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Re: [ontolog-forum] Cultural variation in cognitive machinery (was: Inve

To: Dan Brickley <danbri@xxxxxxxxxx>
Cc: "[ontolog-forum]" <ontolog-forum@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
From: Pat Hayes <phayes@xxxxxxx>
Date: Sat, 10 Apr 2010 01:23:53 -0700
Message-id: <E798E32B-9382-4F6A-8A8C-41584009DCFE@xxxxxxx>

On Apr 8, 2010, at 2:39 AM, Dan Brickley wrote:    (01)

> (at some point a while back this thread needed a new name....)
> On Thu, Apr 8, 2010 at 5:39 AM, Pat Hayes <phayes@xxxxxxx> wrote:
>> Well, first, lets actually get it established that there *are* any  
>> such
>> cultural effects on how we come to understand the world. Presumably  
>> these
>> would show up in cross-cultural studies of childhood development,  
>> done by
>> psychologists interested in the details of how we come to  
>> understand. Can
>> anyone cite any such studies that show any significant cultural  
>> influence on
>> development?
> Perhaps Richard Nisbett's "The Geography of Thought"?    (02)

I knew someone would cite this stuff.  First, Nisbett doesn't talk  
about (or give any relevant evidence concerning) the key question,  
which is how cognitive development in childhood differ (if it does at  
all) in these two cultural frameworks. We are supposed to believe,  
remember, that the cultural effects are not simply cultural  
differences (which exist, of course), but are differences in *how  
people come to understand* the world.    (03)

I can fault Nisbett on other grounds. HIs experiments are not well  
designed and his results do not always support his very contentious  
assumptions. HIs evidence is easily explained as linguistic in origin  
rather than revealing a fundamental *cognitive* difference, as he  
claims. His historical arguments are woefully unscholarly and thin.  
And his categories are not even cultural: "East Asian" is his term for  
a hodge-podge of unrelated cultures, some of which have been at war  
with others for centuries. He often cites, as examples of "Western"  
cultural effects, phenomena which are in fact uniquely American and  
may be at odds with European (or even Canadian) cultural norms, eg the  
focus on individualism and 'free choice'. And frankly, much of what he  
says reads like he has an agenda, and is forcing his data into a  
predefined mold, by biassing the questions.    (04)

> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Geography_of_Thought
> Press blurb, http://www.ns.umich.edu/Releases/2003/Feb03/r022703a.html
> I was going to excerpt, but I may as well copy the whole thing here as
> it isn't long and I don't have my copy of the book handy to poke
> around for the study citations. This is very press-releasy but should
> give a flavour,
> """   CURRENT | ARCHIVES      
> February 27, 2003
> Print
> The geography of thought: How culture colors the way the mind works
> ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Cultural differences in the way the mind works may be
> greater than most people suspect, according to University of Michigan
> psychologist Richard Nisbett, author of "The Geography of Thought: How
> Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why," just published by
> The Free Press. "When you have a diverse group of people from
> different cultures, you get not just different beliefs about the
> world, but different ways of perceiving it and reasoning about it,
> each with its own strengths and weaknesses," says Nisbett, a senior
> research scientist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), the
> world's largest academic survey and research organization.
> Westerners and East Asians describe this scene in different ways
> (Source: The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research)
> In the book, Nisbett, who also heads the U-M Culture and Cognition
> Program, discusses the substantial differences in East Asian and
> Western thought processes, citing experimental, historical, and social
> evidence. His findings call into question the long-standing
> psychological assumption that the way the human mind works is
> universal. In the process, he addresses such questions as:
> · Why did the ancient Chinese excel at algebra and arithmetic, but  
> not geometry?    (05)

What? First, algebra was an Arabic invention, not a Chinese one.  
Second, in what way, exactly, did the ancient Chinese architects not  
excel at geometry? They may not have had Euclid, who seems to have  
been a unique intellectual sport, but they certainly had a grasp of  
important geometric ideas.    (06)

> · Why do Western infants learn nouns more rapidly than verbs, when it
> is the other way around in East Asia?
> · Why do East Asians find it so difficult to disentangle an object
> from its surroundings?    (07)

Well, now, if this really is true, then one would expect that (or  
example) East Asians would have a higher proportion of traffic  
accidents arising from their inability to perceive objects clearly  
from the background as they drive. Has this effect been noted? Again,  
one might expect that East Asian engineers should suffer from some  
cultural handicaps due to this confusion of foreground with  
background. Perhaps the well-known Japanese inability to make fast  
trains can be explained this way?    (08)

> "East Asian thought tends to be more holistic," says Nisbett, who also
> heads the U-M Culture and Cognition Program. "Holistic approaches
> attend to the entire field, and make relatively little use of
> categories and formal logic. They also emphasize change, and they
> recognize contradiction and the need for multiple perspectives,
> searching for the 'Middle Way' between opposing propositions.
> "Westerners are more analytic, paying attention primarily to the
> object and the categories to which it belongs and using rules,
> including formal logic, to explain and predict its behavior."    (09)

