Tl;dr: The Geography of Thought

The Geography of Thought is by Richard Nisbett.

Reading Nisbett – Geography of Thought

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Nisbett is a legend of cognitive science and psychology. I think I cited him ten different ways in my dissertation back in the day. 

A popular recent book he wrote is “What is intelligence?” (the ability to figure things out), and there are his writings on education (a process that creates intelligence). If you have a quibble with either definition, I invite your emails. 

This book is about how intelligence might be different across cultures. People usually think “figuring things out” rests on an objective standard, so intelligence must too. What happens when you investigate?

You find some patterns that vary starkly between East Asian styles and Western styles. (I think he doesn’t really handle the Indian style.)

Before noting how they are different, doesn’t it immediately raise a few questions?

  • what if intelligence tests cannot therefore be one-size fits all? and
  • What if, inadvertently, the stuff that makes tests hard for Westerners is what makes them easy for Eastern tradition thinkers (children of Asian immigrants)?

On this latter point, Asians are 10% of NYC yet 70% of the top test-based high school. They are poor. They are in public school. Their parents do value study highly and do send their kids to cram schools — but what if it is more than that?

OK back to the book.

Key findings:

West vs East


Conflict vs consensus. Westerners like debate. Not Asians.

Logic v context. X implies Y and so we must Z, say Westerners. In the East, the world is more accurately described when it is complicated and subtle. No one argument changes everything.

Clarity v nuance. Am I being clear? Vs: Am I being subtle?

Change v stability. West prefers action. East prefers continuity.

Words v silence. Smart people talk vs smart people listen (“one mouth, two ears”).

Consistency vs contradiction. A smart speaker is consistent internally, to the point of rejecting the received consensus. Newton or Galileo upend the old world. In the East however, the wise person knows “nothing ever changes, yet everything stays the same”. The contradictions in reality are reflected in the wise view of reality.