By: Sharon Begley, Newsweek
Monday, April 06, 2009
Professor Richard Nisbett's research in Newsweek
From the article:
There is no better way to shatter someone's "we are all the same" illusion than to show pictures of a monkey, a panda and a banana to someone from Japan and someone from Britain. Ask them which two images go together. Chances are, the Japanese will pick the monkey and the banana, because they have a functional relationship: the former eats the latter. The Brit will select the panda and the monkey, because they are both mammals. As Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan described in his 2003 book, "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why," Westerners typically see classifications where Asians see relationships. He means "see" literally. When students in one study looked at tanks holding a large fish, a bunch of small fry and the usual aquarium plants and rocks, the Japanese later said they'd seen lots of background elements; the Americans saw the big fish.
The West epitomizes individualistic, do-your-own thing cultures, ones where the rights of the individual equal and often trump those of the group and where differences are valued. East Asian societies exalt the larger society: behavior is constrained by social roles, conformity is prized, outsiders shunned. "The individualist-collectivist split is one of the most powerful differences among cultures," says Nisbett. But the reason a society falls where it does on the individualism-collectivism spectrum has been pretty much a mystery. Now a team of researchers has come up with a surprising explanation: disease-causing microbes. Societies that evolved in places with an abundance of pathogens, they argue, had to adopt behaviors that add up to collectivism, for reasons of sheer preservation. Societies that arose in places with fewer pathogens had the luxury of individualism, which is less effective at limiting the spread of disease but brings with it other social benefits, such as innovation....
Read the entire article on the Newsweek website.