How East and West Think Profoundly Different

January 19, 2017

As Horace Capron first travelled through Hokkaido in 1871, he searched for a sign of human life among the vast prairies, wooded glades and threatening black mountains. “The stillness of death reigned over this magnificent scene,” he later wrote. “Not a leaf was stirred, not the chirping of a bird or a living thing.” It was, he thought, a timeless place, straight out of pre-history.

“How amazing it is that this rich and beautiful country, the property of one of the oldest and most densely populated nations of the world… should have remained so long unoccupied and almost as unknown as the African deserts,” he added.

This was Japan’s frontier – its own version of the American ‘Wild West’. The northernmost of Japan’s islands, Hokkaido was remote, with a stormy sea separating it from Honshu. Travellers daring to make the crossing would have then had to endure the notoriously brutal winters, rugged volcanic landscape and savage wildlife. And so the Japanese government had largely left it to the indigenous Ainu people, who survived through hunting and fishing.

All that would change in the mid-19th Century. Fearing Russian invasion, the Japanese government decided to reclaim the country’s northland, recruiting former Samurais to settle Hokkaido. Soon others followed suit, with farms, ports, roads, and railways sprouting up across the island. American agriculturists like Capron had been roped in to advise the new settlers on the best ways to farm the land, and within 70 years the population blossomed from a few thousand to more than two million. By the new millennium, it numbered nearly six million.

Few people living in Hokkaido today have ever needed to conquer the wilderness themselves. And yet psychologists are finding that the frontier spirit still touches the way they think, feel and reason, compared with people living in Honshu just 54km (33 miles) away. They are more individualistic, prouder of success, more ambitious for personal growth, and less connected to the people around them. In fact, when comparing countries, this ‘cognitive profile’ is closer to America than the rest of Japan.

Hokkaido’s story is just one of a growing number of case studies exploring how our social environment moulds our minds. 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.

Wherever we live, a greater awareness of these forces can help us all understand our own minds a little better.

‘Weird’ minds

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 tacit assumption had been that this select group of people could represent universal truths about human nature – that all people are basically the same. If that were true, the Western bias would have been unimportant. Yet the small number of available studies which had examined people from other cultures would suggest that this is far from the case. “Westerners – and specifically Americans – were coming out at the far end of the distributions,” says Joseph Henrich at the University of British Columbia, who was one of the study’s authors.

Some of the most notable differences revolved around 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, people in the West tend to be more individualist, and people from Asian countries like India, Japan or China tend to be more collectivist.

In many cases, the consequences are broadly as you would expect. 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.

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