Richard Nisbett, Theodore M Newcomb Distinguished University Professor Emeritus,
University of Michigan
Wednesday, November 17, 2021,
an ASA Zoom Webinar*
In his 2003 book, The Geography of Thought, social psychologist Richard Nisbett explores the differences between the ways Asians and Westerners conceptualize the world based on their cultural background. Nisbett writes:
When my students and I showed an animated underwater scene to American undergraduates, they zeroed in on a big fish with a single fin on its back. Japanese observers instead commented first and primarily on the background environment — the color of the water, the rocks and plants on the bottom. The differences were large and profound. Westerners are analytic, focusing on a central object, characterizing it on the basis of its attributes, and applying rules to explain its behavior. East Asians emphasize objects in relation to their context, see relations between various objects, and focus on similarities. The differences in thought processes are striking. Western infants learn nouns, which concern objects, more rapidly than verbs, which concern relations. The opposite is true for East Asians. The ancient Chinese knew there was such a thing as action at a distance (e.g.,the moon’s influence on tides), a [concept] that Westerners only began to grasp through scientific experiments in the 18th century. . . .The origin of these differences lies deep in ancient history and is a consequence of the social differences produced by different economies, which in turn were due to different ecologies.
Exemplifying his approach to cognition through socio-cultural understanding, Nisbett will explore with us why understanding these age-old differences should be central to our attempts to relate to our human counterparts on the other side of the planet.
Richard Nisbett is internationally recognized for his work in explaining the cultural factors pertinent to developing intelligence. In such books as Intelligence and How to Get It (2009), Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking (2015) and others, he has shaped a generation’s approach to correcting the “hereditarian” approach to intelligence. Malcolm Gladwell has recognized Richard as “The most influential thinker on my life. . . . He basically gave me my view of the world.” Richard Nisbett is a “snowbird” resident of Academy Village. His most recent book is a memoir entitled Thinking (2021).
Preview prepared by Suzanne Ferguson, Academy Village volunteer
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