For a long time it’s been used the example of the half-full glass to distinguish optimistic people from pessimistic. If you see the glass half empty, it is because you tend to focus on the negative things in life, use gray glasses to see the world. If you see the glass half full you prefer to concentrate on positives aspects and if you're one of the few who say that the glass is half done, then you are an objective person, who can see both sides of the coin.
However, the fact is that this perception of the glass is typical of the Western mind. We the westerns, love to analyze facts, break things and see how they are made in and dissect the reality to reach “scientific” conclusions. It’s not our fault, we’ve been taught to see what happens around us as if it were a series of images frozen in time.
Of course, reality isn’t like that, reality is constantly changing, everything around us is changing and moving. In fact, our attachment to our static view of things is a major cause of our fears, worries and emotional imbalances. Not being able to accept change and uncertainty injects a huge dose of insecurity and anxiety inside us, and we can not deal with it.
The experiment that revealed our Categorical Thinking
A very interesting experiment conducted by psychologists at the University of Michigan and the University of Hokkaido revealed that we, in the West, tend to group objects into “categories”, while Orientals tend to group objects in terms of “relations”.
The study was developed with the contribution of some Asian and American college students. All of them were given a series of photographs between which they had to choose which objects could correspond to each other, as in this example below.
What figure combines better with the bull? Take a minute to answer.
The majority of Americans chose the “chicken” because included both in the category of “animals”, as would do most of us. However, most of the Asian chose the “grass” because they concentrate in the relationship between the two: “the bull eats grass”.
This experiment, which is part of a series of very interesting studies, shows how culture influences our thinking, reveals that we tend to focus on objects, their properties and categories, as if were immutable things. In contrast, the oriental culture prioritizes relationships, context and environment.
Embracing the movement will help us make better decisions
Of course, both the categorical thinking as the relational are important, we can’tsay one is better than the other. But merely observing that the glass is half full or half empty means only stating a fact. Nothing more. This allows us make a picture of the current situation, but it doesn’t help us project ourselves into the future.
Without realizing it, we behave in this way every day. We limit to simply establish the facts, without perceiving the movement. So, we see only a part of reality and, what is worse, we neglect precisely the part that would allow us make good decisions for the future.
When we apply the categorical thinking?
- Every time we reach absolute conclusions about people or situations
- Every time we merely note a fact, without trying to look for the cause and without imagine what might happen next
- Whenever we are victims of stereotypes, we attach labels and behave as if they were absolute truths
- Whenever we criticize and judge, without offering a solution or a way out
- Every time we think that a problem has a single cause and a single solution
To really improve our lives we should take a step further. we shouldn’t just limit to see if the glass is half full or half empty, but we should also ask whether, for the way things are, there are more chances it fills up or gets empty. Only then will we have a more complete picture.
In daily life, we tend to let categorical thinking and the things that happened determine our decisions. We let a that a mistake of the past determines our whole life. But what we should do is focus on the future and try to imagine what will happen and what can we do to improve things. Looking back and see isolated incidents limits our vision, it is as if we passed all our life looking at a picture. When we look to the future and we can see things as a whole and moving, the possibilities that open before us are endless.
Nisbett, R. (2003) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently. Nueva York: Free Press.
Nisbett, R. & Masuda, T. (2003) Culture and point of view. PNAS; 100(19): 11163–11170.
No matter whether the glass is half full or half empty, what matters is continuing to fill it
4/ 5Oleh Jennifer Delgado