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Does Thinking Out Loud Help Your Performance, or Hinder It?

Thinking like an Asian American versus a Euro-American.

A few years ago, I heard a talk by a young graduate student at Stanford named Heejung Kim. She had just won the highly prestigious dissertation award from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. Kim was asking a simple question: Does it help your thinking to talk with other people about your ongoing thought processes? Kim’s findings were memorable because the answer was completely opposite for Asian Americans and European Americans.

Why don't Asian students talk more in class?

When she later published her results, in the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, Kim, now a professor at UC Santa Barbara, noted that American professors were sometimes concerned about Asian students, who often sat silently through class, and were reluctant to express their ideas.

There was at the time an assumption, which persists today, that it is important to get students to talk in class. Part of the rationale is that talking about your ideas leads you to become a better thinker. Talking about your ideas is also presumably a good thing because it allows you to express your individuality, and because expressing your ideas in words is often assumed central to clear thinking.

Kim noted, however, that Asian thought does not traditionally presume that talking and thinking are closely connected. Buddhist practices, for example, stress developing insights through long periods of silence (Wright, 2017).

And other research, by Kim and others, has shown that Asians, unlike the typical European American, prefer not to stand out as individuals (e.g., Kim & Markus, 1999; Iyengar & Lepper, 1999).

 Original figure, made by Douglas Kenrick, used with permission.
Source: Figure 1: Original figure, made by Douglas Kenrick, used with permission.

In the study that won Kim the SESP dissertation award, she asked Asian American and European American college students to work on problems similar to the one in Figure 1. Assuming that the set of 9 boxes on the top left is a logical series, which pattern on the right (a,b, or c) should appear in the blank box?

 Results, based on Kim 2002, from APA journal, which permits reproduction of up to 3 figures (though this figure did not appear there)
Source: Figure 2: Results, based on Kim 2002, from APA journal, which permits reproduction of up to 3 figures (though this figure did not appear there)

Results (depicted in Figure 2) show that European Americans did better when they were encouraged to talk aloud about their thinking processes. But the exact opposite happened for the Asian American students, who did better when they worked in silence.

Implications for Educational Psychology

As Kim pointed out, American schools often encourage students to think out loud, and often even insist on it, on the assumption that discussing their thoughts with another person will help the students better solve problems. This educational tactic works for European Americans, but can backfire with Asian American students.

Should we pay attention to a person’s cultural background, or should we treat everyone the same? This research provides a clear answer to this question: If we assume that everyone thinks in the identical way, we may be making a big mistake. Think about that for a minute, out loud, or silently, whichever you prefer.

Other blogs by Douglas Kenrick on culture and psychology:

The mind as a coloring book: Universal mechanisms reveal surprising cultural diversity.

Why are crowded city dwellers living the slow life? The psychology of density isn’t what most of us think.

Should you give your baby a popular or an exotic name? How your baby’s name reflects frontier culture.

Do you experience love as a positive or negative emotion? For Asian Americans, love involves more mixed feelings.

Culture shock: Spain versus America.

Biological markets: Why money only sometimes buys love.

The cost of a woman versus the cost of a man: Dowry and bride price.

The mind as a coloring book II: Why cultural diversity does not mean a blank slate mind.


Kim, H. S. (2002). We talk, therefore we think? A cultural analysis of the effect of talking on thinking. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(4), 828.

Kim, H., & Markus, H. R. (1999). Deviance or uniqueness, harmony or conformity? A cultural analysis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(4), 785-800.

Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (1999). Rethinking the value of choice: a cultural perspective on intrinsic motivation. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(3), 349-366.

Wright, R. (2017). Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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