January 11, 2006

Nisbett - Geography of Thought

Nisbett, Richard E., The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... And Why, Free Press, 2003, 263 pp.

Over the past few months, Albion's Seedlings blog has drawn on history, political science, technology trends, and a bit of economics. Only occasionally does Anglosphere discussion turn to the biological or social sciences.

Recently, I put forward a proposal that the central unique attribute of the Anglosphere was its (inadvertent) ideal social structure for optimizing communal decision-making - the so-called "wisdom of crowds" effect. This proposed advantage is a matter of degree drawing as it does on a universal capacity of humans in groups. Differences however, even small ones, can have a big impact.

In the course of preparing materials for a website on medical decision-making for patients, I stumbled on a book with additional significance for the debate about the underlying nature of the Anglosphere. This book takes the biggest of "big picture" overviews of human cognition and perception.

Geography of Thought, by eminent U Mich social psychologist Richard Nisbett is a plain-language summary of years of social psychology research that suggest there are profound and substantial differences between the way Asian and Western cultures (and individuals) perceive the world.

In a nutshell, Asian people focus on substance and relationship, while Westerners focus on objects and properties. What does this mean at a practical level? An example. Shown a new object, say a pyramid made of cork ... Asians will find the cork memorable and significant, while Westerners will focus on and think more about the shape (pyramid).

This general pattern of perception is repeated in a number of ways -- shown a photo of a tiger in a jungle setting, and then a second photo with small differences, Asians (and to a lesser degree Asian-Americans) will be most sensitive to changes in the background while ignoring changes in the tiger, its stance and its position in the photo. Westerners focus on the tiger almost exclusively. Such differences in focus are ranked on a scale of "field dependence." These patterns are reflected in the way adults in the two cultures raise infants and children. Introduce a new toy and ask a mother to play with their toddler. An Asian mother will emphasize the niceties of sharing the toy and exchanging it with the child. The toy itself will be identified by the kinds of people who manipulate or relate to it (e.g. a firetruck). A Western mother however will begin by talking to the child about the physical properties of the object ... its size, colour, weight, etc. and how its properties relate to other objects and toys with which the child is familiar. The toy is also described by its actions: what it does, what is done to it.

Not surprisingly, when children are instructed in dramatically different types of categorization, which carry through into their day-to-day life as adults, the emphasis of the cultures themselves is quite different.

Research by colleagues in Nisbett's discipline further discovered that the emphasis on, and appetite for, identifying causality is very different in East and West. Westerners tend to over-simplify how the world works in order to model causality in useful active ways. Rules about non-contradiction are held to be very important. Asians tend to emphasize the complexity of the situation and ponder the variables. They will tend to see people as influenced by their environment while Westerners attribute personal behaviour to inherent, and relatively less plastic, personal attributes. Once a thief, always a thief, in other words.

A case in point is the "P-3 spy plane" incident off the coast of China in 2001. A US P-3 surveillance plane was nudged in the air by a much smaller Chinese fighter jet. The Chinese jet crashed and the P-3 made an emergency landing in China without permission after heroic efforts by the American pilot. America and China had two very different foci about the issue. Americans were obsessed with the initial cause of the incident (reckless Chinese piloting) while the Chinese wanted to address the broader situation (American spying and an unapproved landing). The resolution, after potentially damaging economic consequences loomed, was a mealy-mouthed statement of "regret" by the Americans that satisfied Chinese needs for apology without triggering American anger about causality by actually giving an apology.

Nisbett provides a nice balance of illustration and summarization of the research which he, his students, and the members of his profession have assembled over several decades. The implications of this research for medicine, law, science, human rights, and international relations generally are substantial.

