Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Traveling from West to East, Cognitively: The Causes of Cultural Differences in Reasoning

Since the publication of Richard Nisbett'’s book The Geography of Thought, researchers have been scrambling to study differences in cognitive style between Westerners (Europeans and Americans) and East Asians. In his book, Nisbett argues that Westerners reason more analytically, while East Asians reason more holistically, intuitively, and dialectically (meaning they're more likely to consider alternative views and take the middle ground). For example, East Asians prefer dialectical proverbs, in which there is a logical contraciction (e.g., "“Too humble is half proud") to proverbs in which there is no such contradiction (e.g., "“For example is no proof"”), while Americans prefer the latter. East Asians also prefer dialectical solutions to social problems that involve contradictions, like the following:
Mary, Phoebe, and Julie all have daughters. Each mother has held a set of values which has guided her efforts to raise her daughter. Now the daughters have grown up, and each of them is rejecting many of her mother's values. How did it happen and what should they do?
Americans, on the other hand, prefer solutions that donÂ’t contain a contradiction. Thus the East Asian participants in the experiment that used stories like the one above tended to lay some of the blame on both the mother and the daughters, while Americans tended to blame one or the other1. Nisbett and his colleagues have taken these findings to indicate that East Asians prefer dialectical to formal reasoning.

This preference for dialectical reasoning also manifests itself as a preference for intuitive over rule-based reasoning in other domains, such as categorization. Norenzayan et al. demonstrated this preference in a categorization task2. As an example, they use the following question: "“Is the Pope a bachelor?" If we adopt a rule-based approach, then we must conclude that the Pope is a bachelor because he is an unmarried adult male. However, if we take a more intuitive approach, we will tend to think about past examples of bachelors, and conclude that since the Pope isnÂ’t really very similar to those past examples, he is not a bachelor. When given questions like these, Americans tended to adopt a rule-based approach, while Chinese and Korean participants tended to categorize using a more intuitive, exemplar-based approach.

In addition to dialectical reasoning, East Asians Nisbett has argued that East Asians prefer holistic reasoning to analytical reasoning. This is most evident in situations in which East Asians rely more on context than Westerners, who prefer analytical reasoning. For example, Masuda and Nisbett3 conducted a memory experiment in which they presented Japanese and American participants with animated scenes. After a delay, they presented the scenes again, and asked the participants to answer whether an object in the scene was one they had seen before. Some of the objects were from the original scenes, and some were new. In addition, some of the old objects were presented in new scenes (i.e. a novel context). They found that Japanese participants made more errors when the object was in a novel context, while the Americans were unaffected by the context.

A just published study by Chua et al. demonstrates the increased attention to context at the level of eye-movements during the processing of scenes. John Hawks and Razib have already posted good descriptions of the study, so that I don't have to. I'll just say that the researchers found that Chinese participants tended to look at the background (context) much more than American participants, who tended to look at the focal objects more than the Chinese participants.

All of the work by Nisbett and colleagues, including the new eye movement study by Chua et al., do little more than demonstrate effects. There hasn't been much of an effort to test hypotheses about why these cultural differences in reasoning styles might exist. Nisbett has explained these differences as being the result of the dominance of individualism in Western cultures, and collectivism in Eastern cultures, but there is no experimental evidence to support this view. In fact, the very distinction between collectivist and individualist cultures may not be a very good one, as evidenced by research attempting to measure cross-cultural differences on these dimensions has shown4.

So what might cause these differences? Researchers have recently suggested that pervasive differences in social environments across cultures may play a role. In particular, they have suggested that fear of isolation, which manifests as a fear of being excluded from a group due to, among other things, failure to conform to majority opinions or trends, might affect reasoning styles, and they have shown that East Asians have higher levels of fear of isolation, on average, than Westerners5. But as they say, correlation is not causation. In order to really test the idea that fear of isolation causes differences in reasoning, you'd have to randomly assign participants to high or low fear of isolation conditions. That means experimentally manipulating fear of isolation. Then you'd have to show that inducing high levels of fear of isolation results in reasoning differences similar to those between East Asians and Westerners. So that's what they did6. They first randomly assigned Western (American) participants into one of two groups, and then had them write about past experiences. In the low fear of isolation group, they wrote about an experience in which they had isolated another individual from their group. In the high fear of isolation condition, they wrote about an experience of being isolated from a group. This caused the participants in the high fear of isolation group to score significantly higher on a fear of isolation test than those in the low fear of isolation group.

After manipulating fear of isolation levels, the researchers gave the participants tasks similar to those in the studies described above. In one experiment, they had them choose between dialectical and logically consistent proverbs, and tested the effects of context on memory. They found that participants in the high fear of isolation group preferred dialectical proverbs relative to the low fear of isolation group (they also showed that this preference correlated positively with individual differences in fear of isolation in an East Asian sample). In a second experiment, they gave participants a memory task identical to the one in Masuda and Nisbett, and showed that participants in the high fear of isolation group relied on context in a recognition memory task than participants in the low fear of isolation task. Thus, simply by manipulating fear of isolation levels, you can produce reasoning preferences in Westerners that resemble those of East Asians.

From these experiments we can conclude that fear of isolation plays a causal role in cultural differences in reasoning. Exactly how it affects reasoning was not studied, but it's likely that fear of isolation makes people pay more attention to multiple individuals (creating a preference for dialectical reasoning) and to the overall context. The authors of the studies note, however, that fear of isolation is likely not the whole story, and I suspect that in the future, researchers will look at other social factors in order to begin to piece together the causal picture. At the very least, though, these experiments rule out one explanation. Because we can induce Westerners to reason like East Asians, it's highly unlikely that there are large differences in the cognitive architectures of the two groups.

