Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Culture influences our mind so deeply that we don’t realize it

culture influences our mind

Culture has an important role in how we see the world, affects the way we think and even determines the way we act. A person born in a particular culture develops a very different mindset from someone who is born in a different one.

Recently, the social psychologist Richard Nisbett shared a part of his extensive research on how the Western and Eastern minds differ in many aspects, by the way of thinking to perception, social norms and political structure.

One of the most interesting results refers to the fact that we, in the West, tend to focus more on objects and develop analytical thinking, while Orientals are more concentrated on interpersonal relationships and a holistic thinking.

It seems that Westerners focus more on objects, want identify their possessions, classify and discover the laws and principles that rule their behavior. For this reason, we often dismantle or break things to try understand how they work, and assume a more reductionist or atomistic perspective.

This way of thinking is one of the reasons why Western culture made important advances in logic, science and technology. In fact, science is based exactly on isolating the variables and test them in controlled environments, where all other factors remain constant.

In contrast, Easterners focus more on relationships established between things, are interested in finding out the interdependence and assume to always be half way from the truth. This way of seeing the world allows them to be more flexible, depending on the context or the situation.

Therefore, the oriental culture is often more open to paradoxes and contradictions, to phenomena that do not follow the rules and ordered specifications established by the West in relation to how the world works.

Of course, this does not mean that all people of a culture thinks the same way, but are general patterns applying to many of its members. Nor is it a way of thinking better than the other, because both are complementary and have their advantages and disadvantages.

Analytical approach vs. holistic approach

To check whether Westerners are centered more on the objects and their properties and Easterners on relationship between objects, this psychologist developed a number of interesting experiments.

In one study, Asians and Americans were shown two similar images and were asked to find the small differences between them. Some of the differences were connected to the object (for example: an aircraft missing a part) while others were linked to relations (such as: two aircraft close to each other). The results showed that Americans were more likely to identify differences related to the object, while Asians tended to notice differences in the relationships between objects.

In another study, participants were shown a cartoon in which you could see an underwater scene with fish, plants, stones and other background elements, like a frog and a snail. Then they were invited to describe the scene. All participants indicated the items that appeared in the foreground, but Asians were more likely to cite the background elements and describe the scene as a whole.

These studies support the idea that we in the West have a “narrower view” when exploring our environment, particularly because we pay close attention to objects and their properties, while Orientals have a “broader view”, they see the relationship between the objects and the environment.

Categorical thinking vs. relational thinking

According to research by Nisbett, Westerners have the tendency to group objects to form “categories”, while Orientals tend to group things in terms of “relationships”.

In a simple experiment, the Americans and Asian college students were shown a series of photographs in which they had to choose what items could match each other, as in the example below.

What figure will relate better with the cow? Take a minute to respond.

The majority of Americans chose the chicken, because included it in the same category: “domestic animals”. However, most of the Asian chose the grass because they searched for a relationship: “The cow eats grass”.

Again, this experiment shows how Westerners focus more on objects, their properties and categories, while Orientals prefer to focus on relationships, on the context and the environment.

Rules vs. Paradoxes

According to Nisbett, Westerners tend to be very strict when it comes to apply logic and rules. This comes from our tendency to group objects into categories based on their properties.

Do this simple exercise: Which group do it belong the flower at the bottom?

In this experiment, the majority of the Easterners thought that it belonged to group A, but most Westerners placed it in group B.

The flower shows “familiar” characteristics of group A (round petals and leaf). However, it shares a detail with group B: the stem is straight, not curved.

This shows that we, the Westerners, apply the law of identity (A is A) and the law of non-contradiction (A and non-A is imposibile). The Easterners instead, tend to be more open minded about paradoxes and contradictions (sometimes A is A, and sometimes not).

In fact, a representation of “paradoxical thinking” in Eastern culture is the famous Yin/Yang symbol, which illustrates how everything is made up, in part, by its opposite.

Being fixed vs. being dynamic

Since in the West we focus on objects and their properties, we tend to consider our “self” as something fixed and immutable, regardless of the situation. Orientals, by contrast, consider their “self” as something more dynamic and changing, depending on the situation.

In fact, in social psychology exists what is known as “attribution error”, a phenomenon that refers to the tendency of people to give excessive weight to personality factors to explain someone's behavior, rather than analyze situational factors. According to Nisbett, Westerners are more likely to this attitude than Easterners.

To prove it, he devised an experiment in which participants were told the story of a man running fast for not arrive late at work and refused to give a dollar to a homeless man met on the road. When they were asked to look for an explanation for this behavior, Westerners tended to label this man as selfish, while Easterners tended to consider the dynamics of the situation and justify it by saying he was in a hurry.

Basically, Westerners are convinced they have a fixed personality: “I am what I am” and “they are what they are”, regardless of the situation while Orientals consider to have a more dynamic personality and realize that they may act differently depending on the situation.

What can we conclude?

In reality, there’s no right or wrong way of thinking, each one gives us a different perspective on the world and how interpret it. A prospect is more precise and analytical while the other is more comprehensive and holistic. Each takes us on a different path.

Obviously, there will be situations where you need to apply analytical thinking, focusing on details, while in other circumstances you’ll need to develop a more flexible thinking, comprehensive and holistic.

The important thing is knowing what kind of way of thinking we normally use to develop a new perspective that enriches us.

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.


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Culture influences our mind so deeply that we don’t realize it
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Jennifer Delgado Suárez

Psicologist by profession and passion, dedicated to to string words together. Discover my Books


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