Culture of Reason

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, January 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

Culture of Reason


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Thinking styles may take Eastern and Western routes

In July 1931, Russian psychologist Alexander R. Luria led a scientific expedition to central Asia to probe the minds of nomads who lived in that harsh, mountainous region. Luria wanted to explore whether members of what scholars at the time ranked as "primitive" communities could reason logically, like inhabitants of modern European and North American societies.

He got a rude shock. Upon hearing the scientist describe carefully phrased problems designed for simple, logical analysis, one nomad after another balked. They looked at Luria as if he had just asked them to run naked through a snowstorm.

For instance, Luria told one man that "all bears in the North are white" and that a friend who lives in the North "sent me a letter saying that he had seen a bear." Luria then asked the man to name that bear's colon

It seemed like a no-brainer to the intrepid scientist. Logic compels one to conclude that if a person sees a northern bear, then that creature must sport an ivory-colored coat.

"How should I know?" responded the man. "Ask your friend who saw the bear."

Score one for the nomad, even if his tact needed a bit more polish. His response may have struck Luria as primitive, but it raises profound implications for understanding how mind and culture orchestrate reasoning, contends psychologist Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In this case, an impairment of logic hardly signifies an intelligence deficit, Nisbett says. As in many traditional societies, Uzbek nomads knew how to use personal and collective knowledge to conquer a bevy of local problems. However, they had no experience at discerning a general relationship between a couple of sentences uttered by a stranger about a strange land.

A similar resistance to employing formal logic characterizes other traditional groups that researchers have studied since Luria's time, such the Kpelle of western Africa and Guatemalan Mayans, the Michigan psychologist adds.

Exposure to modern Western-style cultures and education may underlie a person's ability to note logical principles behind statements, Nisbett holds. This skill derives from the assumption that language and knowledge exist apart from immediate experience.

Armed with a healthy respect for culture's impact on how people think (SN: 10/18/97, p. 248), Nisbett and his coworkers now find that East Asian and Western frameworks for reasoning differ substantially.

In a variety of reasoning tasks, East Asians take what Nisbett calls a "holistic" approach. They make little use of categories and formal logic and instead focus on relations among objects and the context in which they interact. These populations also tend to accept or even search for contradictory perspectives on the same issue. In short, they direct their attention into a complex, conflict-strewn environment.

People in the United States, on the other hand, adopt an "analytic" perspective, Nisbett says. They look for the traits of objects while largely ignoring their context, categorize items by applying formal logic and explicit rules, and try to resolve any contradictions that turn up. Their attention gravitates toward constant features of isolated entities.

Each system of thought has its strengths and weaknesses, Nisbett points out. These mentalities, cultivated for thousands of years by contrasting social structures in East and West, have in turn fostered Eastern and Western approaches to science, he argues.

"An indefinitely large number of presumably basic cognitive processes may be highly malleable, rather than hardwired into our brains," Nisbett asserts. "They may not be independent of the particular character of thought that distinguishes one human group from another."

Nisbett's placement of culture at the root of mental life departs sharply from mainstream cognitive psychology. …

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