Can a Westerner Think Like an East Asian?
Different cultures, different cognitive styles
Posted Jun 20, 2012
Imagine yourself sitting alone in a dark room. Suspended on the wall in front of you is an illuminated rod, spinning lazily on its axis like a confused compass needle. Surrounding the rod is a rectangular frame, also illuminated, that tilts to one side or the other. If you were instructed to adjust the rod so that it pointed straight up and down, would your judgment of the rod’s verticality be influenced by the orientation of the frame?
For almost everyone, the answer is yes, but the degree of influence varies geographically. In some places, the orientation of the frame has little effect on judgments of verticality, but in other places, people struggle mightily to point the rod straight up. What’s going on here?
Over the past 20 years, researchers have consistently observed different patterns of perceiving and thinking in different societies. At the risk of oversimplification, Westerners tend to think more analytically and East Asians tend to think more holistically.
Analytic thinking is a cognitive style characterized by logical reasoning, a narrow focus on conspicuous objects in the foreground, and a belief that events are the products of individuals and their attributes. Analytic thinkers tend to “disentangle phenomena from the contexts in which they are embedded,” according to Michael Varnum and his colleagues at the University of Michigan. That’s why Westerners are less influenced by the orientation of the frame in the Rod-and-Frame Test. They more easily isolate the focal object—the rod—from its background.
Holistic thinking is characterized by dialectical reasoning, a focus on background elements in visual scenes, and a belief that events are the products of external forces and situations. Holistic thinkers tend to give “broad attention to context and relationships,” which explains why the judgments of East Asians are greatly influenced by the tilted frame.
The two ways of thinking are really quite different. Analytic thinkers, for example, are more likely than holistic thinkers to commit the fundamental attribution error—overestimating the impact of persons and underestimating the impact of situations when explaining events. They’re also more likely to predict that a trend (in the stock market, for example) will persist and not reverse direction.
Neither cognitive style is superior to the other—they’re just different. Nor does everyone in a particular cultural group think the same way. It’s fairly easy to find holistic thinkers in Dallas and analytic thinkers in Taipei.
Most cultural psychologists agree that the observed differences in cognitive style are produced by differences in social orientation. Some cultures—in North America and Western Europe, for example—promote an independent social orientation that values autonomy, self-expression, and individual achievement. Other cultures—in East Asia and Latin America, for example—promote an interdependent social orientation that values harmony, relatedness, and success of the in-group.
The link between social orientation and cognitive style is strongly supported by recent studies that compare groups within the same nation. Northern Italians, for example, are more independent than Southern Italians and also more likely to think analytically (see our earlier post titled “Cow, Chicken, Grass”). Farmers and fishermen in the Black Sea region of Turkey are more interdependent than herders in a neighboring village and also more likely to think holistically.
Can Westerners think like East Asians? Absolutely. And East Asians can think like Westerners. In fact, most of us have the capacity to think analytically or holistically, depending on our state of mind. When East Asians are encouraged to think about their uniqueness, they often “wheel in” their analytical mental module, so to speak. When Westerners are primed to think about their relatedness to others, they often switch to a more holistic way of thinking. The default (or habit) for most Westerners, especially men, is to think analytically—and the default for most East Asians is to think holistically. But each of us has the ability to think either analytically or holistically, a talent that often goes unrecognized.
Ji, L.-J., Peng, K., & Nisbett, R. E. (2000). Culture, control and perception of relationships in the environment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(5), 943-955.
Knight, N., & Nisbett, R. E. (2007). Culture, class and cognition: Evidence from Italy. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 7, 283–291.
Uskul, A. K., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2008). Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA, 105, 8552-8556.
Varnum, M., Grossmann, I., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. (2010). The origin of cultural differences in cognition: The social orientation hypothesis. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 9-13.