Technology and affordable air travel may be bringing cultures together, but diversity runs deep, says author and academic Richard Nisbett

If you thought that the global phenomenon that was “Gangnam Style” said something about globalisation and a melding of cultural attitudes, then think again. The interconnected world may be where East meets West, but global businesses ignore the significant remaining differences at their peril, says one of the leading thinkers on the subject.

Richard Nisbett, based at the University of Michigan, is author of the respected volume The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently – and Why. He says cultural diversity is not just about what we like and how we behave, but even affects what we see. He describes an experiment in which Japanese and American people were, individually, shown realistic (but animated) underwater scenes lasting 20 seconds, and then were asked, “What did you see?” The Japanese respondents, he recalls, typically started by describing the context of the scene. “Almost always, the Japanese referred to the backdrop element of the water in which these things were happening. So they might say, ‘Well, I saw the stream; the water was green; there were rocks and shells at the bottom; and there were three big fish swimming off to the right.’ But the Americans rarely mentioned the context. They started off with the most salient, largest, brightly coloured things. They were saying, ‘I saw three big fish swimming off to the right, and they had big stipples on their bellies. There were rocks and shells on the bottom,’ etc. The Japanese identified 60 per cent more context elements like rocks and shells, and they identified twice as many relationships, like ‘the shell was next to the reeds.’”

Another experiment presented subjects with an image of a cartoon person clearly expressing an emotion, such as anger. In some cases that person was flanked by other people displaying the same emotion; in other cases that person was surrounded by people displaying other emotions. When asked what emotion the central figure was displaying, the Japanese, Nisbett says, were substantially influenced by the emotions of the people flanking the central character, while the Americans were largely unaffected.

This sense of context is evident in relationships and can be measured. “In East Asia, the concept of the person is bound up with other people: I am my parents’ child, I’m my sister’s brother, I’m my friend’s friend and so forth, and I’ve been told by East Asians who know Westerners very well that if someone moves out of your circle, you lose someone. You literally feel like a different person. Now that’s true for us, too: if I lost my wife, I would feel like half a person, but my immediate family is pretty much it. I could lose my best friend and I’d still feel like myself. That’s not true of East Asians.” Brain scans show the medial pre-frontal cortices of both Asians and Westerners reacting when subjects think about themselves. “But,” Nisbett notes, “when East Asians think about their mother, that same area lights up. It doesn’t light up for Westerners.”

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