Book Review: The Geography of Thought


The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why

By Richard E. Nisbett
288 pages, Free Press, 2004
ISBN: 978-0743255356

Reviewed by Glen Choi
Korea-Canada 50th Anniversary Blog

Imagine you are the manager of a company and have to make a decision about an employee whose work for the company, though excellent for 15 years, has been unsatisfactory the past year. Do you dismiss the employee on the grounds of recent performance, or do you keep the employee based on his overall track record?

According to Richard Nisbett, the answer depends on the cultural background of the manager. The author of The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why, Nisbett argues that East Asians have been culturally programmed to think “holistically” – to constantly see objects in connection with its context – while Westerners have been culturally softwired to think more “analytically” – to see objects as discrete and separate from its context. He likens this difference to the lens of a camera: the former is a wide angle lens that zooms out to capture a wide field of view, while the latter is a telephoto lens that zooms in to magnify a particular object. As a result, holistic managers are likely to look at an employee’s overall body of work in their evaluations, while analytical managers will likely focus on present performance.

Sure enough, in a survey that asked the above hypothetical question to middle managers from Korea, Japan, Canada and the U.S. – among others – over a period of several years, more than 75 per cent of Canadians and Americans felt the employee should be let go, while less than 30 per cent of Koreans and Japanese agreed.

This is just one of the book’s many thought-provoking case studies that show Eastern (mostly Korean, Chinese and Japanese) and Western (Canadian and American) peoples fundamentally think in different ways. At one point, Nisbett, who has been tackling East-West issues for over a decade now as a professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan, makes quite a compelling case for why the U.S. has forty more times the number of lawyers than Japan, or why the West has significantly more Nobel Prize winners in science than the East, based on this cross-cultural cognitive model.

While East-West comparative research is not exactly terra incognita (see Freud and Jung, for example), The Geography of Thought is one of the first and few books to map the various strands of discourse out there (including the author’s own) and tie them into a coherent thesis. It is also one of the few that manages to avoid the pitfalls of ethnocentrism or Orientalism (or even “white guilt,” which many liberal intellectuals these days have been accused of, for that matter) that comes with the territory by carefully examining how each culture could benefit from the other.

Overall, the book manages to turn a complex subject matter into a relatively smooth read that should not be confused with your typical, heavy academic pieces – technical jargon and ‘social sciencey’ rhetoric are at a minimum.  And what it may lack in depth is more than made up for in breadth.

Categories: 2013

2 replies »

  1. what a brave/controversial claim this book is making! Honestly, don’t know if I really like some of the arguments he is putting forth but shall not judge before reading it myself.

  2. Wow, I would love to read this. it’s right up my alley. I also think that there is something more intuitive about Korean work settings. I remember our bosses wouldn’t tell us right away when something was wrong. They used to say that they were waiting for the right time to tell us. They also care about office dynamics and try to hire people they think fit in with the team as a whole, whereas in North America we’re more focused on skills and experience.

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