The uncoolest guy in the room

Lynne McTaggart

On this sad anniversary of the twin towers, I’ve been thinking about how different people on earth see things differently. I’ve been reading of the work of psychologist Richard E. Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerns See Things Differently and Why (Free Press, 2003).
Nisbett’s life work powerfully demonstrates that those of us in the West (by which he means Europeans and North Americans) see the world and think very differently that people in Eastern Asia, which includes the Chinese, and all those historically influenced by it.
We Westerners see the world as a big collection of individual things jostling around in empty space. We judge things only in relationship to themselves - their properties and the categories to which they belong.
We understand a labrador by observing its behavior and then logically deduce that it belongs to a category encompassing all creatures which bark and wag their tails, to which we assign a category called ‘dogs’. Where a labrador lives, who or what else affected by labrador behavior, the labrador’s relationship to the earth and sky — all of this, to our minds, is beside the point to the reductive categorizing label.
Life as a field
Eastern Asians, on the other hand, learn to understand things only in relation to other things. They see life only in relationship within a field of forces. They understand matter in the universe, not as discrete objects but as protean — continuous and interpenetrating. Confucius would be right at home with Niels Bohr and quantum physics.
An East Asian is brought up with such a strong sense of connection to others that he can only understand himself in terms of his relation to the whole, whether that be his family, his neighborhood, his culture, the Tao or even his sense of consciousness.
Because Easterners define their world so differently, they have learned to see it with a different set of eyes.
Nesbitt and his team at the department of Psychology at the University of Michigan have demonstrated the stark differences between Eastern and Western perception with a fascinating series of studies. Nesbitt, working with a colleague at Hoakkaido University in Japan, gathered together two groups of students at the two universities and showed them 20-second videos of underwater scenes.
After viewing the film twice, each participant was asked to report what he saw. The Americans invariably began describing the scene with the objects in the center – the fish. To the Japanese, the context, the field itself, was most important: the color of the water, the plants undulating in the current, the ocean floor. In total the Japanese made 65 per cent more observations about the field than did Americans and twice as many relationships between objects.
They were even more likely to see emotions in the fish than were their Western counterparts.
A different set of eyes
Fascinated by this, Nesbitt and his graduate student Hanna Fay Chua wished to study if Easterners and Westerners actually take in their surroundings in a different way. They designed a batch of photographs, each with a single object in the foreground – an airplane, or a tiger, say — against a complex background — the sky or the woods.
The researchers then monitored the eye movements of Americans and Chinese participants while they viewed the photographs.
When viewing the same scene two cultures actually saw something quite different. The Americans quickly fixated on a central object far more than the Chinese and also looked at it more quickly.
The Chinese, on the other hand, had far more rapid intermittent eye movement than the Americans, flitting from one point in the background after another. The Chinese had culturally learned to attend to the whole far more than the Westerners.
These cultural differences are particularly evident in the way members of the two cultures represent themselves in society. When the two groups of students were asked to take a photo of another student, the Japanese would always photograph the entire scene, with the whole person as relatively small against the entire background, whereas Americans would photograph the person in closeup.
When asked to describe themselves, North Americans will stress their individual personality traits, exaggerate their uniqueness and prefer to talk about what they regard as most distinctive about themselves and their possessions.
Indeed, in one intriguing study, when American and Korean students were given the choice of different colored pens to keep as a gift, the Americans chose the rarest colors, whereas the Koreans chose the most common.
One wanted to be the coolest man in the room; the other wanted to be the most invisible. One wanted to be most separate, the other the most embraced.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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27 comments on “The uncoolest guy in the room”

  1. I have more recently used the idea of the left/right sides of the brain (with fractal/chaos theory) to explain the west/east difference on the earth. Everything is the same whatever level you look at it. This also, to me, ties in with the ideas of the duality, yin/yang or wave/particle. So yes, both are equally important - it's just two sides of the same coin - neither is better or worse, just different. We equally need both.

  2. It would be interesting to explore this fascinating topic by differentiating even further between the Westerners and Easterners. For example, a painter or other visual artist from the west might percieve her surroundings more closely akin to how Easterners were reported to. Perhaps the book explores this -- I am looking forward to reading it!

  3. I agree with Alice ... as an artist, I rarely see the 'object' without also seeing the 'ground.' As I am nearly blind in one eye, these fields in fact sometimes reverse themselves, and if I squint my eyes, I see values, rather like a photo in black and white. Amazing that Orientals see this way naturally, without the studied attention that I have learned to pay.

  4. I find it interesting to imagine that "the one who wanted to be most invisible" also wanted to be the one "most embraced". From the perspective of a western artist, an invisible person would not appear vividly enough in "the field" to attract the attention that leads to "embrace". To be invisible is to blend in, and perhaps be completely overlooked!

