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The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently - And Why Paperback – 12 May 2005

4.1 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing; New Edition edition (12 May 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1857883535
  • ISBN-13: 978-1857883534
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.2 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 243,164 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


This book may mark the beginning of a new front in the science wars. Nisbett, an eminent psychologist, contends that "human cognition is not everywhere the same"-that those brought up in Western and East Asian cultures think differently from one another in scientifically measurable ways. Such a contention pits his work squarely against evolutionary psychology (as articulated by Steven Pinker and others) and cognitive science, which assume all appreciable human characteristics are "hard wired." Writing dispassionately yet with engagement, Nisbett explains the differences as "an inevitable consequence of using different tools to understand the world." If his explanation turns out to be generally accepted, it means a big victory for memes in their struggle with genes. (Publishers Weekly)

Cultural psychology has come of age and Richard Nisbett's book will surely become one of the canonical texts of this provocative discipline. The Geography of Thought challenges a fundamental premise of the Western Enlightenment - the idea that modes of thought are, ought to be, or will become the same wherever you go - East or West, North or South - in the world. (Richard A. Shweder, anthropologist and William Claude Reavis Professor of Human Development at the University of Chicago)

I have long been following Richard Nisbett's groundbreaking work on culture and cognition. After so many fascinating experiments, challenging hypotheses, and passionate debates, it was a great time for Nisbett to share his ideas and findings with a wider public. The Geography of Thought does superbly! (Dan Sperber, author of Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach)

An important, research-based challenge to the assumption widespread among cognitive scientists that thinking the world over is fundamentally the same. (Howard Gardner, Harvard University, author of Frames of Mind: Theories of Multiple Intelligences)

This is another landmark book by University of Michigan psychologist Richard E. Nisbett. Nisbett shows conclusively that laboratory experiments limited to American college students or even individuals from the western hemisphere simply cannot provide an adequate understanding of how people, in general, think. The book shows that understanding of how individuals in eastern cultures think is not just nice, but necessary, if we wish to solve the problems we confront in the world today. We ignore the lessons of this book at our peril. (Robert J. Sternberg, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education; Director, Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise (PACE Center), Yale University; President-Elect, American Psychological Association)

The cultural differences in cognition, demonstrated in this ground-breaking work, are far more profound and wide-ranging than anybody in the field could have possibly imagined just a decade ago. The findings are surprising for universalists; remarkable for culturalists; and regardless, they are most thought-provoking for all students of human cognition. (Shinobu Kitayama, Faculty of Integrated Human Studies, Kyoto University)

Book Description

Professor Nisbett shows in The Geography of Thought people actually think - and even see - the world differently, because of differing ecologies, social structures, philosophies, and educational systems that date back to ancient Greece and China, and that have survived into the modern world.

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4.1 out of 5 stars
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Format: Paperback
Are there basic differences in thought processes between the Chinese-Confucian societies of East Asia and Western societies? The author answers "yes" and makes a compelling case.
Nisbett's thesis is that there is no universal human cognition - all cognition is culturally affected. Through the use of numerous psychological studies he shows a stark difference in the way Westerners and East Asians perceive, reason, and "see" the world. Nisbett begins by tracing the origins of Western and East Asian philosophy, science and society. On this foundation he builds a case that Western and East Asian cognition is very different. He completes the book with two chapters on the implications of such differences to our modern world.
After 15 years living and working in 3 countries in Asia I can say that there are fundamental differences in the way people from different cultures process, evaluate, and act on information. Everyone views the world through cultural "glasses," and the glasses are all different. Being aware of your own glasses and the glasses of others is a beginning to cross-cultural understanding.
My Japanese colleague has stopped trying to explain to Americans the way Japanese people think - now he just lets Nisbett's book do it. This book provides important research foundations for trainers and coaches who work cross-culturally in Asia.
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Format: Hardcover
Not long ago, the idea that babies are born "mentally malleable" was thought to have been laid to rest. Richard Nisbett has granted the idea a conditional resurrection with this book. Instead of culture being but a gloss over what evolution granted our cognitive skills, it is the foundation on which thinking rests. In a significant study of East-West cultural differences, he finds a deep cleavage between them. Easterners, he argues, show a marked propensity for an holistic outlook - seeing environments before details and fitting individuals within a group. Westerners, with an interest in the more specific, elevate the individual and focus on details over context. Although these differences are exemplified by Confucius' teachings in the East and Aristotle in the West, they are by no means the founders of the attitudes. Indeed, according to Nisbett, the roots of this dichotomy reach deeply into the past.
Western notions, he argues, derive from a Greek ideal of "personal agency". The individual might live in city or farm, but his actions and voice were unique. They also originated the investigation of nature's workings - a process that would culminate in today's usurpation of the environment. Individuals contested their ideas publicly, a process reflected in such diverse environments as politics and science. Ideas are "testable" for validity and utility.
In the East, particularly in Confucian China, the underlying theme is "harmony". For the individual, that's reflected in submergence within the group, whether family or corporation. Disputes aren't resolved by debate, but by mediation, often by a third party. Where Americans, Nesbitt says, use confrontation, even litigation, to resolve issues, the East finds a Middle Way.
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Format: Paperback
The core of this book consists of descriptions of tests and experiments conducted to find differences between Easterners and Westerners.

Apart from a few diagrams, it's all prose. An appendix at least that summarized the tests and experiments and the differences between the behaviors of the Eastern and Western subjects would be helpful.

Nisbett's orientation is cognitive, which can be distracting from the experimental results. He seems to ignore Behaviorist input: he mentions Skinner but unfavorably, as being "a reductionist of the extreme atomic school" who "actually believed theories of any kind were inappropriate". Yet Skinner's interests such as rule-governed behavior, cultural design, and cultural survival would seem to offer some help in understanding how Easterners and Westerners came to differ.

My relationship with a Chinese friend is what drew me to this book (I'm American of English descent) and probably why I am favorably disposed to it. I've felt that my friend doesn't seem to have a self in the way I do, e.g. she says little suggesting self-analysis, but, on the other hand, often mentions what "we Chinese" do. That difference seems confirmed by Nisbett's findings, although I'm wary of such generalization.

There's little detail in the book as to how the tests/experiements were conducted (sufficient for reproducing them) or what controls were applied, so it seems one would have to trust Nisbett a good deal if one only had access to this book. There are notes and references at the end of the book, but there's no numbered footnotes, so to connect a note to its appearance on a page, you have to work backward from the notes section.
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Format: Hardcover
Nesbitt explores how and why East Asians and Westerners think differently. He shows how context influences our way of thinking and behaving. Certainly of interest for social psychology students. But it's interesting for everybody else who wonders, why people sometimes don't understand each other. It certainly opened up new horizons for me and was a source of greater understanding. A bonus is also, that it is not at all written in a dry, scientific style but very readable. Brilliant.
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