University of Michigan psychology professor Richard Nisbett said he initially became interested in studying variations of thought between Asians and Westerners when Kaiping Peng, a Chinese student of his, told him, “You see life as a line, I see it as a circle.”
Nisbett delivered the Hovland Lecture titled “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why” to approximately 100 students and faculty yesterday in Davies Auditorium. Drawing on historical trends and recent cognition studies, Nisbett discussed the distinctions between Eastern and Western modes of thinking.
Westerners tend to be more analytical and focus more on the laws and properties of an object they perceive, while Asians focus on the relationship between the object and the field in which it exists, Nisbett said. The Western concept of a principle-based universe led the ancient Greeks to invent science, he said, although the Chinese were technologically superior at the time.
Nisbett said cognitive differences lead to diverse social practices.
“The Chinese are more situation-centered and thus have a more passive attitude, but Americans are individual-centered and thus have a more active, conquering attitude,” Nisbett said.
During the lecture, Nisbett discussed recent studies that support his argument.
He cited a study that compared how Japanese and American mothers play with their children. When playing with toys, Japanese mothers emphasized the toy’s role in everyday routine, while American mothers encouraged attention to the object’s characteristics, he said.
Nisbett also cited a study in which Chinese and American students were given a picture of a cow, a chicken and grass and were asked which two items go best together.
“American students are more likely to choose the cow and the chicken because Westerners are more taxonomically minded, but Chinese students are more likely to choose the cow and the grass because Asians concentrate more on relationships between objects,” he said.
In the recent study that gained him and his team national acclaim, Nisbett and other researchers tracked the eye movement of Chinese and American subjects as they looked at pictures. He said that they discovered that Americans concentrated on the central object of the foreground while the Chinese had more eye movements and generally took in more of the background.
“Asians are more likely to perceive how a central object interacts in its context,” Nisbett said.
Yale College Dean Peter Salovey, a psychology professor, said he appreciated Nisbett’s aim to broaden society’s perspective of the influence of diverse thinking.
“Professor Nisbett challenges us to be more skeptical of claims of universal laws and thought,” Salovey said. “He shows us that culture plays out in more ways than social behavior.”
But Stephanie Finnel ’07 said she felt Nisbett’s lecture did not sufficiently address more specific issues in the psychology of different nationalities.
“I wished he had discussed recent research on other populations rather than just a comparison of Eastern and Western modes of thought,” she said. “While I admire [Nisbett’s] research, I think that other dimensions of psychology could have been brought out more in the lecture.”
Still, Yale psychology professor Valerie Purdie-Vaughns said she feels Nisbett’s lecture and the studies he cited are timely given the importance of their core concerns to modern society.
“This is a critical time in science to really understand cultural issues and diversity,” Purdie-Vaughns said.