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The Geography of Thought


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Richard E. Nisbett has taught psychology at Yale University and the University of Michigan, where he is the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor. He has received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award of the American Psychological Association, the William James Fellow Award of the American Psychological Society, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2002, he became the first social psychologist in a generation to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences. The coauthor of "Culture of Honor" and numerous other books and articles, he lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


Responding to a challenge by one of his Asian students, noted psychologist Nisbett (Univ. of Michigan) here questions the assumption in psychology that Western cognitive style is universal. The author conducted many psychological experiments, often with the assistance of Asian colleagues, which reveal that European/American analytic and perceptual modes differ from those of Asians (specifically Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans). Westerners, he found, focus on objects and their control, Asians on context and harmony; Westerners are linear and rhetorical, while Asians are holistic and relational; where Westerners see simplicity, logic, and stability, Asians find complexity, paradox, and change. These differences are clear but not stark, and bicultural experience tends to blend them. Gender differences are considered, but there is no comparison of humor. Nisbett's readable presentation has admirable depth in history, philosophy, and culture. Popular psychology and philosophy have anticipated some of his findings, but his work is the first to offer solid research and theory to back it up. This outstanding book makes key contributions to education, science, health, business, politics, language, and religion. Essential for most libraries.-E. James Lieberman, George Washington Univ. Sch. of Medicine, Washington, DC Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

This book may mark the beginning of a new front in the science wars. Nisbett, an eminent psychologist and co-author of a seminal Psychological Review paper on how people talk about their decision making, reports on some of his latest work in cultural psychology. He contends that "[h]uman 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." Initial chapters lay out the traditional differences between Aristotle and Confucius, and the social practices that produced (and have grown out of) these differing "homeostatic approaches" to the world: Westerners tend to inculcate individualism and choice (40 breakfast cereals at the supermarket), while East Asians are oriented toward group relations and obligations ("the tall poppy is cut down" remains a popular Chinese aphorism). Next, Nisbett presents his actual experiments and data, many of which measure reaction times in recalling previously shown objects. They seem to show East Asians (a term Nisbett uses as a catch-all for Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and others) measurably more holistic in their perceptions (taking in whole scenes rather than a few stand-out objects). Westerners, or those brought up in Northern European and Anglo-Saxon-descended cultures, have a "tunnel-vision perceptual style" that focuses much more on identifying what's prominent in certain scenes and remembering it. 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. (Mar. 3) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

Philadelphia Inquirer
Nisbett's findings pose provocative challenges to universalist assumptions about human thought and inference.
Providence Journal-Bulletin
Understanding the thought processes of other cultures may very well turn out to be critical to the survival of Western civilization....The Geography of Thought is a wake-up call.
Publishers Weekly
The Geography of Thought may mark the beginning of a new front in the science wars.

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