Cultures of Reason

Thinking styles may take Eastern and Western routes

In July 1931, Russian psychologist Alexander R. Luria led a scientific expedition to central Asia to probe the minds of nomads who lived in that harsh, mountainous region. Luria wanted to explore whether members of what scholars at the time ranked as “primitive” communities could reason logically, like inhabitants of modern European and North American societies.

He got a rude shock. Upon hearing the scientist describe carefully phrased problems designed for simple, logical analysis, one nomad after another balked. They looked at Luria as if he had just asked them to run naked through a snowstorm.

For instance, Luria told one man that “all bears in the North are white” and that a friend who lives in the North “sent me a letter saying that he had seen a bear.” Luria then asked the man to name that bear’s color.

It seemed like a no-brainer to the intrepid scientist. Logic compels one to conclude that if a person sees a northern bear, then that creature must sport an ivory-colored coat.

“How should I know?” responded the man. “Ask your friend who saw the bear.”

Score one for the nomad, even if his tact needed a bit more polish. His response may have struck Luria as primitive, but it raises profound implications for understanding how mind and culture orchestrate reasoning, contends psychologist Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In this case, an impairment of logic hardly signifies an intelligence deficit, Nisbett says. As in many traditional societies, Uzbek nomads knew how to use personal and collective knowledge to conquer a bevy of local problems. However, they had no experience at discerning a general relationship between a couple of sentences uttered by a stranger about a strange land.

A similar resistance to employing formal logic characterizes other traditional groups that researchers have studied since Luria’s time, such as the Kpelle of western Africa and Guatemalan Mayans, the Michigan psychologist adds.

Exposure to modern Western-style cultures and education may underlie a person’s ability to note logical principles behind statements, Nisbett holds. This skill derives from the assumption that language and knowledge exist apart from immediate experience.

Armed with a healthy respect for culture’s impact on how people think (SN: 10/18/97, p. 248:, Nisbett and his coworkers now find that East Asian and Western frameworks for reasoning differ substantially.

In a variety of reasoning tasks, East Asians take what Nisbett calls a “holistic” approach. They make little use of categories and formal logic and instead focus on relations among objects and the context in which they interact. These populations also tend to accept or even search for contradictory perspectives on the same issue. In short, they direct their attention into a complex, conflict-strewn environment.

People in the United States, on the other hand, adopt an “analytic” perspective, Nisbett says. They look for the traits of objects while largely ignoring their context, categorize items by applying formal logic and explicit rules, and try to resolve any contradictions that turn up.

Their attention gravitates toward constant features of isolated entities.

Each system of thought has its strengths and weaknesses, Nisbett points out. These mentalities, cultivated for thousands of years by contrasting social structures in East and West, have in turn fostered Eastern and Western approaches to science, he argues.

“An indefinitely large number of presumably basic cognitive processes may be highly malleable, rather than hardwired into our brains,” Nisbett asserts. “They may not be independent of the particular character of thought that distinguishes one human group from another.”

Cultural root

Nisbett’s placement of culture at the root of mental life departs sharply from mainstream cognitive psychology. The assumption that people everywhere possess universal modes of thinking, such as categorization and logical reasoning, has reigned for 40 years. Culture, in the dominant view, adds only regional spice to the basic ingredients of thought. For example, different cultures may form the same basic categories of plants and animals, which they elaborate in their own unique ways (SN: 11/16/96, p. 308).

Yet many historians, philosophers, and other scholars have argued that fundamentally different ways of thinking about the world existed in ancient civilizations and linger in their successor societies, Nisbett says. He and his colleagues Kaiping Peng of the University of California, Berkeley, Incheol Choi of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Michigan’s Ara Norenzayan have uncovered support for that contention in their studies comparing volunteers in the United States with those in either China, Japan, or Korea.

The researchers’ case for contrasting systems of thought is scheduled to appear in an upcoming Psychological Review.

