As we consider the design of BDTI's "group learning" courses for training directors and executives in Japan, I have been reading various books on the influence of language and culture on fundamental thought processes. I am particularly interested in the studies described in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why (Free Press, 2003), a book by Professor Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan.
The short study that we did over the past week on Twitter and the internet seems to affirm the hypothesis of Professor Nisbett and others that culture and language affect thinking at a very basic level. Specifically, persons with a predominantly "Western" background in terms of nationality, languages first spoken, and country where they were raised, tend to think more in terms of "classifications" and "categories" (the attributes of things). This is in line with Greek traditions of logic that influenced the West. It was confirmed by our data results because with respect to every category (nationality, first language, and country where raised), a significantly larger proportion of respondents from Western backgrounds selected "monkey and panda", as if they were thinking in terms of "categorizing" the things in the mental picture. (Both monkey and panda fit the category of "mammal" or "furry animal", etc. )
In contrast, persons of a predominantly "Asian" background tend to think more (or first) in terms of the relationship between multiple things. This is in line with Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist traditions of thought that influenced the East – philosophies that emphasized relationships, interconnectedness, and constant change (hence, the temporary nature of attributes). Such tendencies were confirmed by our data results because with respect to every category (nationality, first language, and country where raised), a significantly larger proportion of respondents from Asian backgrounds selected "monkey and banana" (their most frequent selection) or "panda and banana" , as if they were thinking that the monkey/panda has a "relationship" with the banana (i.e., he eats it with relish. )
Anyone interested to look at the actual numbers and data from the suvey, and how I scored the data to conclude the above, should register as a BDTI user (free) and download it from the "CG and Management" folder in the English data library, or アカデミック資料 folder in the Japanese data library. (OK, it's not exactly academic, but that was a handy folder to use.)
For those who speak Japanese, here is a fun TV program about Professor Nisbett's ideas, with many other examples ot tests like this, all of which consistently point to similar conclusions.
Here is an interesting email we received from a very discerning (despite being slightly drunk) young man in Sri Lanka who also speaks Japanese and was raised in the West:
" ただひとつ言えることは絵でディスプレーしたら絶対猿とバナナにしたわ！ そして欧米の人はきっとパンダと猿を選んだんだろうねー….Just guessed the point of the test from the last three questions. I guess imageteki ni europeans like to classsify things where as in Asia monkeys and bananas are one set!"
Apparently the differences in "ways of thinking" are consistent enough that if you raised as a bi-cultural and bi-lingual person, they seem to become more obvious.
Our short survey: http://lnkd.in/szCMRk
Book: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… And Why (Free Press, 2003). I will upload this book to our Amazon bookstore (lower right on the web site).
Note: Richard Nisbett is Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished Professor of social psychology and co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Nisbett's research interests are in social cognition, culture, social class, and aging. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University.
I am indebted to Richard Tabor Green, a Professor specialized in innovation policy at Kansai Gakuin and Keio University, for first telling me about Professor Nisbett's fascinating ideas.
Nicholas Benes Representative Director, BDTI