Nisbett, Richard E. (2004). The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. New York: Free Press.

Pp. ix + 263
$13.00     ISBN 0-7432-5535-6

Reviewed by Karen E. Petersen
Portland State University

August 16, 2004

As cultural diversity continues to become a salient part of American life, we need to examine how the cognitive processes of different cultures organize knowledge to make sense of the world. Richard Nisbett dissects the different thinking patterns found in Western and Eastern cultures. He explores the two types of cognition through a multidisciplinary lens composed of philosophy, history, social psychology, linguistics, and cognition, and the implications that understanding such differences may have on international relationships.

Nisbett begins his examination in the introduction, where he states his belief that the process of human thought may not be universal after all. He quickly summarizes the principles based on the assumption that people everywhere process information in the same way. From hunter-gatherers to CEOs, we all have the same basic cognitive processes. Cultural differences arise from being exposed to different world experiences, not because of different cognitive processes. Formal rules of logic apply to “higher order” reasoning, that is, something cannot be both true and false at the same time. Lastly, reasoning is not inextricably linked to the thing being reasoned about; one can think about several things using the same process and conversely, one can think about a single thing in many different ways.

Realizing that the human thought process may not be universal across cultures, Nisbett read the literature on the nature of thought and discovered that different thought systems of the East and West have existed for thousands of years. With this new insight and the help of people from the University of Michigan, Beijing University, Kyoto University, Seoul National University, and the Chinese Institute of Psychology, he carried out a series of comparative studies that demonstrated startling differences in the thought processes of Europeans and Asians. With this new information, we can examine why there are different thought patterns, how these thought patterns affect our behavior, how we organize and make sense of the world, and how we can improve relationships with those from other cultures.

Nisbett begins with a history lesson and what appears to be the origin of the thought differences between the East and West. The Greeks were known for their strong sense of personal agency, the ability to exercise free will. They also had an insatiable curiosity about the nature of the world. They were not satisfied just to make systematic observations about the world around them; they were interested in the underlying principles of their observations.

While the Greek’s belief system was grounded in personal agency, the Chinese found their belief system in harmony. Debate and confrontation were discouraged in Chinese society, whereas it was welcomed and encouraged in ancient Greece. The Eastern way of life is based on the fundamental principle that life is ever changing and filled with contradictions. To find “the Way,” to exist in nature with one’s fellow man is a defining feature of the Eastern belief system. It is interrelationships that defined the Chinese; who they were with, would define who they were and what roles they were to fulfill. A sense of identity was defined by social context, not by individual attributes. In ancient Greece, objects and people could be analyzed in isolation; the context would not change the behavior of objects or people. These fundamental differences in thought patterns have implications that extend to all aspects of everyday life.

The author next discusses the origin of the social mind by comparing the ecology, social structure, social practice, and tacit epistemology of the two cultures. Ecologically, the Greeks had a much greater ability to change locations to better serve their own interests; the Chinese did not have that luxury. Even today, the Han ethnic group represents 95% of the total Chinese population. Agricultural societies, especially ones ruled by despots, require cooperation among citizens. For Chinese villagers, resolving disagreements occurred by seeking the “middle Way.” The Greeks made their living through herding, fishing, and trade. Because of their maritime location they encountered new peoples, customs, and belief systems that introduced contradictions and engaged great debates. It is believed that the contradictions arising from these novel interactions may have led to the development of formal logic as a way to resolve dissonance.

The social structure and practices of these two societies differed greatly. The Chinese looked outward to their peers and upward to authority as guides for formulating their social, economic, and political ideologies. The Chinese relied on their attention to the field, and the important elements within that field. The Greeks had a much more independent view of their interactions with others and their attention focused on objects regardless of context. The level of analysis the Greeks employed was that of the object in isolation.

Nisbett next turns his attention to examine the differences seen in the individualistic culture of the West and the collectivistic culture of the East. He begins by listing bullet point assumptions thought to be true by most westerners. We are individuals with characteristic attributes that make us distinctive; moreover, we want to be unique. Westerners are in control of their own behavior and feel better when they believe they can choose and control the outcomes of their actions. Westerners are goal oriented and success driven, and relationships can sometimes interfere with attaining success. Personal success and feeling positive about oneself are important for a sense of well being. When relationships are hierarchal, people prefer the superior position; people prefer equality in personal relationships.