Take for instance the case of public debate and rhetoric. Asians, and their governments, generally distrust the value of public airing of different sides of a debate. The strange (to Western eyes) role of South Korea's education system in not teaching their students about the specifics of life in North Korea is a case in point. Public discourse is more often seen as boilerplate consensus rather than a list of debating points that must be addressed by political opponents. And in fact, counterintuitively, when people are shown two explanations for an event, one plausible, then one implausible, Asians will view the plausible explanation as less likely after hearing the implausible explanation while Westerners will consider the plausible explanation more likely after hearing the implausible explanation.

In the West, from an early age, children are expected to express themselves verbally and make a case for their desires and opinions using elementary rules of logic, of noncontradiction. This skill is highly valued, often very well remunerated, and generally considered both a sign of intelligence and of a good education. Japanese students at the primary and secondary levels, temporarily living in the US when their fathers are transferred for work, are occasionally diagnosed as "learning disabled" because they haven't been educated to speak in class and display progressively better skills in applying formal logic and identifying causality.

Consider the following however:

Ask people to verbally describe the steps they are taking to solve a puzzle in a laboratory setting. Western participants proceed as normal while the Asian participants find it much more difficult to complete the puzzle if they are required to verbalize the steps they take. The problem becomes very acute, Nisbett relates, for Asian grad students coming to America who are held to particularly high standards of verbal participation in the classroom and who will be required to epitomize and rationalize their research with fellow students and teachers.

Indeed, Nisbett believes that learning Western logic and scientific rhetoric is often the last and most difficult (but not impossible) step that Asian students working at his university must complete in order to enter the highest ranks of scientific success.

The current controversy over Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk's faking of scientific results on cloning of human embryos suggests that social requirements can overwhelm the commitment to scientific integrity even for those whose work is going to receive minute scrutiny. The damage to both personal and national reputation has been substantial and may take many years to overcome. A similiar Korean scandal in the financial and business areas was required before GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) was instituted and taken seriously.

Personal guilt (distinguished from shame) or accountability is driven by a different set of standards. "Westerners are the protagonists of their autobiographical novels; Asians are merely cast members in movies touching on their existences." p.87

Reading about this kind of cognitive research, I was struck by the efforts in the 19th century (described by Alan Macfarlane in his book The Making of the Modern World: Visions from the West and East) by Japanese scholar Yukichi Fukuzawa to establish the infrastructure that would support this Western emphasis on verbal articulation and rhetoric: clubs, universities, courses in public speaking, scientific writing, and even double-entry accounting. What seems inevitable and universal to Westerners simply isn't. As Nisbett says, "I firmly believe that the entry of East Asians into the social sciences is going to transform how we think about human thought and behaviour across the board." p.226 It seems very likely that we'll discover more about cross-cultural variation in perception as time goes by.

The research on cognitive styles also has uncovered variation between subgroups ... there is some information about variation between northern and southern Europe (the northerners are even more object-oriented), and between Korea, China, and Japan. Also, there have been efforts to test Asian-Americans, Asians in Hong Kong and Singapore, Asians who learned English as adolescents versus Asians who grew up in bilingual environments from childhood. Clearly however, the samples are skewed toward nations and cultures where psychological research is most developed.

Nisbett describes these two different styles of cultural perception as part-whole categorization (relationships, substances, complexity) and individual-class categorization (objects, properties, simplified causality and relationship). In his words: "My claim is not that the cognitive differences we find the laboratory cause the differences in attitudes, values, and behaviours, but that the cognitive differences are inseparable from the social and motivational ones. People hold the beliefs they do because of the way they think and they think the way they do because of the nature of the societies they live in." p. 201

Research results do suggest that there is plasticity in modes of thinking. Asian-Americans and those living in Anglospheric environments like HK and Singapore score somewhere in the middle of the object-substance continuum and in fact seem to toggle between the two modes depending on the social and work environments in which they find themselves. For example, focus on causality and objects kicks in when troubleshooting software code but focus on relationships may reassert itself at home. Everyone, apparently, can be primed or cued to temporarily perceive in a more "Asian" or more "Western" style, but the effect and its duration are very limited.

