Why Do East-Asians and Westerners Think Differently?

You might not know it from the bevy of hack comedians making jokes about the driving of Asian grandmothers, but the differences in how people from Western and Eastern cultures think has been scientifically documented. East Asians think more holistically and focus on relationships and interactive groupings, while Westerners think more analytically and focus on abstract rules. The question is, where do these differences come from?

Some new research that digs deeper into what drives these methods of thinking suggests that the differences stem from the need for personal control. Through a series of 12 experiments researchers found that being deprived of control led Chinese participants to think more like Westerners — that is, more analytically and less holistically. The reasoning is as follows:

Past work has thus contended that East Asians generally are inclined to accept things as they are and adjust themselves, whereas Westerners seek to change the world to suit themselves. Our work proposed, however, that these habits are not ironclad but flexible and that in particular people from both Asian and Western cultures may resort to analytical thinking when they wish to exert primary control over the environment.

In Western cultures people tend to alter their environment to suit themselves, an approach that’s more suited to analytical thinking. In Eastern cultures, people are more likely to change themselves to suit their environment, an approach where a “heightened focus on relationships and interactive groupings rather than abstract rules” is best. However, when people from Eastern cultures are deprived of control, it creates a desire to re-assert control and alter their environment, and that leads them to think more like Westerners. In other words, Easterners and Westerners don’t actually have different ways of thinking, they have differences in their desire for control.

The study is a good illustration of the difficulties involved in the idea of “cultural cognition,” and more generally in the difficulty of attempting to objectively rate the different theoretical approaches to human thinking. On one hand, from a practical standpoint the way people think on a day-to-day basis is clearly driven by their culture. On the other hand, when you dig deep enough the seemingly vast differences in the way people of different cultures think disappear — when it comes to re-asserting control, East and West think the same way. Depending on the level at which you’re examining human cognition, culture is everything (e.g. How does a person behave in a group?), or culture is meaningless (e.g. How does a person think when they want to assert personal control?)

On a slightly unrelated note, this sentence from the paper’s introduction is outstanding:

Acceptance requires the self to see what is there and relinquish emotional or motivational reactions that involve wishing it were different.

I feel like it should be on an inspirational poster in a college dorm room.
Zhou, X., He, L., Yang, Q., Lao, J., & Baumeister, R. (2012). Control deprivation and styles of thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (3), 460-478 DOI: 10.1037/a0026316


One Response to Why Do East-Asians and Westerners Think Differently?

  1. Pingback: Why Do East-Asians and Westerners Think Differently? « peer-reviewed by my neurons « PCC Psychology 202

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