Conversely, Easterners are less concerned with personal success; success is far more group driven. Their sense of well-being is connected to their being in harmony with those around them, and rules that apply to relationships are not universal; instead relationship rules are dictated by the context and are unique to the roles each holds in that context. Easterners are less likely to assume equal treatment, nor is it necessarily desired to be so treated. The collective sense of the East extends to language as well. In the Japanese language, there are several words for “I,” each dependent on the situation. Who “I” am is different when I am with a boss, co-worker, family member, or friend.

When asked to describe themselves, the Japanese had a difficult time doing so in context independent situations. Americans rarely take context into account when asked for self descriptions. Furthermore, North Americans were more likely to overestimate their personal attributes, while Asians were not as likely to make that error. It is the goal of harmony and fulfilling one’s role in the social network to achieve collective success that prevails in Eastern culture. Self-criticism is part of learning to exist in this type of culture. Self-criticism is taught to Japanese children to help them learn to how to solve problems and improve relationships with others.

Ferdinand Tönnies (1887/1988), a German nineteenth-century social scientist, best summarizes the differences in cultures as models of Gemeinschaft and Gesellechaft. Gesellechaft is based on relationships that are a means to an end; it is based on labor and trade and considered to be an individualistic social system, while the Gemeinschaft model focuses on actions that achieve particular goals and is considered a collectivistic social system.

The difference in social systems starts early in life and continues across the life span. Western parents encourage their children to be independent. One way in which they do this is by focusing attention on objects. In Eastern cultures, parents focus attention on social relationships and feelings. In adulthood, these differences are seen in experiments that demonstrate Asians’ superior ability to be aware of the emotions of groups of others; Americans fared poorly in this exercise. One theory that accounts for this difference is communication styles. In the West, it is the communicator who is responsible for making the information clear to the listener. In the East, it is the responsibility of the hearers to understand what they are told. The implication of these two contrasting styles can leave Americans feeling that Asians are difficult to “read” because of their subtle and indirect communication style. Conversely, Asians may feel Americans are so direct that they may be thought to be condescending, or, even rude.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the East and West have very different styles to deal with negation and conflict. As in ancient China, debate is still uncommon in the East. Because argument and debate pose a threat to group harmony, what Westerners would consider controversial topics would not be brought up in conversation in the East. Debate is also part of the rhetoric of science in the West, a skill westerners are taught throughout their entire education and one that is new to many Asians who come to the West to pursue a scientific career.

Negotiation is also dramatically different in tone and execution. Westerns tend to favor an either/or style. They come prepared with clear pre-set goals. They believe they can manipulate or persuade others to their way of thinking. The Japanese approach negotiations from a much different perspective. They maintain the ideal of a harmonious style and believe they are to fit into the environment, not manipulate it. The Japanese are more likely to concede during primary negotiations to demonstrate trust and create a relationship amenable to future negotiations.

Nisbett next delves into how the different social realities of the two cultures may influence the patterns of how we literally see the world. Mutsumi Imae and Dedre Gentner (1994) carried out experiments in which they showed participants an object made of a particular substance, such as a pyramid made of cork. When asked to describe the object, American participants were far more likely to describe the object in terms of its shape, whereas the Japanese participants tended to describe the object in terms of its substance. Large differences in how the two groups coded the object were found in both children and adult participants.

Westerners and Easterners also differ in their perception of control. Feeling in control promotes a feeling of well being in Westerners to a much greater extent than it does for Easterners. Asians who felt they have support from others who might help them with control of a situation felt an enhanced sense of well being. Westerners have more difficulty tolerating ambiguous situations than their Eastern counterparts. Westerners tend to believe that if things are going to change, they will change in the same direction and at the same rate. Easterners see the world as a complex dynamic system and that change is cyclical, not unilateral.

Up until this point in the book, Nisbett has been setting the table in preparation for examining the real meat of his subject. Do people with different worldviews explain similar events and attribute causality in different ways? To address this question, University of Michigan graduate students Michael Morris and Kaiping Peng (1994) conducted content analyses of how two mass murders were reported in the New York Times and the World Journal. Both crimes were committed in the same year; one assailant was of Asian descent, the other assailant was an American. The reporters for the Chinese paper, World Journal, characterized the murder by the context in which it occurred, that is, they attributed the underlying cause of the murders to Lu’s (the assailant) difficulty in getting along with his advisor, the availability of a fire arm, the pressure in his community to succeed, and rivalry with fellow students.