A moment's thought will identify the implications of these East-West contrasts on the topics which dominate the Albion's Seedlings weblog -- the emergence of individualism, science, business, democracy, etc.

To quote Nisbett: "[r]emarkably, the social structures and sense of self that are characteristic of Easterners and Westerners seem to fit hand in glove with their respective belief systems and cognitive processes. The collective or interdependent nature of Asian society is consistent with Asians' broad, contextual view of the world and their belief that events are highly complex and determined by many factors. The individualistic or independent nature of Western society seems consistent with the Western focus on particular objects in isolation from their context and with Westerners' belief that they can know the rules governing objects and therefore can control the objects' behaviour." p. xvii

Where do these differences come from? Are they an artifact of population density or agricultural requirements for communal living?

Nisbett prefers to source the differences between East and West in the exemplar classical culture of Greece and China respectively. Here, readers of this blog may find his summaries of the two ancient cultures generally convincing but subject to many caveats. Nonetheless, one can hardly argue with the statement that Confucius and Aristotle provide convenient conceptual hooks for very, very different views of the world.

--==--

Table of Contents

1 The Syllogism and the Tao: Philosophy, Science, and Society in Ancient Greece and China [1]

2 The Social Origins of Mind: Economics, Social Practices, and Thought [29]

3 Living Together vs. Going It Alone: Social Life and Sense of Self in the Modern East and West [47]

4 Eyes in the Back of Your Head vs. Keep Your Eye on the Ball?: Envisioning the World [79]

5 The Bad Seed or the Other Boys Made Me Do It?: Causal Attribution and Causal Modeling East and West [111]

6 Is the World Made up Of Nouns or Verbs?: Categories and Rules vs. Relationships and Similarities [137]

7 Ce N'est Pas Logique or You've Got a Point There?: Logic and the Law of Noncontradiction vs Dialectics and the Middle Way [165]

8 And If the Nature of Thought is Not Everywhere the Same?: Implications for Psychology, Philosophy, Education, and Everyday Life [191]

9 The End of Psychology or the Clash of Mentalities?: The Longevity of Differences [219]

--==--

In a series of thought-provoking chapters, Nisbett outlines a vocabulary that helps a general reader carefully consider what the impact of such differences might be for daily life.

"If the key difference between agricultural peoples on the one hand and hunter-gatherers and modern, independent citizens of modern industrial societies on the other has to do with the degree of attention to their social world, then it would be reasonable to expect that subcultures within a given society that differ in degree of social constraint should differ in degree of field dependence, as well." p.43

Beginning with the differences in direct perception (what is memorable and/or important), he then reviews the research results on perception of the larger world, the utility of logic and the concept of "truth".

He spends some time in the book discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the two styles of perception. Westerners can tend to skip or overlook necessary detail. They can also get so caught up in logic that they deny reality for some time. Oversimplification is a problem. For Asians, apart from the serious impediments to scientific thinking, there is a tendency to "hindsight bias" -- an after-the-fact comfort with whatever has happened that both over-estimates the inherent complexity of any situation and is notably incurious about differences between what has happened and what was predicted. The latter is the classic Western seed of scientific innovation.

Nisbett does conclude his book with a hopeful statement on the human capacity for Westernization and Easternization ... but he certains doesn't address the challenges raised by the Ray Kurweil's of the world and any impending Singularity. Indeed, Nisbett notes that during the 90s Japan managed to win only one Nobel prize in science. The Germans (5) and the French (3) won their prizes with a fraction of Japan's funding ... and the US haul (44) was managed on a science budget twice as large as Japan. Like it or not, Western modes of perception permit scientific traction. Mothers in Beijing know this ... and Nisbett documents some indications that an individual appetite for Westernized styles of perception is growing in Asia, even if the day-to-day and sociopolitical realities of Asian countries appears very traditional.

--==--

Final Comments

Nisbett's book is particularly well-written and serves as an excellent general introduction to an area of social psychology that is controversial but very much a part of the discussion on this blog.

