Phi Beta Kappa lecturer examines differences between East and West

On Feb. 7, a crowd gathered to attend the college's seventh Phi Beta Kappa lecture, delivered by Richard Nisbett, Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan.

Although the lecture had been scheduled to take place in Newton 214, the turnout was high and the decision was made to transfer the crowd to Wadsworth Auditorium to better accommodate the large attendance.

President Christopher Dahl, a friend of Nisbett's for over 30 years, said that Nisbett has the "greatest capacity for intellectual curiosity." The co-director of the Culture and Cognition program at the University of Michigan, Nisbett is a prominent psychology professor with several books and awards to his name. His research focuses on reasoning and social judgment.

The lecture, titled "The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why," was based on one of the books Nisbett has authored. Nisbett said the topic for the book was developed 12 years ago when a Chinese student approached him. The student claimed to not think in the same manner as Nisbett because of cultural differences. This claim led Nisbett to begin research regarding how Asians and Westerners think differently and why they do.

In his research, Nisbett found that the thoughts of Westerners are derived from an analytic process in which the individual tends to focus on an object and its attributes. According to Nisbett, Asians focus on the context rather than the object itself. Westerners use universal laws and formal logic while Asians rely on experiential learning and do not follow the tradition of formal logic.

In modern countries of the Far East, society tends to be collectivist and interdependent; Western countries tend toward the opposite ideals.

"Americans are individual-centered," Nisbett said. "They expect their environment to be sensitive to them." This idea is reflected in research indicating that people of the Far East respond best to advertisements with family and collectivist themes while Americans are more responsive to advertisements with individual and independent themes.

As part of his research, Nisbett presented individuals from both the West and Asia a picture with a background and object, such as a fish in a stream, and asked the subjects to describe the picture. Westerners tended to describe the fish's characteristics, and Asians tended to describe the context of the object, noting the stream and the location of the fish. Upon altering the image, Nisbett found that Westerners were more likely to observe a change in an object whereas Asians were more likely to notice a change in context.

Nisbett argued that people from different cultures actually see "a different world" from one another. He said he believed that while societies may have different viewpoints that lead to the development of different thought processes, there is still a trend of "societies [moving] toward one another" in a globally diverse world.