  5. Another fascinating book on the subject of cultural differences is Cultures and Organizations by Hofstede & Hofstede (details below). It contains data, anecdotes, and much useful information. It has a bit of a business focus in its examples but it's easy to see beyond that to wider inter-cultural implications. A great read.
    Cultures and Organizations: Software for the Mind
    Author: Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede
    ISBN - 10:0071439595
    ISBN - 13:9780071439596
    From the Publisher:
    The landmark study of cultural differences across 70 nations, Cultures and Organizations helps readers look at how they think-and how they fail to think-as members of groups. Based on decades of painstaking field research, this new edition features the latest scientific results published in Geert Hofstede's scholarly work Culture's Consequences, Second Edition. Original in thought and profoundly important, Cultures and Organizations offers vital knowledge and insight on issues that will shape the future of cultures and nations in a globalized world.

  6. The Japanese slaughter whales and dolphins by the thousands, they overfish most of the seas with giant dragnets, killing millions of unlucky bystanders in the process, the Chinese kill rare and endangered species for their potions. I just can't reconcile this

  7. Mary that is a very good point.
    Asian's see themselves as a small part of the whole environment.
    Americans see themselves as the largest part of the whole environment.

  8. Research has already proven decades ago that a child’s surroundings dictate how they will see the world when they grow up. And?
    Millions of self-help books, tapes, and movies have been sold in the last few decades that have helped only a hand full of people, mostly those who made money off of them.
    Humans are creatures of habits that are very easily programmed to behave the way their family and society says without questioning if it is right or wrong.
    What habits do you have that you “know” are not good, healthy, or right for you, but you cannot find the strength to change them?
    In the last 80 years, the American government has spent billions of dollars learning ways to program its citizens unknowingly the way they want them to behave.
    When I learned my life was exactly as I thought it to be, all the good and all the bad, I thought it all into existence, I totally freaked. It took me a few weeks to wrap my head around that truth before I would allow myself the pleasure to experiment creating with my thoughts.
    I learned my government, and those who were responsible for building up America, knew this knowledge about creating through your thoughts all along. I was totally disgusted, and ashamed to be in America. I soon got over my disgust, and began teaching every person I could about what you think you create. The reactions from every single person are the same, shock, and what about God?
    Having this knowledge of creating life through your thoughts puts a whole other twist on life. Your beliefs are tested continuously. You see the people you interact with from a new light. You pay closer attention to what they are saying and what is going on with their life. You pay closer attention to what you say and think. Songs, television shows, movies and the news have a whole new meaning to you. You realize that your thoughts matter.
    The lack of knowledge humans have about life and how to create the life they want through their thoughts is the biggest problem we have. Parents do not want their children having this knowledge for fear of loosing control of them. The governments in our world do not want their citizens knowing this for fear of loosing control over them.
    For some odd reason we need our statistics and science to prove to us why we behave the way we do before deciding to make a change in how we think and live. Even with all the proof how our behaviors are created, we have not moved forward into a peaceful way of living that humans seem to want. At least that is what we say we want.

  9. This is a very interesting study. I transitioned to more of an Eastern thought system about 5 years ago and the world looks very different now. Bigger and smaller at the same time.
    Recently I have been notified of some atrocities in both China and Korea with regards to the ethical treatment of animals. Also when I think of these governments, I think of governments that do not honor its citizens. While reading this blog I had to ponder how individuals raised in what I believe is a "better" more wholistic thought system, could be so cruel and heartless. This is where my thoughts took me.
    In the Eastern way of thinking, although it is more wholistic in theory (and practice if you really practice it), maybe the idea of oneness devolved out of context and into a not seeing the individual or not seeing the indivdual as important at all. Of course there are other factors involved, for some being survival and others being greed.
    Maybe, the Western way of looking at individuals can be a good balance for those who have forgotten the, just a sacred, experience of the individual to the point of being unable to sympathize with other humans, animals and other life forces. Being raised in an "individual" thought system, I have put my effort into seeing in a more "collective" thought system. This blog helped me understand that we cannot truly live in oneness with the collective, without also honoring the individual in all of us. When we stop honoring the individual experience, we are in danger of apathy.
    This made me think that in the same way Westerners can benefit by learning Eastern thinking, maybe Easterners can benefit from Western thinking. Maybe the two thought systems can be compliments rather than opposites.

  10. Lisa, I have often wondered whether the "powerful" people in the world, e.g., the prominent governments and the people who pull those government's strings, have a good and working understanding of the power of our thoughts. I have wondered if they have been manipulating the public to think, act and react in just the way they want. I have wondered if the American public has been a puppet for some master puppeteers. Your comment leads me to believe you have some evidence to these suspicions. If you do, would you care to share your sources. I am very interested.

  11. The "eastern" countries (by this I mean typically southeast asia - no caps on purpose) do not value life any more than "western" countries. The east supports bear baiting as entertainment, farming bears for bile by trapping them in body sized cages, farming cats and dogs packed tightly against each other (living or dead) for fur, and so on. The west does the same in the form of dog fights, bull fights, cattle, pigs, chickens... so neither has a grasp of the value of life.

  12. Surely, as intentees we all know, that whatever we intent we why do we have polluted water? Not because of chemicals at all, but because we believe some other person who told us the water was polluted in the first place! And as a collective we have accepted that as fact and it has become our expectation. So why are we so easily lead?