1 Both of these findings are from Sanchez-Burks, J., Nisbett, R. E., & Ybarra, O. (2000). Cultural styles, relationship schemas, and prejudice against outgroups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 174-189.
2 Norenzayan, A., Smith, E.E., Kim, B. J., & Nisbett, R. E. (In Press). Cultural preferences for formal versus intuitive reasoning. (In press). Cognitive Science.
3 Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. E. (2001). Attending holistically versus analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 992-934.
4 Kim, K., & Markman, A.B. (In Press). Differences in Fear of Isolation as an explanation of Cultural Differences: Evidence from memory and reasoning. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
5 Kim and Markman, In Press.
6 Kim and Markman, In Press.


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Clark Goble said...

That's interesting. There was a segment on NPR about this today and then you give the fuller account.

Anonymous said...


anyone notice that the supposed "fear of isolation" thinkers (the CHINESE participants)...


participating in a study that was obviously testing their cognitive abilities... in an american university [etc etc]

whereas the euro-ameri-whoever participants were in their home country, home university, probably part of the dominant demographic, --and what do you know, the performance-distribution seems to be related to a kind of "fear of isolation" or wondering if you're up the social snuff


hack research.

Chris said...

Hack research is a pretty strong epithet! It's possible that the Asian students displayed higher fear of isolation because they were in a different country and culture, but you'd have to make a better case than you have to argue that it negates the conclusions of the research. For one, these students form very well organized social groups with the hundreds (or thousands -- the University of Texas has a very large Asian student minority) of other students from their native countries. In addition, there were strong theoretical reasons for believing that Asians would display higher FOI on average (read the paper for references).

And since you didn't actually address the experiments, calling it hack research is even more uncalled for.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity: how do you manage to get your hands on stuff that's still forthcoming,in press, etc.?

Chris said...

Anon, the thing about being in a field is, by the time something comes out in a journal, you've read it, read the follow up, and moved on. You know from talking to people, going to conferences, etc., who's doing what, whether they've written it up yet, and what's coming next. By the time it's published, it's old news.

sophie nicholls said...

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jeff said...

I wonder what part empathy (vs. fear of isolation) might have in this stuff. It would be interesting, for instance, to see some experiements on the different ways of thinking in this regard across various economic classes. Would upper-middle class people think less holistically because they don't *have* to notice the backgrounds/context of things as much?

Thanks again for another interesting post.

p.s. Looks like your'e getting some comment spam along the lines of some that I've gotten recently. Ick. Wonder what blogger is doing to come up with better ways of dealing with it...

Anonymous said...

oh come on.

pick up nisbett's book.

the first 5 pages are jaw-droppingly off the mark. (it's a phantasmagoria of racist/historical stereotypes. he spends thousands of words asserting that all of ancient greece had a uniquely "strong sense of AGENCY.")

this guy's like midas, except everything he touches turns to shit.

--the AP loves that too, cause then they have a story.

and no publications of the research i've seen gave the specifics about the images participants were viewing--so we can't tell whether the foreground/background stimuli were biased in respect to one "culture" or the other, we weren't given the specifics of the experimental setting and administrator vis-a-vis the participants, and we certainly aren't given the general insight that THE CULTURAL DIFFERENCE WE'RE TALKING ABOUT COULD BE A MERELY HISTORICAL/CONTINGENT ONE, with both so-called "cultures" actually reacting exactly the same way when they have certain types of fear. and the difference could just be a matter of what kind of fear a group of people have been conditioned with, and so forth.

every single presentation of the research i've seen has been crooked.

in nisbett's remarks that i read, he noted that the asians detailed "60% more background information", but DID NOT EXPLICITLY MENTION THE LOGICAL COMPLEMENT TO THAT, which is the exact percentage of more FOREGROUND details the euro-americans gave over their counterparts.

there's a reason the presentations are crooked too: it's cause they rest on pre-conceived notions and stereotypes.

you show quanti/qualifiable difference in peoples behavior? hey, great.

but it starts getting shady when the guiding theory states that the westerners' attitudes... come from ancient greece. yeah, some explanation. or some crap about how aristotle didn't realize that the notion of "floating" involves a relationship between an object/substance and a medium.

i think nisbett himself has even said that in asia "you can't afford to have a bull in a china shop." implying that in fact asian's are the only people in the world who have to worry about the consequences of not watching where they're going.

still looking into the other jokers involved with this trash.

Chris said...

Anon, wow, that was harsh. I agree that this is a very sensitive topic, especially when some make the claim that there are innate physiological differences across races that produce these differences. Part of the reason I posted on the Kim and Markman research was to make clear that there's no evidence for that assertion. And it is an assertion at which Nisbett has at least hinted. Still, the evidence for cross-cultural differences are hard to deny.

It's been a while since I've read Masuda and Nisbett, but I do recall them providing figures that give examples of their stimuli. I know Kim and Markman have figures in their paper that present the animal stimuli with the backgrounds. Furthermore, Masuda and Nisbett do discuss the increased attention to focal-object details in westerners. I don't know if Masuda and Nisbett is online, but Kim and Markman, which is online, has a fairly detailed discussion of their experiments.

Georgina Black said...
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