To what extent is the Anglosphere transferable to other nations, other cultures? This book would suggest that the hurdles are perceptual, and cultural, as much as institutional. It also suggests that the potential for misunderstanding is greatest when the East-West perceptual boundary is crossed. This was certainly evident in the AngloAmerican war with Japan during WW2 and might suggest particular caution in dealing with China in the near to mid-term. Correcting for the fact that Nisbett's book is an introduction to the area of research and not meant to be an exhaustive academic tome, I would say that my only major frustration was reading a copy from the public library ... I couldn't annotate the volume page-by-page. There's a lot of stimulating information in this book, and many little details that seem to relate to the history and political science discussed on this blog. So I plan on buying my own copy very soon and re-reading with a sharp pencil. I would expect that the discoveries highlighted by Nisbett will come back to haunt us regularly in coming years.

A few additional comments:

1. I believe that Nisbett's use of Greece as the root of Western thinking styles is practical but could be "premature." The styles of perceptual thinking which he highlights as Western did not penetrate into the general Western public until the Renaissance, I believe. In an upcoming book review (Crosby's The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society 1250-1600), I'll describe the case that can be made for Europe's big break in perception coming in the late Middle Ages. Nisbett's pocket summaries of Chinese and Greek philosophy/culture are therefore definitely open to further refinement.

2. Nisbett doesn't use the term Anglosphere but certainly, here and there, manages to highlight America and the commonwealth countries as particular exemplars of the Western style of perception. It would be an interesting piece of meta-analysis if he could be encouraged to organize his information on a global level (cf. the World Values Survey)

It would also be very useful to have information on the perceptual styles of additional parts of the world. I guess the research simply isn't available. Russia, Africa, the Muslim world, are all influential in the modern world and understanding their preference for social versus object perception would be helpful. One could, I think, make educated guesses based on the degree of focus on causality and logic in public discourse. By that standard, I'd guess that northwest Europe is an outlier in yet one more way ...

Nisbett himself states "[s]omeone has said "The Idea moves west" meaning that the values of individuality, freedom, rationality, and universalism became progressively more dominant and articulated as civilization moved westward from its origins in the Fertile Crescent." p.69.

3. As noted in the early part of this post, I'm personally convinced that it is in the dynamic interplay of social structure and human psychology that we discover the unique nature of the Anglosphere. With the addition of the perceptual information provided by Nisbett's overview, we might speculate that the Anglosphere is not only an extreme example of European culture, it is almost completely distinct from Asian culture. I struggle to imagine how any "wisdom of crowds" effect could successfully take hold in Asia without a parallel system for the tolerance and encouragement of perceptual styles of individual authorship and action. The necessary diversity of opinion and information-gathering seen as central to optimal group decision-making is absent. There's nothing genetic about this, of course, as specific examples of Asian culture in Hong Kong and Singapore confirm, but the research does suggest that Asia will be playing catch-up in both science and decentralized civic decision-making for some time yet. Not that Asian decisions and discoveries will be bad ... but they will be persistently and marginally less successful than those made in the West.

I welcome contrary views on this subject because I'm a self-admitted pessimist when it comes to the export of Anglosphere values. I doubt it can be done ... and if it can, I'd suggest it takes a long, long time and often occurs unilaterally.

Letting Nisbett sum up: "I have presented a large amount of evidence to the effect that Easterners and Westerners differ in fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world, in the focus of attention, in the skills necessary to perceive relationships and to discern objects in a complex environment, in the character of causal attribution, in the tendency to organize the world categorically or relationally, and in the inclination to use rules, including the rules of formal logic." p. 189

For regular readers of Albion's Seedlings who are interested in possible psychological roots of the Anglosphere, Geography of Thought is an excellent read and strongly recommended.