This constant reiteration of "formal logic" only illustrates how  
little Nisbett knows about the nature of logic, by the way.    (010)

> In study after study described in the book, Nisbett and colleagues
> from China, Korea, and Japan have found that East Asians and Americans
> responded in qualitatively different ways to the same stimulus
> situation. In one experiment, designed to test whether East Asians are
> more likely to attend to the whole while Westerners are more likely to
> focus on a particular object within the whole, Japanese and Americans
> viewed the same animated underwater scenes, then reported what they
> had seen.
> "The first statement by Americans usually referred to a large fish in
> the foreground," says Nisbett. "They would say something like, 'There
> was what looked like a trout swimming to the right.' The first
> statement by Japanese usually referred to background elements: 'There
> was a lake or a pond.' The Japanese made about 70 percent more
> statements than Americans about background aspects of the environment,
> and 100 percent more statements about relationships with inanimate
> aspects of the environment, for example, that a big fish swam past
> some gray seaweed."    (011)

Experiments like this do not support the thesis that there are  
culturally different ways of perceiving or thinking. They can be  
explained by the much simpler preumption that there are cultural  
differences in how to give verbal reports to other people, and how to  
behave socially. Which is not much more than saying, there are  
cultural differences between cultures.    (012)

> In another experiment described in the book, Nisbett and colleagues
> found that Americans respond to contradiction by polarizing their
> beliefs whereas Chinese respond by moderating their beliefs. In still
> another study, the researchers found that when making predictions
> about how people in general could be expected to behave in a given
> situation, Koreans were much more likely than Americans to cite
> situational factors rather than personality characteristics as reasons
> for someone's behavior.    (013)

And, I would predict, Europeans, at least of my generation and before,  
would be more similar in this regard to the Koreans than the  
Americans. Again, these are simply cultural differences, not  
differences in basic mechanisms of cognition.    (014)

> Social practices and cognitive processes support or "prime" one
> another, Nisbett points out. For example, "the practice of feng shui
> for choosing building sites may encourage the idea that the factors
> affecting outcomes are extraordinarily complex," he notes, "which in
> turn encourages the search for relationships in the field. This may be
> contrasted with the more atomistic and rule-based approaches to
> problem-solving characteristic of the West. Consider, for example, the
> nature of approaches to self-help in the West: 'The Three Steps to a
> Comfortable Retirement' or 'Six Ways to Increase Your Word Power.'"    (015)

Or the twelve ways of Zen?    (016)

> According to Nisbett, Asians move radically in an American direction
> after a generation or less in the United States. "But it might be a
> mistake to assume that it's an easy matter to teach one culture's
> tools to individuals in another without total immersion in that
> culture," he says.""""
> For more details refs to the findings ---
> http://www-personal.umich.edu/~nisbett/selected.html has a few PDFs
> online, eg http://www-personal.umich.edu/~nisbett/cultcog2.pdf
> Norenzayan, A., Choi, I., & Nisbett, R. E. (2002). Cultural
> similarities and differences in social inference: Evidence from
> behavioral predictions and lay theories of behavior. Personality and
> Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 109-120
> """As Richard Shweder (1991) pointed out, the major theoretical
> stances to one degree or another presume a “central processing device.
> The processor, it is imagined, stands over and above, or transcends,
> all the stuff upon which it operates. It engages all the stuff of
> culture, context, task and stimulus materials as its content” (p. 80).
> In this chapter we review evidence concerning assumptions about
> universality and content independence. """
> [...]
> """To summarize, after an initial period of mixed findings, growing
> new evidence supports the Sapir-Whorf contention that linguistic
> differences affect thought. Solid evidence has been found for the
> cognitive effect of linguistic differences in number marking (Lucy,
> 1992), the coding of spatial location (Levinson, 1996), and even color
> categorization (Roberson, et al., 2000). """
> ...the paper has a pile of references, tending more towards historical
> but also some recent work.
> Norenzayan, A., Smith, E.E., Kim, B. J. & Nisbett, R. E. Cultural
> preferences for formal versus intuitive reasoning. (In press).
> Cognitive Science.
> http://www-personal.umich.edu/~nisbett/formalreas.pdf reports on
> recent studies comparing students with different backgrounds:
> ""We examined cultural preferences for formal versus intuitive
> reasoning among East Asian
> (Chinese and Korean), Asian American, and European American university
> students. We investigated categorization (Studies 1 and 2), conceptual
> structure (Study 3), and deductive reasoning (Studies 3 and 4). In
> each study a cognitive conflict was activated between formal and
> intuitive strategies of reasoning. European Americans, more than
> Chinese and Koreans, set aside intuition in favor of formal reasoning.
> Conversely, Chinese and Koreans relied on intuitive strategies more
> than European Americans. Asian Americans’reasoning was either
> identical to that of European Americans, or intermediate. Differences
> emerged against a background of identical reasoning tendencies across
> cultures in the absence of conflict between formal and intuitive
> strategies."""
> I haven't come across any detailed critiques of this work; but then I
> haven't gone looking yet. I'd be interested in any such pointers...    (017)

