Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

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The Geography of Thought is a book about how different people think differently, by Richard Nisbett. It caused a stir on its publication in 2003, because it claimed to have found evidence that Asians and Westerners had biologically different thought processes. I won't recap the book here. It's excellent, and you should read it. That doesn't mean I agree with Nisbett's arguments or his methods. I don't. It's an excellent book because it's thought provoking. Read it, understand it, and make up your own mind. Here's an analysis of it.

Nisbett could have done a better job with his methods. He left himself open to easy criticism by using a sample that was diverse in the characteristics he wanted to argue about, but pretty similar in a lot of other ways. His subjects were all educated to about the same level and were all about the same age. This could have introduced bias into his conclusions without his knowing it, because he would probably have missed factors that influenced cognition, which were driven by age and education. He tried to control for these with his math, but it was a rookie oversight, and Richard Nisbett is a veteran psychologist.

His study was also weak on just why the cultural influences he chose to argue on were determinant. Why did he choose some Asian countries and not others, then brand his sample "East Asia" in what was obviously meant to be a race-based argument? It didn't make sense to exclude countries from his sample and his argument, which broadly shared the cultural characteristics he was interested in.

Additionally, his findings were subject to the "so what?" test, and they didn't fare well. His baseline arguments that group history, personal history, local circumstances, and culture all influenced cognition were accepted foundations of psychology. His specific rendering of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cases bore this out. As he compared these to American experiences throughout the book, his central argument began to weaken. Of course people changed the way they thought as they got older and had different experiences, lived in different places, and took on different pressures. Arguing this at the level of societies might have been novel when the book was published, but it placed the work in the company of a body of pseudo-science which made it easier to dismiss.

Finally, Nisbett demonstrated in the book that East Asians, as a group, changed their cognitive habits profoundly when they emigrated to the United States. One would have expected this, as people emigrated and had children who knew nothing except their parents' influences and the American, not East Asian culture which would have shaped them. His argument would have been better if he had described a continuum of cognition, what anthropologists call a "cline," a gradation of features. As it is, it read like a book designed to make news and then disappear.

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