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Great Minds Think Unlike? A Cultural Perspective on Opinion Forming

Jing Guo's picture

If you were asked to describe culture, what would come to mind? —The magnificent Roman Catholic Church of Sagrada Família, the must-reads by Charles Dickens, or perhaps your grandma’s savory borsht? Well, these are all good thoughts. But think harder. At a societal level, culture is indeed reflected through art, literature, religion, and what’s on your dinner table. But at an individual level, it boils down to how we think—how individuals process information and form perceptions.

Whether or not you believe it, those tiny machines in our mind might operate differently in different cultures (e.g. read this New York Times story). Understanding these differences is valuable to campaigners, opinion researchers, and almost everyone who cares about engaging the public in the field of international development.

Over the past decades researchers found several differences in the way Westerners and East Asians process information and form views. Some of the differences might possibly influence public opinion. These differences include what I call in plain language “adopting a side or seeking a middle path,” “blaming me or blaming the situation,” and “logic versus experience.”

Adopt a side vs. seek a middle path

East Asians and Westerners were found to differ profoundly in their approaches to dealing with conflicts/contradictions: One tends to take a side, while the other prefers to be in the middle (read more). When facing conflicting information, Westerners are more likely to feel a substantial need to resolve the conflict by choosing a side. Easterners, on the other hand, tend to feel almost obligated to find merit in both sides and attempted to reconcile the conflicting opinions in search of a “middle path.”

For instance, psychologists found that after reading opposing statements about an issue, Westerners polarized their views. Easterners, however, started to moderately accept both propositions.

Imagine discussing the merits and perils of government electronic surveillance for national security with groups of Asians and Europeans. You would probably encounter many more Europeans than Asians who either strongly support or oppose the issue.

Given these tendencies, it seems that Asians are more receptive to opposing voices, whereas Westerners are comparatively more likely to hold on to their views. Both sides, however, face their own strengths and challenges. For example, mobilizing the public in the West might involve more work in “loosening up” people’s minds. In Asia, on the other hand, more efforts are probably needed to make the public committed to a particular cause.
 
Blame me vs. blame the situation

Another interesting but under-reported difference in opinion forming between the East and the West lies in attributions of responsibility: “blame me versus blame the situation.” For instance, when a social or political event takes place, Westerners are more often found to attribute the outcome of the event to individuals’ competencies and personalities. A quick example would be blaming an individual or a political party for the government shutdown. In contrast to Westerners, Eastern Asians tend to perceive more environmental influence on the event.  Morris and Peng  pointed out that when reporting a murder case, Asian reporters more often mention the social context in which the incident happened. Western journalists, on the other hand, tend to report more on the murderer’s personality and mental health.

In Richard Nisbett’s popular book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently...and Why. He comments on the Chinese way of making sense of events as follows:

Events do not occur in isolation from other events, but are always embedded in a meaningful whole in which the elements are constantly changing and rearranging themselves. [In the Chinese approach to reasoning,] to think about an object or event in isolation and apply abstract rules to it is to invite extreme and mistaken conclusions. It is the Middle Way that is the goal of reasoning.


Almost all public opinions stem from attributions of responsibility—who gets the blame or credit. This simple question could affect people’s preferences for judgments and future actions—such as whether to vote, whom to vote for, whether to donate, and to whom to donate.  
 
Logic vs. experience

The last point on culture’s possible effect on public opinion “Logic versus experience” deals with the way in which East Asians and Westerners reason. East Asians are found to rely more on experiences. Westerners are found to be comparatively more capable of setting aside experience in favor of logical rules (read more).

If this difference holds true, it might have meaningful implications for how campaigners inform the public. While data, fact sheets, and logical reasoning might suffice to influence the public in both the East and the West, anecdotes are perhaps more crucial in convincing the Easterners.  
 
Some more thoughts

These three differences suggest a fresh angle to understand culture and public opinion. As research indicates, culture could shape the way individuals perceive, interpret, and reason.

There is enormous value in understanding these differences. Yet, I would also warn against hasty generalizations. Countless factors can come into play when you and I form opinions. For example, people across cultures might share the tendency to only hear what they want to hear, as illustrated by the so-called “hostile media effect” and “confirmation bias.” Looking at the role of culture all by itself in a simplistic manner is similar to investigating gender inequality in a vacuum without considering race or class.

Some might also argue that the distinction between the East and the West is, to a large extent, arbitrary. The dividing line has become increasingly blurry. How different are we really from each other?
Some cultural differences do tell us apart. Yet, numerous other layers of culture also unify us. For the world to work together to resolve common problems, it is important to respect differences and also recognize similarities shared by almost all of us across cultures. 

Photo Credit: Will Ockenden
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