The Amazon site has some quite scathing reviews. Excerpts:    (018)

Nisbett -- somewhat typically of Western authors, be it said --  
credits the ancient Greeks with such virtues as a recognition of the  
uniqueness of the individual, a sense of curiosity, a desire to plumb  
the underlying reasons and principles of things, and so on, all  
qualities which he claims are absent or largely absent in China (if  
not indeed everywhere else in the past). I really don't think these  
claims stand up to the facts at all. (Don't know if I'm being  
paranoid, but frankly I seem to pick up faint racist odors coming from  
this book. And I really do think Nisbett is selecting from the facts.)    (019)

A reading of the Analects shows that Confucius was highly sensitive to  
the differences in personality among his students and tailored his  
teachings to suit them accordingly. He also demanded a lot of  
independent thinking from them and got upset when all they did was  
parrot his words. Contrariwise, scholars like Paul Feyerabend and  
Bruno Snell have argued that the 'heroes' of Homer's ILIAD cannot be  
understood as integrated individuals, only as 'systems of loosely  
connected parts'. Also, the Greeks practised slavery, but the Chinese  
mostly didn't, according to sinologists Joseph Needham and Derk Bodde.  
So much for the claim that the Greeks valued the individual and the  
Chinese didn't.    (020)

Nisbett also claims that there was little debate and argumentation  
between different views in the Chinese tradition. But there have been  
disagreements aplenty in the history of Chinese thought. Letters of  
discussion went back and forth between the Sung Dynasty thinkers Chu  
Hsi and Lu Hsiang-shan. Maurizio Scarpari also spoke of 'a lively and  
productive debate' on human nature in China 'that has almost lasted  
twenty-five centuries'.    (021)

Chu Hsi, China's most influential thinker for seven centuries, also  
advocated 'the investigation of things' to uncover their LI (often  
translated as 'principle') -- what makes them what they are. Who says  
the Greeks were the only people to search for principles and to be  
curious to know, and not the Chinese? Not surprisingly, there is no  
reference to Chu Hsi in Nisbett's book.    (022)

Finally, I want to look at what Nisbett said about the ancient remains  
of a group of people found somewhere in China, being identified as  
being of Caucasian stock and showing signs of being operated on  
surgically. Alongside this he muses on the absence of the practice of  
surgery in the Chinese tradition. What's the intended point? That if  
those were the remains of Asians, then marks of surgical operation  
would have been impossible? Apparently Nisbett didn't know that the  
world's first book on forensic medicine was Chinese. And surely it is  
a very long way from the unusual features found on a few corpses to  
sweeping generalisations about differences between races and cultures.    (023)

---------    (024)

A typical experiment puts Easterners and Westerners in some
situation, and notes that they behave differently. For example,
Westerners describe the fish they saw, while Easterners first describe
the pond. But given two piles of descriptions, it's typically fairly
easy to find SOME differentiators between them. Instead, this should
have been done in a double-blind fashion: given just the descriptions,
with what certainty could the authors' ancestry have been predicted?    (025)

Similarly, the rationalizations given for the results of the
experiments seem rather post hoc. For example, experimental subjects
were given an essay on a controversial topic, told that the writer had
been forced to support a particular view-point in the essay, and asked
what the writer's true view-point might have been. The "correct"
answer is that there need not be any link between the "forced"
view-point in the essay and the writer's true view-point. Would the
"rationalistic" Westerners or the "holistic" Easterners be better at
figuring this out? In fact, the Easterners were better, and this is
attributed to their understanding of the "whole situation." On the
other hand, if the Westerners had been better, could not that have
been equally easily attributed to their superior reasoning skills?    (026)

The differences between Easterners and Westerners is attributed to
two millenia of cultural differences. However, the book also says
that people can be trained to switch viewpoints by a few hours of
training. So the differences can't be that innate in people, even
after two millenia! For example, a Western researcher had worked in
Japan for a few years. Upon wanting to return to Canada, he prefaced
his letters of application for university jobs in Canada by
apologizing for his being unqualified for those jobs! Apparently,
that's a standard practice for such letters in Japan. So this seems
very much a learned cultural adaptation, and does not contradict the
theses by Pinker et. al. that important human characteristics are
"hard-wired" (as described in the editorial review).    (027)

Best wishes    (028)

Pat    (029)

> cheers,
> Dan
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