Posted by jmccormick at January 11, 2006 09:50 AM
Comments

The matter of Hong Kong and Singapore will play a prominent role in any discussions coming out of Nesbit's thesis. The particular success of these "Anglo-Confucian" experiements (and the contrasting failure of the Franco-Confucian and Luso-Confucian experiments, i.e. Vietnam and Macao) must be explained. The suggestion that people from these cultures can switch back and forth from one mode to the other, to some extent, is a fascinating alternative to the more conventional assumption that they have created a synthesis of the two cultures.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 11, 2006 04:03 PM

Fascinating. Yet another book for my reading list...

Posted by: Peter Saint-Andre at January 11, 2006 08:26 PM

I could not help but be struck by some apparent parallels between eastern thought patterns and politically liberal thought patterns. Examples might include the communal perspective as contrasted to the individual action perspective; or the tendency to be more "nuanced" as compared to choosing a relatively simpleminded course of action and forging ahead; or the focus on relationship rather than function. Are liberals closet Asians?

John F

Posted by: John F at January 12, 2006 01:56 PM

"Anglo-Confucian" experiements"

Hong Kong is not very Confucian at all. However you define a Confucian society, it centers on scholar officials, hierarchical power arrangements and an emphasis on book learning and esthetics as a political ideology. Proverbially that describes northern China, and southern China is generallt thought to be entrepreneurial and organized around netwrorks rather than hierarchies. Their criminal organizations are most definitely not hierarchical and I suppose that would be true of their corporations. And southerners are renowned for ignoring book learning.

In Confucian terms there is no distinction between criminal enterprises and other kinds. It is typical in Southeast Asia for outwardly quite legitimate Chinese firms to have financial connections to criminal organizations. In southern China the parent organizations of both the legtimate and criminal organizations generally try to get representatives into local and provincial government, and that is usually the extent of their interest in book learning and passing government exams. After the Revolution the same pattern prevailed, especially in Fujian; so much so that the Cultural Revolution, in part a purge of the Party and local governments, nearly got out of control there. They had to bring the PLA in settle things down. And Fujian is the cultural homeland for Singapore and most of the Chinese communities across SE Asia.

You might say that southern Chinese are Confucian in that they tend to keep track of who their ancestors are and to revere them. That would qualify Virginians as Confucian.

Posted by: Jim at January 12, 2006 02:07 PM

Singapore and the other "little tigers" have frequently been categorized as "neo-confucian", "neo-" in the sense that they have adapted some elements of Confucianism (respect for education, hierarchical civil services, etc.) and abandoned others. My point was that the "Neo-" really should be called "Anglo-".

Charles de Gaulle said "I am a Christian by geography and history". So the southern Chinese may be classified as Confucians, no matter how lax their observance is, just as there have been many communities throughout history that have been very lax Christians or Muslims, but must be categorized as such nevertheless. The ideals to which lip service is paid, no matter how flouted in practice, count when making a classification by civilization.

Given all that, the northern-southern divide in China is certainly an important subcivlizational divide and you are right to bring it up. But unless one side or the other convert en masse to an entirely different religious-cultural tradition (which could happen) they must be counted as part of the same civilizational tradition and that is generally termed "Confucian".

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 12, 2006 02:49 PM

Thanks for everyone's comments. I do want to offer a word of caution since my review is a thirdhand account of research that Nisbett reports secondhand. For the subtler issues of perceptual differences across subgroups in East Asia, please refer to Nisbett's book (and his citations) directly. A review inevitably skips over some subtle detail ... thus my own intent to buy and annotate a personal copy.

As for "eastern thought patterns and politically liberal thought patterns" sharing similarities, that's an interesting and worthwhile hypothesis but I don't believe Nisbett offers much in the way of specific illumination. My guess would be that any culture that emphasizes "getting along with people" as opposed to "tackling nature" will tend to reinforce a concern for other people's feelings over rules of logic and rhetoric. A fascinating avenue of potential research, John F.

