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Thinking about cultural differences I: An introduction

There are vast cultural differences in thinking.

With the Olympics coming, there have been lots of news stories about China and Asia. This seemed like as good a time as any to talk a bit about cultural differences in thinking. I realize that this blog is mostly about motivation. It turns out that cultural differences in thinking are probably deeply bound up with cultural differences in motivation, though it may take us a couple of entries to get to that point. To start, I'll just highlight some of the ways that thinking differs across cultures

Psychology aims to understand universal aspects of mental experience. When a cognitive psychologist talks about categorization, decision making, or reasoning, statements are usually made about the way people (in general) form categories, make decisions, or reason. It is important to realize, however, that most experimental research is done with a rather select group: western educated college students. We almost qualify our conclusions by the particular population being studied unless that population is clearly special (people with a particular mental disorder or children who are not expected to have achieved adult abilities yet).

Over the past 20 years, however, there has been growing interest in broad cultural differences in thinking. There are many reasons to think that members of different cultures will think differently. For one, cultures introduce people to different kinds of concepts. People growing up in large cities encounter very little wildlife (beyond squirrels and pigeons), while Native Americans living on a reservation or indigenous people from South America may encounter a variety of species of animals and plants on a daily basis. Research by Doug Medin, Scott Atran and colleagues has looked at differences in reasoning about plants and animals as a result of these differences in experience.

Language is another influence on thought that differs across cultures. The classic version of the proposal that thought affects language is the "Whorf" hypothesis posited by Benjamin Whorf and his mentor Edward Sapir. This view is sometimes called "Linguistic Relativity." It argues that aspects of the structure of the language that someone speaks affect the concepts that they can form. For example, some languages (like Spanish and German) have a grammatical gender, so that every noun must be classified as masculine or feminine. Others (like English) do not. Within languages that have a grammatical gender, words for a particular concepts (such as bridge) may differ in the gender they assign to those concepts (in Spanish, the word for bridge is Masculine, but in German it is feminine). A study by Toshi Konishi in 1993 suggests that people felt concepts named by masculine nouns were more potent than concepts named by feminine nouns. Thus, this grammatical aspect of the language affected the way people thought about these concepts. It is important to recognize, however, that these linguistic effects, while statistically reliable, are often rather small.

Perhaps the biggest observed cultural differences in thinking come from studies comparing Western (e.g,. European or American) and East Asian (e.g., Chinese or Korean) participants. Early research in this line was done by Richard Nisbett and his colleagues. Two cultural differences between these groups stand out. First, compared to Westerners, East Asians are much more likely to prefer compromise. For example, when given a story about an argument between two people, Westerners tended to agree with one person or the other. East Asians tended to suggest a compromise solution between the two.

As an aside, this issue seems particularly relevant in the current Presidential election cycle in the United States. Americans tend to prefer candidates who take a stand on an issue and support it strongly, distinguishing themselves from people who have taken the opposite stand on an issue. For example, in the debate over gun control in the United States, politicians tend to divide into those who support restrictions on weapons and those who want freedom of gun ownership. There are few politicians who explicitly try to compromise on this issue. There is no logical reason why compromise should be shunned, but Americans tend not to look highly on those who compromise.

Second, East Asians tend to be more sensitive to the context in which an object appears than are Westerners. As one demonstration of this point, Takahiko Masuda and Richard Nisbett had East Asian and Western participants look at pictures of animals on backgrounds. For example, they might look at a cow in a field. They were told to remember the animals, because they might see them again later in a memory test. Later, they were shown pictures of animals. Some of the animals were the same as those they saw originally. Sometimes, the animals they had seen originally were now seen in a different setting (the cow might be in a barn instead of in a field). Western participants were unaffected by changes in the setting of the picture. They were equally likely to recognize the cow regardless of whether it appeared in the same setting or in a different setting. East Asians, however, were significantly affected by the setting. They were much more likely to recognize the cow if it appeared in the same setting it did when they first saw it than if it appeared in a new setting.

The point of this entry is just to make clear that psychologists have begun to observe a number of differences in thinking among members of different cultures. In the next few posts, I'll focus on differences between members of Western and East Asian cultures. We'll consider a few possible differences between cultures that may contribute to these cultural differences. Ultimately, we'll get to some deep motivational differences between members of different cultures that may account for observed differences in thinking.

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