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I’m in New Scientist: “Beyond east and west”

The nice thing about writing features is that they’re often solicited miles in advance so I can write something, totally forget about it and then be surprised when I open my weekly copy of New Scientist to find my name in a byline.

This week’s issue has a feature by me entitled “Beyond east and west: How the brain unites us all” (I like the title; I didn’t write it).

Following the piece I wrote on FOXP2, this is another of those “the media says this, but here’s what’s really going on” pieces. It’s an exploration of the supposed cultural differences between East Asians and Westerners in the ways they see and think about the world. This is a fairly controversial area and my intention was to shed a bit of light on the debate and go beyond the stereotypes that are so often inaccurately presented by the popular media (and rightfully mocked).

I’d encourage you to read the full piece, but for those who want a taster, the thrust is this:

Psychologists have conducted a wealth of experiments that seem to support popular notions that easterners have a holistic world view… while westerners tend to think more analytically. However, the most recent research suggests that these popular stereotypes are far too simplistic. It is becoming apparent that we are all capable of thinking both holistically and analytically – and we are starting to understand what makes individuals flip between the two modes of thought.

A seemingly endless array of  psychological experiments have apparently reinforced the idea of the anlaytic westerner who focuses on prominent objects and uses hard logic, and the holistic easterner, who considers the object’s context and pays special attention to its relationships with its environment. This distinction seems to apply to areas as diverse as perception, attentional biases, use of logic, views of causality and more. Some have suggested that these differences are the result of historical cultural factors harkening all the way back to the relatively independent lives of ancient Greeks versus the more connected existences of the ancient Chinese.

But it seems that it’s a little more complicated than that.

Many of these conclusions are based on limited evidence from a small number of countries, particularly the US, Canada, Japan and China. Factor in people from Europe and other parts of the world and you see more of a continuum rather than a two-sided distinction. And you can find the same distinctions between analytic and holistic thought if you look at a local level rather than focusing on broad sweeps of history or geography. 

It’s also possible to evoke one mindset or another.

For example, psychologists have “primed” east Asian volunteers to adopt an individualistic mode of thought simply by getting them to imagine playing singles tennis, circling single-person pronouns or unscrambling sentences containing words such as “unique”, “independence” and “solitude”. In many of the experiments volunteers from a single cultural background – be it eastern or western – show differences in behaviour as large as those you normally get when comparing people from traditionally collectivist and individualist cultures…

What is clear is that the minds of east Asians, Americans or any other group are not wired differently. We are all capable of both analytic and holistic thought. “Different societies make one option seem to make the most sense at any given moment,” says Oyserman. But instead of dividing the world along cultural lines, we might be better off recognising and cultivating our cognitive flexibility.

Obviously, this is a controversial area and it was probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to write yet. I’m pleased with the result though, and Vaughan at Mind Hacks rates it, which is pretty much the highest commendation I could hope for with a neuroscience/psychology piece!