Posted by: James McCormick at January 12, 2006 03:47 PM

Several years ago I was doing research on typography, and one book had a reprint of an essay in the impact of an indexable-alphabet on Western thought. With an "alphabet", you can alphabitize, index and cross-index. In many of the Eastern cultures where pictographics are used...such as written Chinese...there is no such concept. There is no fundemental "a" comes before "b", so you can't create an index or categorize easily. Scholarly-Knowledge could only come in big-chunks learned by rote. (Sound familiar? Learning by rote is still an Eastern scholarly-tradition.")

The implication was that there was no way therefore to create specializations and fields of study; the "____ologies" that compartmentalize Western learning and thought other than in broad generalities. Plus, you could not create an index for personally-unknown knowledge, since you would not know the appropriate pictogram; nor would the end-user know the unknown-pictogram either. Yet most of Western knowledge can be transmitted...or atleast indexed...using less than 86 "characters". Consider the dictionary..you don't know the word or it's contextual use; but you can match it's "characters" up in the dictionary-index and suddenly you have a meaning and context. And the "decimal" numerical-system allows similar prioritization and analysis...even if in base-2, base-7, base-12 or base-16. It's not an infinitly non-repeating fractal-array like "romans".

This must have an impact on the very conceptualization of ideas and culture. Just as colloquial-English absorbs words and concepts without a French Academy to codify its' usage beforehand. New words and phrases from other languages just fall-in-place and get repeated and mutated. Nouns become adjectives and verbs become nouns...like fissioning and fusing atomic particles.

Posted by: Ted B. (Charging Rhino) at January 12, 2006 05:26 PM

One of the themes of Camille Paglia's 1990 book "Sexual Personae" is the "object orientation" of the Western mind, which she sometimes contrasts with the context-dependent East Asian outlook.

Blogger Manhattan Transfer offered an alternative explanation of Nisbett's findings here:
http://manhattantransfer.blogspot.com/2005/01/king-and-i.html

"Nisbett’s book avoids mentioning IQ but the different cognitive processes he discovers also correlate with differences in IQ. The contextual-communal thinkers have higher average IQ’s than the object-logic thinkers. Could logic, then, be an adaptation to counter the handicap of having a lower IQ? That is, could the dimmer Westerners have developed a way of thinking that the bright Chinese didn’t need? It certainly seems to me that the tools of logic and categorization are very useful but perhaps they are unnecessary for very bright people. If so, there would have been selective pressure in favor of logical thinkers in the West that would not have had as much influence in the East. Even the Western emphasis on individual liberty could be the result of Westerners not being quite smart enough to be collectivists."

Posted by: Steve Sailer at January 13, 2006 07:35 PM

I don't think the higher-IQ-in-communal-cultures thing holds up, which would knock down Manhattan Transfer's theory of "logic as a compensation." I belonged to both Prometheus and Triple Nine years ago, and the membership list was wildly disproportionate with Northern European and Jewish names. We speculated at the time that this was an artifact of recent history and would change as the world got smaller. But certainly to suggest the opposite would be a stretch. The international data are flawed in the extreme -- quite simply, most Chinese, Pakistanis, and Ashanti haven't been tested. Those we have measured are unrepresentative samples.

Also, an inherent deficiency which shows up progressively among proto-Germanic speakers only gives a time-depth of 2500 years, which is not very much on an evolutionary scale. India and Iran would also be Indo-European in language, and thus presumably possessed of a at least a partially shared genetic heritage back to t time depth of 4000 years. That a Semitic population, the Jews, shared in this individual-class type of thinking in precisely the areas that they encountered proto Germanics less than a thousand years ago, and other Semitic populations do not show it, suggests even more strongly that we are viewing an entirely learned and cultural phenomenon.

Also, one could consider the Chinese, Arab, and European civilizations to have been roughly equal, though different, in technological sophistication at about the year 1500. The West's emergence is recent.