The World Journal reporters covered the Mcllvane murder story in the same manner, attributing his assault to his having been recently fired from his job, the fact that the supervisor was his enemy, and that he was influenced by a previous mass murder that occurred recently in Texas.

The New York Times handled the two stories quite differently. The Times reporters focused on the psychological short comings of Lu, painting Lu as a deeply disturbed individual who self destructed as quickly as he rose to his short lived success. The Times characterized the Mcllvane case similarly. Mcllvane was described as a man with past violent behavior, a short fuse, and mental instability.

Morris and Peng followed their analysis by giving descriptions of the murders to both Asian and American students. They then asked the participants to consider the dispositions of the murders as well as the situational context of the events. By and large, the American students rated disposition and temperament as the salient factors in the case of both murders. Chinese students considered the situational factors to be the more important contributing factors, again for both murder suspects. It is this attention to situational factors that buffers Asians against making fundamental attribution errors, more than their American counterparts.

Nisbett now shifts the focus of the question to examine it from a linguistic perspective. While it is beyond the scope of his book to engage in a full discussion of language theory, the author does manage to provide insight into the object/noun relationship/verb language function. Nisbett highlights some critical factors about the impact language has on the different cognitive processes of the two cultures. First, he points out that verbs are more salient in East Asian languages as theses languages are “topic prominent”; verbs in East Asian languages appear either in the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence. In English, an “object prominent” language, verbs most often appear in the middle of the sentence where they are less salient.

Second, Western parents spend a great deal of time pointing out objects and describing the particular attributes of the object. To compare these differences, developmental psychologists Anne Fernald and Hiromi Morikawa (1993) observed how Japanese and American mothers played with their babies. They found that American mothers use twice as many object labels as Japanese mothers, and Japanese mothers use twice as many social routines that emphasized politeness norms. These results lead to the natural question, how many of the cognitive thought differences of the East and West are a product of language?

To answer this question, Li-jun Ji, Zhiyong Zhang, and Nisbett (2002) examined how people categorize objects. They tested three groups of participants: Americans who spoke only English, Chinese and Taiwanese who learned English later in life (coordinate bilinguals), and residents of Hong Kong and Singapore who learned English at a very young age (compound bilinguals). As expected, the Americans were twice as likely to categorized word triplets taxonomically; the coordinate bilinguals were twice as likely to categorize by relationship when tested in their native language. However, when tested in English, the Chinese and Taiwanese participants were much less likely to categorize based on relationships. The participants from Hong Kong and Singapore also made distinctions based on relationships, but they demonstrated a much weaker preference for categorizing objects based on relationships when compared to their Chinese and Taiwanese counterparts. Perhaps the most significant finding in this experiment was that it made absolutely no difference whether the participants were tested in English or Chinese. The implication of the results seems to demonstrate that culture has an effect on thought independent of language.

It has been clearly demonstrated several times that Easterners and Westerns organize their knowledge of the world differently, Nisbett next examines if these differences influence the way we make inferences. Ara Norenzayan, Edward E. Smith, Beom Jun Kim, and Richard E. Nisbett (in press) and his colleagues recruited Koreans and Americans to participate in an experiment that asked them to determine which arguments seem to be logically valid. Nisbett (2004, p.169) presented the participants the following examples:

Premise 1: No police dogs are old.
Premise 2: Some highly trained dogs are old.
Conclusion: Some highly trained dogs are not police dogs.

Premise 1: All things that are made from plants are good for health.
Premise 2: Cigarettes are things that are made from plants.
Conclusion: Cigarettes are good for health.

Premise 1: No A are B.
Premise 2: Some C are B.
Conclusion: Some C are not A.

The results of this experiment found that Koreans were more influenced by plausibility than the Americans. When it came to the abstract syllogisms, Americans and Koreans made an equal number of errors. Nisbett believes the difference between the two groups is that Americans routinely apply the rules of logic to everyday events and are able to discount the plausibility of the conclusion.

