology for  the last 40 years.

"If it's true, it turns on its head a great deal of  the science

that many of us have been doing, and so  it's sort of scary and

thrilling at the same time,"  said Dr. Susan Andersen, a professor

of psychology  at New York University and an associate editor at

Psychological Review.

In the broadest sense, the studies -- carried out  in the United

States, Japan, China and Korea --  document a familiar division.

Easterners, the researchers find, appear to think more

"holistically,"  paying greater attention to context and

relationship,  relying more on experience-based knowledge than

abstract logic and showing more tolerance for contradiction.

Westerners are more "analytic" in their  thinking, tending to

detach objects from their context, to avoid contradictions and to

rely more heavily on formal logic.

In one study, for example, by Dr.  Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda, a

graduate student at Michigan, students from Japan and the United

States were shown an animated underwater scene, in which one larger

"focal" fish swam among smaller  fishes and other aquatic life.

Asked to describe what they saw,  the Japanese subjects were much

more likely to begin by setting the  scene, saying for example,

"There  was a lake or pond"  or "The bottom  was rocky," or "The

water was  green." Americans, in contrast, tended to begin their

descriptions with  the largest fish, making statements  like "There

was what looked like a  trout swimming to the right."

Over all, Japanese subjects in the  study made 70 percent more

statements about aspects of the background environment than

Americans, and  twice as many statements  about the relationships

between animate and inanimate objects. A Japanese subject might

note, for example, that "The big fish swam past the  gray seaweed."

"Americans were much more likely to zero in on the biggest fish,

the  brightest object, the fish moving the  fastest," Dr. Nisbett

said. "That's  where the money is as far as they're  concerned."

But the greater attention paid by  East Asians to context and

relationship was more than just superficial,  the researchers

found. Shown the  same larger fish swimming against  a different,

novel background, Japanese participants had more difficulty

recognizing it than Americans, indicating that their perception was

intimately bound with their perception  of the background scene.

When it came to interpreting  events in the social world, the

Asians  seemed similarly sensitive to context, and quicker than the

Americans  to detect when people's behavior was  determined by

situational pressures.

Psychologists have long documented what they call the fundamental

attribution error, the tendency for  people to explain human

behavior in  terms of the traits of individual actors, even when

powerful situational  forces are at work. Told that a man  has been

instructed to give a speech  endorsing a particular presidential

candidate, for example, most people  will still believe that the

speaker  believes what he is saying.

Yet Asians, according to Dr. Nisbett and his colleagues, may in

some  situations be less susceptible to such  errors, indicating

that they do not  describe a universal way of thinking,  but merely

the way that Americans  think.

In one study, by Dr. Nisbett and  Incheol Choi, of Seoul National

University in Korea, the Korean and  American subjects were asked

to  read an essay either in favor of  or  opposed to the French

conducting  atomic tests in the Pacific. The subjects were told

that the essay writer  had been given "no choice" about  what to


But subjects from both  cultures still showed a tendency to  "err,"

judging that the essay writers  believed in the position endorsed

in  the essays.

When the Korean subjects were  first required to undergo a similar

experience themselves,  writing an  essay according to

instructions, they  quickly adjusted their estimates of  how

strongly the original essay writers believed  what they wrote. But

Americans clung to the notion that  the essay writers were

expressing  sincere beliefs.

One of the most striking dissimilarities found by the researchers

emerged in the way East Asians and  Americans in the studies

responded  to contradiction. Presented with  weaker arguments

running contrary  to their own, Americans were likely  to solidify

their opinions, Dr. Nisbett  said, "clobbering the weaker

arguments," and resolving the threatened contradiction in their own

minds. Asians, however, were more  likely to modify their own

position,  acknowledging that even the weaker  arguments had some


In one study, for example, Asian  and American subjects were

presented with strong arguments in favor of financing a research

project  on adoption. A second  group was  presented both with

strong arguments in support of the project and  weaker arguments

opposing it.

