Week 1: Nisbett and colleagues (2001) Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition

This was our first session and we began with what the majority of the group felt was a rather contentious – or at least far too coarse-grained – distinction between Eastern and Western thought styles.

Nisbett and colleagues present evidence from a wide range of behaviour and psychological studies that purportedly show differences in how East Asians and Westerners cognise in a range of domains; such as, perception, self conception, and ‘thought styles’. To this survey they added a pretty speculative just-so-story about how long term differences in social organisation, physical environment, “tacit epistemology”, and “naive metaphysics” could be responsible for these differences in cognitive patterns.

Whilst I agree with the general notion that a range of environmental factors from the physical, sociocultural, and epistemic environment (and following the philosophers Kim Sterelny 2003 and Richard Menary 2014, I will refer to as a cultural-cognitive niche) have a serious impact on cognitive capacities, I do not think that such a coarse-grained and abstract analysis is a good way of doing this. Aside from the serious issue here of reifying the spurious East-West dichotomy, there are big problems here about whether one can treat such large units of analysis in a meaningful way. And how we should go about operationalising culture (whatever that is) as something that can be measured in a tractable way as having an “enculturating” effect on cognition. Lastly, in regards to what an enculturating effect is, Nisbett and colleagues do nicely differentiate between simple quantitative differences and qualitative differences. I think we should be interested in the latter, but spelling out what is exactly meant by this is much harder than is actually managed here. I felt this was done much better by research we looked at latter on and so I reserve my comments until then.

I would like to make one last point of defence of this paper: it is unfortunately still the case that a disproportionate amount of psychological, behavioural, and neurological research is conducted on what Henrich and colleagues (2010) refer to as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) participants. For instance, a meta-analysis of psychology by Arnett (2008, pp. 602, 605) found that 68% of all samples in psychology come from the US (which is only 5% of the world’s total population). Nisbett and colleagues work here is a recognition of this problem and an attempt to broaden the cognitive sciences outwards beyond examining a single cultural group. So it is to be applauded in these regards whilst acknowledging that this is only a first step.







Arnett 2008 The Neglected 95%: Why American Psychology Needs to Become Less American. American Psychologist 63, 7, 602-614.

Henrich et al 2010 The weirdest people in the world Brain and Behavioural Science, 33, 61-83.

Menary 2014 Neural Plasticity, Neuronal Recycling and Niche Construction. Mind and Language, 29(3), 286-303.

Nisbett et al 2001 Culture and Systems of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition. Psychological Review, 108(2), 291-310.

Sterelny, K. (2003) Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


Additional links:

Here is a short video of Richard E Nisbett summarising the field of cultural psychology; and another longer one discussing intelligence and culture.

Several of the experimental methods that are used by cultural psychology can be found online at labinthewild. I think that one can gain a much better understanding of how these tests work (and whether one thinks they are valid paradigms for testing cultural impacts on cognition) by taking the tests themselves. I would be really interested to know what other people’s experiences were of the tests labelled: “Are you more Eastern or Western?” and “What is your thinking style?”


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