  13. I have been working with our China office for 5 months now, I am actually in Shanghai at the moment, previously I spent a month here in Shanghai .
    I am an extremely focused hands on Sales Manager and have been struggling to find the rhythm of china and its people, in particular our office here. I have been extremely negative at times and found it EXTREMELY frustrating, having this perception of only getting a constant flow of “noise” with no content no focus when I communicate with our office here.
    I have only started making progress here when I realized that I have to be emotionally available to our staff and have to find a place in the whole almost like being part of a family, and if you listen but I mean really listen the noise will turn in to workable information which is quite layered.
    I think that it will take years to fully understand life and business here in China, and maybe there will be things that I will never get in the way of not even recognizing their presence………………..

  14. Growing up in the American Southwest, a very unique subculture of America and being trained in both Visual Art and Asian Medicine, I have had the fortune to cross the roads of many worlds.
    This is my observation: both ways of thinking, holism and reductionism are both very useful and effective information processing models. The challenge, requiring great skill and practice, is to balance between the two. Neither is better than the other and both are dependant on the other to maximize the effectiveness of any worldview.
    What I notice in primarily reductive cultural traditions where one aspect is emphasized over the other aspect is the experience of a great emotional void due to the absense of the knowledge and sensation of unity and oneness that comes with holism.
    Having blazed the trail in my own mental patterning, to the limits of an extreme wide angle world embracing openness, I have seen how important it is to also have the boundaries and limitations of a reductive mind to navigate the world that is.
    I encourage all to explore both aspects without disdain of the other, for both modes will serve life balance, in peaceful, harmonious balance.

  15. I'm also a person who lives in the Southwest (NM) and does Oriental medicine.
    I've just been reading "My Stroke of Insight" by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who had a hemorrhagic stroke at age 37. She tells a fascinating story, in which the contrast between her temporarily lost left hemisphere and the right hemisphere that was her only working brain is much like the differences in perception found in the study Lynne described.

  16. As always, everyone has something to learn from each other. No one is "better", but fortunately we are all different.
    East/west - doesn't matter - what matters is How You Feel while living your life.
    We are here to be happy and content with our lives - and although most people don't choose that particular outcome, the choice is always available to all of us.
    What will you choose?

  17. Being an Indian, and yet a meditator to bring in the New Age Energies, I feel that a synergy that i have created of ancient knowledge and modern movement has completed my soul and personality to such an extent that i am at home in all cultures. incidentally i am a world traveller!

  18. i found lynne's article of great interest, as always. i am both myopic and an american artist. my husband is a japanese photographer. we are, of course, aware of the contrast between american idividualism vs the group mentality found in japan. what i found fascinating was how culture affects eye movement and visual perception. so true! and, by the way, paintings can best be 'read' if the eye follows the direction of the written word in the home country of the artist. for example, left to right for most westerners, right to left for arabs, persians, japanese, israelis, etc.

  19. Alive and well I'm learned in thoughts, I can make them into better nowadays.
    Once I died didn't know why? When only Then awakening learns in hospital bed, a-way.
    One teacher is all that's needed, His Death is this name!
    Only again return comes, alive, one two way bridge turn around, are my bygone ways?
    Maybe East or West acknowledge a mirror, silent knowledge as pose tells it's best or worse!
    Original local thoughts are still ringing today as nowadays hears they're saying!
    When I died, I found out floating above around outer space!
    So amazed I questioned as silent knowledge reflected first, action insinuated answers.
    Looking when noise abounds, sees it's Earth! The noise, as music, comes going from Planet!
    Where, who, and what's this all about I thought! They're all large black notes! Music notes.
    Arising from Earth are the dead and into space goes their remains as energy!
    My real Picture is different than any person alive could imagine and that's all I know to think!

  20. I have also heard that African people see colors differently than those of European descent. It's not that the color receptors are different, but that the significance alloted to colors are culturally different. For example, a person raised on a dry savannah is more aware of the colors in the red/orange/yellow spectra than a person raised in an environment containing mostly greenery. Another example of specialized awareness is the Eskimo viewpoint of different types of snow. I would enjoy seeing more study on this kind of subject. We humans are really adaptable!

  21. East is merging with West. Same with modern science with ancient wisdom. Holism is finally arriving. A good thing.
    Thanks for all the posts.

  22. In my opinion, values acoording to the culture one is born-in makes the way one thinks and behaves.In India we are told from the very beginning,WE ARE PART OF THE WHOLE,the family ,community ,universe and the ENERGIES or GOD.One has to relate to all of these to be succsessful and happy and fulfil one's contract in life.As we all know about reincarnation and our KARMA createdwith each other in previous lives,we have to have an Interplay with all those souls(animal kingdom or plant kingdom).So we look at the Picture as whole than focusing on one object.

  23. Another good author on cultural differences is anthropologist Edward T. Hall - try "Beyond Culture" and "Silent Language". Looks at time perception differences, body language including kinesics etc. Small books, easy to read but PACKED with ideas that were new to me.

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