Both Asian and American subjects  in the first group expressed

strong  support for the research. But while  Asian subjects in the

second group  responded to the weaker opposing  arguments by

decreasing their support, American subjects actually increased

their endorsement of the  project in response to the opposing


In a series of studies, Dr. Nisbett  and Dr. Kaiping Peng of the

University of California at Berkeley found  that Chinese subjects

were less eager to resolve contradictions in a  variety of

situations than American  subjects. Asked to analyze a conflict

between mothers and daughters,  American subjects quickly came

down in favor of one side or the other.  Chinese subjects were more

likely to  see merit on both sides, commenting,  for example, that,

"Both the mothers  and the daughters have failed to understand each


Given a choice between two different types of philosophical

argument,  one based on analytical logic, devoted to resolving

contradiction, the  other on a dialectical approach, accepting of

contradiction, Chinese  subjects preferred the dialectical

approach, while Americans favored the  logical arguments. And

Chinese subjects expressed more liking than  Americans for proverbs

containing a  contradiction, like the Chinese saying "Too modest is

half boastful."  American subjects, Dr. Nisbett said,  found such

contradictions "rather irritating."

Dr. Nisbett and Dr. Ara Norenzayan of the University of Illinois

have also found indications that  when logic and experiential

knowledge are in conflict, Americans are  more likely than Asians

to adhere to  the rules of formal logic, in keeping  with a

tradition that in Western societies began with the Ancient Greeks.

For example, presented with a logical sequence like, "All animals

with  fur hibernate. Rabbits have fur.  Therefore rabbits

hibernate," the  Americans, the researchers found,  were more

likely to accept the validity of the argument, separating its

formal structure, that of a syllogism,  from its content, which

might or  might not be plausible. Asians, in  contrast, more

frequently judged  such syllogisms as invalid based on  their

implausibility -- not all animals with fur do in fact hibernate.

While the cultural disparities  traced in the researchers' work

are  substantial, their origins are much  less clear. Historical

evidence suggests that a divide between Eastern  and Occidental

thinking has existed  at least since ancient times, a tradition of

adversarial debate, formal  logical argument and analytic deduction

flowering in Greece, while in  China an appreciation for context

and complexity, dialectical argument and a tolerance for the "yin

and yang" of life flourished.

How much of this East-West difference is a result of differing

social  and religious practices, different languages or even

different geography  is anyone's guess. But both styles,  Dr.

Nisbett said, have advantages,  and both have limitations. And

neither approach is written into the  genes: Asian-Americans, born

in the  United States, are indistinguishable  in their modes of

thought from European-Americans.

Dr. Alan Fiske, an associate professor of anthropology at the

University of California at Los Angeles, said  that experimental

research like Dr.  Nisbett's "complements a lot of ethnographic

work that has been done."

"Anthropologists have been describing these cultures and this can

tell you a lot about everyday life and  the ways people talk and

interact,"  Dr. Fiske said. "But it's always difficult to know how

to make sense of  these qualitative judgments, and  they aren't

controlled in the same  way that an experiment is controlled."

Yet not everyone agrees that all  the dissimilarities described by

Dr.  Nesbitt and his colleagues reflect  fundamental differences in

psychological process.

Dr. Patricia Cheng, for example, a  professor of psychology at the

University of California at Los Angeles,  said that many of the

researchers'  findings meshed  with her own experience. "Having

grown up in a traditional Chinese family and also being  in Western

culture myself," she   said, "I do see some entrenched habits of

interpretation of the world that  are different across the

cultures, and  they do lead to pervasive differences."

But Dr. Cheng says she thinks that  some differences -- the Asian

tolerance for contradiction, for example  -- are purely social.

"There is not a  difference in logical tolerance," she  said.

Still, to the extent that the studies  reflect real differences in

thinking  and perception, psychologists may  have to radically

revise their ideas  about what is universal and what is  not, and

to develop new models of  mental process that take cultural

influences into account.

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company