How the West became self-obsessed

It’s quite extraordinary. They put people from the West and people from East Asia into the lab and found that their cognition still works in ways that reflect the history of their respective cultures, and that history was shaped in large part by geography. For instance, the landscape in East Asia 2,500 years ago was totally different than Greece. It was landlocked, with low mountains and undulating landscapes. To get ahead, you had to be part of a big farming community either growing wheat or rice, and you had to participate in these massive irrigation projects that were essential to group success.

Nisbett put Western people and people from East Asia in a lab and had them look at a cartoon of a fish tank, in which there was a big individualistic flashy fish at the front and lots of smaller fish around it. They tracked tiny unconscious eye movements to see what people were paying attention to. They discovered that Western people were largely focused on the big flashy fish out front and East Asian people were largely focused on the group of smaller fish around it.

Afterward, they asked people from both groups what they saw, and the Westerners said, “Oh, I saw a fish,” and the East Asian people said, “I saw a fish tank,” and they would describe the context. The researchers then asked them what they thought of the fish, and the Westerners would say that the big fish was obviously the leader and the East Asian people would say they felt sorry for the big fish because it had obviously been excluded from the group.

That’s a long answer, but the point is really important. This tendency to focus on the self, on the individual, runs deep in our cultural history, and it’s not something we can easily escape. Link

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