The Western/Eastern Mind Divide

May 1, 2010

It would be overstating things to claim it made Steven Heine famous—because nobody in his emerging field of cultural psychology is famous—but a study led by the young UBC professor did generate chatter in all kinds of quarters, from academic journals to the back page of Time. It got people thinking about the Western mind and the Eastern mind and the differences between them. Now that the East has just overtaken the West in economic strength (the tipping point, after a couple of centuries of Western dominance, came in 2006), Heine’s experiment seems positively pregnant with meaning.

Here’s the scoop. Heine and three colleagues recruited two groups of students—one Euro-Canadian and the second Japanese—and he gave them a bogus “creativity” task. The test was graded, and the students were told they had done well on some parts and poorly on others. Heine was interested in what would come next. The students were given a second, similar test, and the psychologist and his colleagues secretly watched how the subjects tackled it. Turned out there was a glaring difference. The Westerners worked longer on the stuff they were told they had aced the first time. The Easterners concentrated on the areas they thought they had botched. Students from the West—where the cult of self-esteem reigns supreme—wanted a tummy rub. Students from the East were more concerned with fixing their blind spots, becoming well-rounded. The Westerners polished up their strengths while the Easterners addressed their weaknesses. You could hardly fail to take away a moral: what gains might be made if Westerners could just check their egos and learn to see opportunity in failure! (Largely on the strength of the study, Heine received in 2003 the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions to Psychology.)

But Heine wasn’t trying to sermonize or shill for the Ministry of Education. By exposing this deep cultural rift, Heine punctured a long-held myth. You’d think positive self-regard gets everyone through their day, but it doesn’t. If such a seemingly basic human motivation is culturally determined, what else is? Turns out, lots. Western and Eastern minds fare dissimilar in ways that we’re only now able to measure. IF YOU SHOW  an “Easterner” (someone of East Asian extraction) and a “Westerner” (of European lineage) a phoograph, and you track their eye movements, you notice something curious. Both subjects fix on some focal point in the picture for about a second. After that, things change. The Westerner continues to gaze at that spot, on that central tree in the forest of possible places to look. The Eastern eye, however, is all over the place, scanning hither-thither, trying to take in the whole forest. “It’s a very reflexive tendency,” Heine says. The laser focus of the Western eye tells the story of its culture—of individual things and independent people; the roaming eye of the Easterner speaks of holistic apprehension, interdependence, the wisdom of crowds, the power of relationships. Even if the subjects are instructed to focus on a dot in the middle of a screeen, University of Alberta psychologist Taka Masuda found, East Asians continually scan the void around that dot, pumping for context, for linkages. “They look,” Heine says, “to see how things connect.”

In his UBC office, Heine, a disarmingly boyish 43-year-old, brings up some recent work by the Japanese cultural psychologist Shinobu Kitayama. Here modern neuroscience has galloped in to support the theory. Kitiyama asked Asian-Americans and Euro-Americans to do a pencil-and-paper task involving drawing a line in a series of squares. As the subjects puzzled, their brains were scanned in an fMRI machine. In the screen images, different parts of the brain bloom yellow and red with activity. The signature of thinking is actually different. For the Asians reproducing the exact length of the line, “the regions of the brain connected to focused attention are especially active—this is a difficult task for them,” Heine says. But in a second task involving getting the ratio of line to box right—“which is easy for Asians but difficult for Westerners”—the Americans show more activation. The implications of the experiment are startling. “They really are seeing the world differently,” Heine says. “Their eyes are looking at different things, the information that they’re getting is different, and they understand it differently, too.” New research suggests that many centuries of cultural habits actually mould the architecture of the brain, such that the Western brain and the Eastern brain are now physiologically different in some important ways, which might affect such things as our ability to handle paradox, to accept life’s odd incongruities.

YOU MIGHT THINK that pointing out our profoundly different ways of thinking is a recipe for cultural friction. And, sure enough, Heine has sometimes found himself embroiled in arguments with people who have absorbed “the 15-minute version of cultural psychology” and think he is Philippe Rushton come to torment us again. (He defends his theories adroitly, and “the Japanese side of his personality,” he has said, “appreciates these opportunities for self-improvement.”) But Heine is convinced his field lights the way out of prejudice. “We’d argue that prejudice happens because people don’t approach others thinking they’re different but equal,” he says. “Remember Dick Cheney’s famous quote from the Iraq war: ‘They’ll greet us as liberators.’ ” That’s a problem with failed perspective-taking. There’s a problem when we think they think like us and they don’t. I do think that schools fare better, trade fares better, international relations fare better, when people try to understand the other side’s perspective—what they think about and are concerned about and value.”

Heine founded the Culture and Self lab within UBC’s psych department nine years ago. Its mandate: to “explore the ways in which culture and self mutually constitute each other.” That’s a high-rent way of saying that our tribe has a much more profound effect on us than we realize, to a degree that most people underestimate and that academic researchers are crazy to discount. Indeed, Heine is currently sitting on a powder keg of a paper called “The Weirdest People in the World?” recently published by the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, that basically tells most research psychologists that they’ve been doing their work wrong. WEIRD is an acronym for “Western-educated industrialized rich democratic” societies—in other words, the Western undergrads who make up 99 percent of mainstream psychology’s research samples, from which grand generalizations are drawn about how “people” behave. But “if you line up all the countries,” Heine says, “the outlier is actually the American undergraduate, who just thinks differently than the rest of the world.” A biased view of human nature is thus issuing from academic mills into the spongelike heads of millions of eager psych students—an embarrassing problem. “Psychologists hate our paper,” Heine says, “because the take-home message is, We can’t keep going with business as usual and pretend we’re explaining the universal human.”

HEINE IS AN INTERESTING product of the genes he inherited and the adventures he pursued. This is what comes of being the son of a pro football player turned watercolour painter (Jerry Heine), of being the first in your family to go to university. You’re kind of working without a map. The family was living in Edmonton. Heine was interested in marketing. So he embarked on a commerce degree at the University of Alberta—long enough to know that selling asphalt pavers in Finland (a summer internship he landed through U of A’s business school) probably wasn’t in his future but that travel and culture were. There was a second-language requirement for the psych degree he had decided to pursue. Heine thought Japanese would give him a better appreciation of the books on Zen he had discovered, and after graduating he took a job teaching English in Japan in a town where he was the first Westerner ever to live.

In a place called Obama he had his epiphany. He was giving a speech before the whole school one day, trying to inspire his students by doling out the white-guy commencement-speech bromides he’d heard growing up: “You can do anything you want, just believe in yourself,” et cetera. Far from inspired, the students seemed confused and worried. Things grew so awkward that the Japanese teacher who had been translating had to intervene. He started putting new words in Heine’s mouth: “If you think junior high school is hard, just wait till you get to high school! You can’t even understand Mr. Heine’s simple speech here—you need to try so much harder!” Under the withering criticisms the students came to life. “They started sitting up straight, even beaming,” Heine recalls. “And they let out this resounding ‘Hai! Yes, sir! Ready to take on the world!’ Which was exactly the effect I was after but failing so miserably to achieve.” The seed of a groundbreaking cultural-psychology experiment was planted.

Heine is married to Nariko Takayanagi, a Japanese-Canadian he met at grad school in Vancouver in the early 1990s, and who teaches Asian studies at Langara. The pair share a kind of inside-dope knowledge of cultural difference that, Heine says, actually affects their marriage. “We both notice very quickly if we’re doing things differently because of our culture,” Heine says. “We try to figure out exactly what the disconnect is, for good or for bad. I think this is a strength of cross-cultural marriages more generally: it prevents things from getting personal.” VM

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