Nisbett next examines how people deal with contradictions. Three principles highlight why Asians tolerate contradiction with less distress than Americans seem to.

  • The Principle of Change: eastern thought revolves around the constant state of change. Reality is ever changing, making the concepts reflecting reality subjective and fluid.
  • The Principle of Contradiction: because the world is constantly changing, oppositions, anomalies and paradoxes continually arise. “Taoists see the two sides of any apparent contradiction existing in an active harmony, opposed but connected and mutually controlling” (Nisbett, 2004).
  • The Principle of Relationship or Holism: due to the constant change and opposition, everything is connected to everything else; nothing exists in isolation.

These three principles are fundamental in finding the Middle Way between two extremes, an important precept of Eastern thought.

Westerners, on the other hand rely on the law of identity, which states: “a thing is itself and not some other thing” and the law of non-contradiction which states: “a proposition can’t be both true and false.” It is clear that these two fundamentally different ways of dealing with contradiction will produce different reasoning patterns that impact several facets of human interactions.

Nisbett takes the reader on an exciting journey, exploring the many differences in Eastern and Western thinking. He has explored the differences from a variety of angles, yet he has two questions still to answer. Do these differences matter, and will they continue? He devotes his final chapter to the former question and the epilogue to the latter.

He first tackles different domains in an attempt to answer the first question: does it matter? In the domain of medicine, it is standard practice to find and excise the cause of an illness. In the East, illness is thought to be a complex interaction that requires a holistic treatment protocol usually involving herbal remedies.

In the domain of law, the West is quite litigious, in fact the ratio of lawyers in the US vs. Japan is 40:1! In the West, conflict resolution means there is a right and a wrong and a winner and a loser. In the East, the goal of conflict resolution is to reduce hostility and to find a compromise that satisfies both parties.

In the arena of debate, the decision process in Japan is one where the guiding force is avoidance of conflict. Meetings are often held to ratify a predetermined consensus. Instead of trying to avoid conflict, Americans engage in the art of persuasion in an attempt to get their idea ratified. There is no fear of bad ideas in the West; it is believed they will be exposed for their worthlessness when they can be discussed in public.

In the domain of science, the differences between the East and West are quite dramatic. In the 1990s, Japan produced one Nobel Prize winner; scientists living in the U.S. produced forty-four. Part of this difference can be accounted for by the culture of deference to elders in Japan. Financial support for Japanese scientists is given to older scientists instead of their younger and perhaps more talented colleagues. The resistance to debate and intellectual confrontation is also invoked to explain the lack of Nobel Prize winners coming from Japan.

Nisbett also examines rhetoric, contracts, international relations, human rights and religion. In each of these areas, the same themes that have emerged throughout the book are repeated.

Will these thought patterns continue? This final question Nisbett answers by referring to the work of Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. Fukuyama (1992) believes that the world will succumb to Westernization; Huntington (1996) believes the two schools of thought will continue to diverge. In conclusion, Nisbett offers a third option, convergence. Nisbett concludes with an optimistic prediction that there will be a convergence of Eastern and Western styles that enhances and transforms the best of both cultures.


Fernald, A., & Morikawa, H. (1993). Common themes and cultural variations in Japanese and American mother's speech to infants. Child Development, 64, 863-878.

Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and The Last Man. New York: Free Press.

Huntington, S. P. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Imae, M., & Gentner, D. (1994). A cross-linguistic study of early word meaning: Universal ontology and linguistic influence. Cognition, 62, 169-200.

Ji, L.-j., Zhang, Z., & Nisbett, R. E. (2002). Culture, language, and categorization, Unpublished manuscript. Queens University, Kingston Ontario.

Morris, M., & Peng, K. (1994). Culture and cause: American and Chinese attributions for social and physical events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67, 949-971.

Norenzayan, A., Smith, E. E., Kim, B. J., & Nisbett, R. E. (in press). Cultural preferences for formal versus intuitive reasoning. Cognitive Science.

Tönnies, F. (1887/1988). Community and Society. New Brunswick: Oxford Transaction Books.

About the Reviewer

Karen E. Petersen is a graduate student at Portland State University. She is currently completing work on her Master’s degree in Special Education. Her interests include psychology, education, motivation and learning, and the interaction between nature and nurture.

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