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 donÂt 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 isnÂt 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.