No more 'inscrutable Orientals'!

Old stereotypes about Westerners and Asians dressed up in new psychological research

According to Richard Nisbett in "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why," the origins of East/West differences go back 2,500 years. His opening chapter explains that Greeks promoted personal agency, which valued individual identity, a sense of debate, and a curiosity about nature. The Chinese, meanwhile, espoused collective agency, which valued harmony and the Middle Way, avoided confrontation but lacked wonder in nature. "The lack of wonder among the Chinese is especially remarkable," Nisbett adds, as if to excuse the Chinese, "in light of the fact that Chinese civilization far outdistanced Greek civilization technologically."

The next chapter scans 2-1/2 centuries for explanations of the differences between East and West. In short, the original physical surroundings determined agricultural and therefore economic infrastructures, which resulted in the establishment of social structures, leading to different ways of thinking. And that brings us to those "remarkable" differences:

• Asians are interdependent, while Westerners are independent.

• Asians have a holistic worldview, while Westerners are analytical.

• Asians assume the world to be complex, while Westerners prefer simplicity.

• Asians are more concerned with relationships, while Westerners are more object-focused.

• Asians can accept contradictions while Westerners insist on logic.

Nisbett, an eminent cultural psychologist, then adds a laundry list of further East/West differences, including approaches to medicine, law, debate, science, rhetoric, and international relations.

His epilogue offers three approaches of how these differences might be interpreted. Francis Fukuyama's theory, via Nisbett, says that East/West differences will converge because "everyone is really an American at heart." Samuel Huntington, meanwhile, predicts continued conflict.

Nisbett's own third theory calls for the Middle Way - proving his own Eastern influence. In fact, Nisbett says, East has already permeated West, as evidenced by once-Jewish Catskills resorts becoming Buddhist centers and soccer moms practicing yoga and tai chi.

At first glance, Nisbett's book might appear to be a potentially insightful distillation of East/West comparisons. However, neither Nisbett's topic nor his conclusions are particularly new or illuminating.

Studies of cross-cultural differences have been popular for decades, especially since the explosion of East/West business alliances in the past 20-some years. But the core of Nisbett's arguments is problematic the moment he reveals his labeling choices: "East Asia" means China, Japan, and Korea; the terms 'East Asian,' 'Easterner,' and 'Asian' are used interchangeably; "Westerners" refer to European Americans, including "blacks and whites and Hispanics - anyone but people of Asian descent."

While the East Asian moniker and its variations can only result in sweeping generalizations - for which Nisbett himself duly apologizes as if bypassing expected naysayers - the European American label is just plain wrong. Nisbett justifies his labeling methods with the argument that "everyone born and raised in America is exposed to similar, though of course not by any means identical, cultural influences." But even that must be challenged because cultural influences are also in direct correlation to an individual's social, economic, and racial status. A Westerner with a legacy of slavery does not experience "similar cultural influences" as a wealthy white Westerner.

In essence, the treatise that Nisbett presents here is a comparative study of how some people of East Asian descent think versus how some white Americans think - and then he attempts to apply those theories to others as an afterthought, regardless of fit. That sense of forced overgeneralization is disturbing and intellectually dishonest.

Furthermore, as an Asian-American reader, I found Nisbett's arguments especially unsettling. When he singles out Asian-Americans for exclusion, he adds, "We would expect them to be more similar to Asians than we would expect other Americans to be - and in fact this is what we find." But in the epilogue, Nisbett writes the complete opposite: "Since [Asian-Americans] have different social experiences from those of Asians, we would expect that their perceptions and patterns of thought would resemble those of other Westerners to a substantial degree. And in fact the perceptual patterns and reasoning styles of such participants were always intermediate between those of Asians and European Americans and sometimes were actually indistinguishable from those of European Americans."

Cultural sensitivity aside, Nisbett's arguments literally don't compute.

Terry Hong is project director of the Korean American Centennial Commemoration at the Asian Pacific American Program of the Smithsonian Institution.

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