Focussing more on objects and less on backgrounds seems particularly suited to Newtonian views of physical events. Whether this is the more accurate worldview might be debated, but its coincidence with rapid technological advancement seems indisputable. Perhaps other ways of looking at the world will be advantageous in newer science and be the foundation for further advances, but it hasn't happened yet.

The idea of indexing as an enormous advantage seems intriguing. Of course, most languages are not written down at all, so most knowledge is shared orally -- a great limitation. The accident of pronounceable rather than pictographic writing creates a manageable number for indexing, as it is limited by the number of sounds produced in the language, not the number of words.

Fascinating, fascinating stuff. I'll link back here later tonight.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at January 14, 2006 03:24 PM

It should be noted that Nisbett spends a number of pages documenting how the research on East-West cognitive differences weakens the underlying rationale of the current suite of "culture-fair" IQ tests. If this is so, then IQ data from around the globe is deeply suspect because it not accurately cross-cultural, and is therefore a very shaky basis for talking about "selective" pressures. The perceptual distinctions of individuals in East and West are well-documented. The implications, political, cultural, intellectual, aren't.

A reasonable case can be made that the big shift in public (as opposed to elite) perspective occurred after 1275 AD in northern Italy ... and that visualization and quantification of time and space form a cultural vocabulary specific to the West ... refined to its highest level by the scientific elite, which is most concerned, as R. Feynman once noted, with "learning how not to fool themselves."

Posted by: James McCormick at January 14, 2006 03:54 PM

If that date in Northern Italy is our inflection point, it corresponds to the improvement in Venetian glass mirrors. Pure speculation to see that as causative, of course, but interesting if the ability to perceive oneself clearly changed how we saw the rest of the world.

I'm still holding out for the tanistry of northern Europe as a greater factor, though.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at January 14, 2006 07:37 PM

I've noticed many of the above traits in my short career so far in the teaching service in Singapore. The lack of verbal IQ, for lack of a better word, is a key factor that is strangely even more exhibited in so-called 'good' classes. My best chemistry class, for example, can do very well in tests, but ask them to explain their answers verbally, and a lot of them will stonewall, stutter, or simply shut down.

As another observation, I notice that the Indian scholars(from India) do not have such verbal problems, and they can articulate their thoughts much better in comparison to the chinese scholars. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the thesis is examining differences between East Asians and Westerners, as some of you have already pointed out. South Asians belong to yet another category.

Perhaps Alexander the Great's conquest of parts of India did infuse a certain amount of Grecian cultural/thought modes into South Asia? To be later augmented by British administrations?

The relationship between verbal IQ and economic success is dicussed at the link below. Very interesting observations made. http://www.lagriffedulion.f2s.com/sft2.htm

Of course, it doesn't help that many teachers in Asia frequently have no grounding in verbal articulation and formal logic themselves, and so cannot impart such skills to their students.

Posted by: The Wobbly Guy at January 15, 2006 12:26 AM

Wobbly Guy:

Singapore's linguistic situation is unusual, in that the majority Chinese population speak a curious creole that derives its vocabulary from English, yet employs the grammar and syntax of the southern Chinese dialects. This creole is also much maligned and disparaged by the authorities as an improper, debased form of standard English.

I might attribute the diffidence and lack of eloquence of your students, and Singaporeans in general, to this unusual linguistic situation.

Ethnic Chinese born in my country of origin(Australia) do not suffer from any such difficulties, and seem to be as overrepresented as the top candidates in English competitions and examinations as in other academic subjects.

Posted by: Kennteoh at January 18, 2006 12:27 AM

I'm not even demanding that they speak the correct form of english(I can converse in singlish with the best of them, a skill honed in the army), only that they be able to articulate their thoughts in spoken form. And many of them have difficulties doing so.

Singaporean chinese suffer from this somewhat, overseas scholars from China to a greater extent, and scholars from India not at all.

Insofar as your observation goes, it shows quite clearly that the problem is thankfully not genetic and probably environmental, or even cultural.

Posted by: The Wobbly Guy at January 18, 2006 05:33 AM
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