Book Notice: Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why

Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought is a fascinating exemplar of cultural psychology that does exactly what its subtitle suggests: tells you how Asians and Westerners think differently and canvasses the best available explanations why. The book is a glorified research report covering dozens of laboratory experiments in social psychology, but the writing is in plain English and you aren’t overwhelmed with methodological details.

In a nutshell, Nisbett and colleagues have generated mountains of empirical evidence that’s consistent with the popular but anecdotal idea that Westerners are “analytic” and Asians “holistic”, and that these differences are in part due to culture and language. When stating his central thesis, Nisbett is at pains reminds the reader that some Asians think more like Westerners than Westerners do and vice versa, and that everyone utilizes both analytic and holistic thinking styles and that we are all liable to cross-cultural influences. Nevertheless, Nisbett claims that if you compare population averages, East Asians are more likely to think holistically in everyday situations and Westerners are more likely to think analytically.

Nisbett’s central thesis fits my own experience, and corroborates what Western popularizers of Asian thought like Alan Watts have been emphasizing for decades: There is a Zen monk inside us all, but Western culture makes us jump through several hoops to discover this, and sadly many people never do. 4.5/5

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