Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought

Several people have recommended to me Richard Nisbitt’s The Geography of Thought:  How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why.   The title is already cringe-inducing. “Asia” is the same as the “Orient,” and as Edward Said demonstrated in his seminal Orientalism, the Orient is a fiction invented by racists and imperialists, particularly in the 19th century.  There really is nothing interesting that people from Afghanistan to Polynesia have in common.  The region spans several major religions, some monotheistic, some polytheistic and some non-theistic.  There is more than one major language family in Asia/the Orient.  There is no common government, or type of government.  There is merely the illusion that “those people” have something in common.  In the book, Nisbett specifies that he has in mind primarily East Asia, but that doesn’t help, because the more than one billion people in those four or five countries (depending upon how you count them) have nothing interesting in common either.

Nisbett’s book is completely vitiated by two major methodological flaws:  (1) he generalizes from small samples to very different populations, and (2) he uses experimental results that test for very different things as evidence for unrelated conclusions.  (1) Nisbitt states explicitly that he wants to generalize over distinctions between the inhabitants of the West (which he states includes “Europeans, Americans, and citizens of the British Commonwealth” [Geography of Thought, p. xvi]) and of Asia (by which he really means East Asia).  However, his experimental populations are in each case very narrow. Sometimes college students in the US vs. college students in the PRC, sometimes “Americans” vs. “Japanese.”  Anyone with passing familiarity with Chinese and Japanese culture knows how very different they are.  (No Chinese or Japanese would think they were the same.)  Europe is also very different from North America, which is reflected in the fact that Nisbitt’s generalizations don’t even hold for Europe (by his own admission [Geography of Thought, p. 84]).  In short, you can’t infer from a difference between college students in Ann Arbor and Beijing what the average person in Seoul or Tokyo thinks.  (2) One conclusion that Nisbit tries to establish is that “Westerners” see a world composed of independent “objects,” whereas “Asians” see a world composed of continuous “substances.”  What is his evidence for this?  Show subjects a pyramid made of cork, tell them, “This is a ‘dax,’” and then ask them to pick out a “dax” from a collection of other things.  The American usually pick a pyramid, while the Japanese usually pick something else made of cork (Geography of Thought, p. 81).   Intriguing, but this does not reveal any difference in assumptions about individualism and holism.  Both the Americans and the Japanese are abstracting from the particular “object” (this cork pyramid) and identifying a general category that it belongs to (being pyramid shaped or being made of cork).  Aristotle would describe these as the material cause and the formal cause of the item in question. In neither case does the process of going from the particular to the category show that one group is less committed to “objects.”

Likewise, it is intriguing that Japanese are more likely to notice background differences between two pictures while Americans are more likely to notice foreground differences (Geography of Thought, p. 95).  But how on earth does this show that the Japanese are more holistic?  Noticing individual objects in the background of a picture is different from noticing individual objects in the foreground, but in each case a person is identifying individual objects.

I could go on indefinitely.  Nisbett’s work consists of page after page of wild generalizations, imprecise characterizations, and non sequiturs.


About The Doc

"The Doc" is a professor at Vassar College (USA). However, the views expressed in his blog and comments are not necessarily those of Vassar, its administration, or other employees, none of whom bears any responsibility for his opinions.
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