Ancient Greek civilization gave rise to the analytic mentality of Westerners, Nisbett’s group argues. Greeks believed in the importance of personal action to achieve happiness, as well as in fate and in the ability of gods to intervene in human affairs.

They had a sense of curiosity about the world that inspired a reverence for public debate and speculation about the nature of objects and events. Greek thinkers sought rules for explaining features of a natural world deemed separate from the civilized world. This framework allowed for Greek advances in formal logic, physics, astronomy, geometry, and other areas, the investigators maintain.

Ancient Chinese society, informed by Confucianism, promoted a holistic outlook, Nisbett and his colleagues propose. It encouraged social harmony rather than open debate. Obligations between emperor and subject, parent and child, and others in various social spheres drew the keenest interest.

Whereas Greeks wanted to know in order to understand rules of nature, Confucians sought knowledge in order to behave properly toward others. Thus, the ancient Chinese made scientific advances grounded more in practical applications than in formal models or theories, the researchers argue. For instance, Chinese society created or independently invented irrigation systems, movable type, the magnetic compass, rockets, immunization techniques, and mathematics-based mapmaking.

Nisbett and his coworkers have sifted out some of the “cognitive residue” of these ancient mentalities in experiments with groups of volunteers. Participants so far have primarily been college students, with most of those in the United States having European ancestors. Any reasoning disparities between the Asian and U.S. groups probably underestimate wider cultural gaps, Nisbett proposes, since Asian university students encounter Western forms of thought more often than others in their countries do.

A truly venal act

To get a feel for culturally bounded reasoning, ponder what would motivate someone to commit a truly venal act. After reading about a mass murder, U.S. students accounted for the horrifying event by citing the culprit’s mental instability or other personal traits. Chinese students explained the same incident by musing about the criminal’s possible family pressures, poverty-stricken upbringing, or other social influences.

In another study, participants read a strongly worded essay written by someone who, they were told, had been instructed to take that stand. U.S. students, but not Koreans, usually assumed that the essay writer actually believed what he or she had written.

After the same volunteers wrote a pro or con essay on demand, Koreans decreased their already low willingness to equate someone else’s essay with their personal opinions, while U.S. students held to their conviction that the essay was sincere. Koreans may pay greater attention to situational influences, Nisbett suggests.

The holistic perspective may also create a sense of complacency. Its envelopment of many potential causes for whatever happens encourages an “I-knew-it-all-along” reaction to unexpected events, the researchers hold. The object-centered, analytic style results instead in surprise at an unexpected turn of events.

For instance, Choi and Nisbett had students read about a scientific finding, such as evidence that optimistic people attain better emotional health than realistic people. When told that the finding was not true, the Koreans took it in stride, while U.S. students were taken aback.

A number of memory studies conducted by Nisbett and his associates indicate that East Asians attend to background and global aspects of a scene, whereas U.S. students focus on a few discrete objects. In one case, Japanese volunteers who saw a cartoon of underwater life later remembered it as an integrated scene, such as a pond with a large school of fish and a clump of seaweed. U.S. participants mostly recalled a few fish that they had seen in the foreground.

When shown a new drawing in which fish from the first cartoon swam through a different background scene, the Japanese but not the U.S. volunteers had substantial problems in recognizing previously seen creatures.

U.S. students also proved much superior to East Asians at learning arbitrary rules for categorizing animals or objects, the scientists found.

Reasoning about contradictions

Perhaps the most striking results in this series of experiments, described by Peng and Nisbett in the September 1999 American Psychologist, concern styles of reasoning about contradictions.  Chinese students try to retain elements of opposing perspectives by seeking “a middle way,” the investigators say. U.S. students try to determine which fact or position is correct so that they can reject the other.

Peng and Nisbett first found that Chinese volunteers particularly liked Chinese and U.S. proverbs that pose contradictions, such as the Chinese saying “Too humble is half proud.” U.S. participants preferred proverbs without contradictions, such as “Half a loaf is better than none.”

