Eastern and Western Thinking Styles

Source: BBC, Jan 2017
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From the broad differences between East and West, to subtle variation between US states, it is becoming increasingly clear that history, geography and culture can change how we all think in subtle and surprising ways – right down to our visual perception. Our thinking may have even been shaped by the kinds of crops our ancestors used to farm, and a single river may mark the boundaries between two different cognitive styles. 

Until recently, scientists had largely ignored the global diversity of thinking. In 2010, an influential article in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences reported that the vast majority of psychological subjects had been “western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic”, or ‘Weird’ for short. Nearly 70% were American, and most were undergraduate students hoping to gain pocket money or course credits by giving up their time to take part in these experiments

the concepts of “individualism” and “collectivism”; whether you consider yourself to be independent and self-contained, or entwined and interconnected with the other people around you, valuing the group over the individual. Generally speaking – there are many exceptions – people in the West tend to be more individualist, and people from Asian countries like India, Japan or China tend to be more collectivist. 

When questioned about their attitudes and behaviours, people in more individualistic, Western societies tend to value personal success over group achievement, which in turn is also associated with the need for greater self-esteem and the pursuit of personal happiness. But this thirst for self-validation also manifests in overconfidence, with many experiments showing that Weird participants are likely to overestimate their abilities. When asked about their competence, for instance, 94% of American professors claimed they were “better than average”.

This tendency for self-inflation appears to be almost completely absent in a range of studies across East Asia; in fact, in some cases the participants were more likely to underestimate their abilities than to inflate their sense of self-worth. People living in individualistic societies may also put more emphasis on personal choice and freedom.

Crucially, our “social orientation” appears to spill over into more fundamental aspects of reasoning. People in more collectivist societies tend to be more ‘holistic’ in the way they think about problems, focusing more on the relationships and the context of the situation at hand, while people in individualistic societies tend to focus on separate elements, and to consider situations as fixed and unchanging.

this thinking style also extends to the way we categorise inanimate objects. Suppose you are asked to name the two related items in a list of words such as “train, bus, track”. What would you say? This is known as the “triad test”, and people in the West might pick “bus” and “train” because they are both types of vehicles. A holistic thinker, in contrast, would say “train” and “track”, since they are focusing on the functional relationship between the two – one item is essential for the other’s job.

Western philosophers emphasised freedom and independence, whereas Eastern traditions like Taoism tended to focus on concepts of unity.


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