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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Premise 2: Cigarettes are things that are made from
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 &
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,
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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