This pattern held when Chinese and U.S. students read translated Yiddish proverbs, many of which contain contradictions. Moreover, a review of proverb collections identified many more contradiction-based sayings in China than in the United States.

Chinese and U.S. students then grappled with contradictions drawn from daily life. For instance, they tried to solve a conflict between three mothers and their grown daughters who wanted to abandon the mothers’ cherished values. U.S. responses usually supported one side or the other in such disputes, such as favoring “daughters’ rights to their own values.” Chinese replies highlighted possible compromises, such as trying to find ways to increase understanding between mothers and daughters.

In a related experiment, volunteers read about contradictory studies, for example, one finding that teens who are close to their families have better social relationships and another concluding that independent teens are more mature. The U.S. students who read about both studies expressed a stronger view one way or the other on the issue than those who read about only one of the studies. Chinese participants who read about clashing studies took a more moderate stance than those who read about only one of the studies did.

Universal features

Such work may not conclusively show that culture rules reasoning styles, but it suggests that universal features of thought are tough to pin down, Nisbett says.

University of Michigan psychologist Scott Atran, a staunch proponent of universal modes of thinking, calls the research into reasoning by East Asians and Westerners important because it plumbs cultural variations “that psychology has generally neglected.”

Universal reasoning patterns may nonetheless exist, Atran argues. For example, all the East Asian and U.S. groups studied by Nisbett displayed the capacity to use both holistic and analytic reasoning strategies to some extent.

It also remains unclear whether all Westerners, such as educated Europeans and U.S. blue-collar workers, reason as U.S. college students do. Even if that’s the case, a modern cultural mentality is unlikely to derive from a single past civilization, Atran says.

Holistic ideas appear in the writings of some ancient Greek thinkers, he asserts. Similarly, ancient Chinese scholars achieved geometric proofs that must have required analytic methods.

Although he searches for cognitive universals, Atran’s latest study surprised him by accentuating culture’s power to organize reasoning about the environment and resource management. He and his colleagues studied three groups now living in the same part of the Guatemalan rainforest—native Itzaj Maya, Q’eqchi’ Maya who moved to the area about 20 years ago, and Spanish-speaking Ladinos who immigrated around the same time.

Native Maya exhibit the most sensitivity to the local ecology, Atran’s group reported in the June 22, 1999 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For instance, they clear less land yearly and cultivate more plant species on average than the other two groups, and they possess extensive knowledge about how various plants and animals interact in the rainforest.

Much to Atran’s surprise—and contrary to an influential theory that self-interest dominates when common resources become scarce—Itzaj Maya continue their resource-preserving ways in the face of competition from the other groups. What’s more, the Itzaj appear to act out of a concern for their environment rather than fear of punishment. The Itzaj make no attempts to monitor and punish members of their own group who cut down too many trees or otherwise act selfishly.

Conversely, immigrant Maya clear large plots of land and otherwise cut into rain forest resources despite organized attempts in their community to foster ecological awareness.

Ladinos show signs of adopting the environmental practices of native Maya, although it’s unclear how they gain the knowledge, Atran says. The Itzaj say that they don’t willingly teach anything to Ladinos.

Native Maya may think of specific animals and plants not as resources but as beings on the order of friends or enemies, Atran proposes. They may organize practical knowledge about the rain forest and resource use according to relationships with these fellow beings rather than the presence of human competitors (SN: 6/5/99, p. 360).

Beliefs about forest spirits support this notion, Atran finds. The trees that Itzaj men say are most fiercely protected by these spirits are the species that have pivotal ecological relationships with local plants and animals. The Itzaj are less likely to cut down spirit-protected trees than other ones.

Resource-management strategies apparently take culturally chaperoned paths, comments psychologist Douglas Medin of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., a coauthor of Atran’s study.

“Cognitive psychologists typically assume, but rarely test, the universality of cognitive processes such as reasoning,” Medin says. “I wouldn’t make strong claims at this point about what’s universal and what isn’t.”

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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