Different Ways Of Thinking And Thinking In Different Ways

We all have different ways of thinking but do we actually think in different ways? In other words, is cognition universal? The question of what is universal and what culturally specific is a classic issue in the nature vs. nurture debate. Those on the side of nature tend to see everything as universal and those on the side of nurture think that people from different cultures are fundamentally distinct. However, beyond this already tedious and sometimes artificial polarization, the reality is that both nature and nurture have some bearing on most of the things we do and the extent to which a phenomenon is universal or culturally specific can often just depend on how you define it.

When psychologist Richard E. Nisbett showed an animated underwater scene to a group of American and Japanese students and asked them to report what they had seen, he discovered that the latter were more likely to be “holistic” (they generally spoke about the whole field “a lake” or “a pond”) while the former were more “analytic” (they generally focused on particular objects such as “a trout swimming to the right”) (1, 2).

Based on this and other experiments Nisbett concludes that basic processes of perception and cognition such as inductive and deductive inference, attention, memory, categorization, and causal analysis are not universal. To him, the differences described above are rooted in profound underlying cognitive variations that date back to ancient Greece and China and that have survived into the modern world.(1, 2)

Although several aspects of Nisbett’s research can be questioned, his experiments are useful to discuss a key issue in the nature vs. nurture debate: How do you actually determine if a phenomenon is universal or culturally specific? The obvious answer could be: if it occurs all over the world then, it’s universal. In that sense, the cognitive processes that Nisbett describes can be said to be universal because there are examples of perception, memory, categorization and reasoning in every known culture. However, Nisbett argues that people from different cultures actually think differently from one another in scientifically measurable ways. So, does he have a point? Is cognition not universal after all?

The philosophers Ron Mallon and Stephen Stich made an observation that may help to resolve this apparent conundrum (3). By comparing the approaches of evolutionary psychologists and social constructionists to the analysis of emotions, they discovered that their disagreements are mainly rooted in a semantic discrepancy. If an emotion is defined in terms of observable behavior then it certainly varies across cultures, if it is defined in terms of underlying mental processes or “affect programs”(4) then it is the same for everyone. An underlying mental program can be, for instance, something like “if x then y”. So although each culture may have different values for x and y, the computation is exactly the same. For example, the mechanisms in our mind that yield humor are universal although the jokes(x) and how we laugh(y) can be culturally relative. That’s why even though we all know what a joke is, humor doesn’t always translate well.

Referring to this observation Steven Pinker adds that what actually differs is the stimulus and response, not the mental states (5). This semantic distinction can be applied to explain what happened in the experiment mentioned above. What seems to vary is the participants’ responses to a particular stimulus, not their actual mental processes. In other words, the fact that Nisbett’s subjects described what they saw in different ways doesn’t mean that they actually did the seeing differently. Culture may have influenced what they regard as relevant to remember but not how they remember it. The actual computation “if x (something relevant) then y (save in memory)” as well as the biological process connected to it should be the same for all. Douglas Fields describes part of this biological process as follows:

Memories are created when nerve cells in a circuit increase the strength of their connections, known as synapses. In the case of short-term memories, the effect lasts only minutes to hours. For long-term memories, the synapses become permanently strengthened. “Signaling itself contributes to memory formation. Messages begin to travel between one neuron (the presynaptic cell) and another when an electrical pulse known as an action potential travels down an extension of the first neuron called an axon to its tip.(6)

In fact, if we describe the phenomenon in terms of stimuli and response and we change the stimulus in the same experiment we will probably get a completely different response (which, of course, may also vary according to culture). For example, what happens if we replace the trout with Angelina Jolie swimming naked and then show it to the Japanese participants. Will they notice the algae in the background? Will they say something about a pond?

Ok, maybe that’s not fair (it was just a joke to prove that humor doesn’t always translate well). However, Nisbett himself has an example of this. In a follow-up experiment designed to analyze what he calls affordances, he changed the stimuli and obtained very different responses. He asked the participants to identify changes between two scenes and observed that:

…when the scenes were intended to resemble American environments, both Americans and Japanese found it easier to detect object changes than field changes. When the scenes were intended to resemble Japanese environments, both Americans and Japanese found it easier to detect field changes than object changes.

This means that Americans can also be “holistic” depending on the stimulus and that Japanese can be “analytic” when confronted with another type of image. Therefore, both should have the same structural mental processes and they just picked different strategies depending on the situation. The picking of the strategy is what can differ cross-culturally not the actual strategy.

In this way, if we want to elucidate the extent to which cognition is universal or culturally relative maybe we just need to make a clear distinction between the different forms in which a cognitive phenomenon can be defined and analyzed. Noam Chomsky and other scientists had suggested several levels of analysis of the mind, but for the sake of this particular argument I propose the following descriptive planes:

  • As a biological process: genes activate, neurons, proteins, enzymes, interact, etc.
  • As a psychological computation: the mind’s core programs or operations. (e.g. “if x then y”)
  • As a surface behavior: the relations between stimuli and responses. (e.g. the x’s and y’s)

In this way, it becomes clearer that although both nature and nurture can have an effect to some degree on the three planes, the first two are essentially universal while the third one is undoubtedly culturally diverse.

To use an unpopular but illustrative metaphor that can incorporate the three descriptive planes, imagine we all have laptops on top of our shoulders and, unfortunately for us, they are all manufactured by Bill Gates. Our brains would be like the hardware (plane 1) and our minds like the software (plane 2). In this way, the things we can do are limited to the hardware and to the default software it comes with (yes, it’s Microsoft so I’m afraid they are very limited). Our laptop heads cannot suddenly grow extra hard drives or develop their own new programs. However, since the way we use them can be largely influenced by our social environment, if we observe our screens (plane 3) and compare them to those of other Microsoft laptop-heads from other cultures we’ll most likely see a lot of variation.

Similarly, we can say that although the mind has the potential for generating infinite number of thoughts it cannot develop, for instance, new or different forms of memory and perception unless it does so through evolution or via the aid of external tools (written language, computers, infrared goggles). That’s why, for example, it is impossible to imagine (unless we use some sophisticated external representation) an eleven-dimensional space, because our brain evolved to process the information of a three-dimensional one.

Now, a great part of the nature vs. nurture debate is also directed towards establishing which is more deeply embedded in the mind’s structure. Somehow scientists think that the deeper one is, the more it determines behavior and the more powerful and significant their findings or claims. However, depth shouldn’t be the issue here. The planes described above serve to approach the problem of what is universal in a more comprehensible way not to set a hierarchical order of importance, measure the impact of nature/nurture or justify deterministic explanations. Besides, although the third plane can seem to have less depth, the variables (“x’s” and “y’s”) are in fact part of the computations of plane two so they could also be seen as deeply ingrained in a person’s mind. The important thing is to see them as the variables (no matter their “depth”) not as the actual computations.

In summary, what’s all the fuss about? Cognitive processes, as well as other phenomena, can be defined and analyzed in various descriptive planes. If we make a distinction between these, establishing what is universal and what culturally specific becomes easier and opposite views can come together or at least cohabitate. Once the distinction is made, some overlapping between planes may be useful to explain how complex interactions between nature and nurture shape human behavior. So, perhaps it’s time to stop this seemingly endless and already boring debate…And while that happens I’ll just end by concluding that people from different cultures may have different ways of thinking but they don’t actually do the thinking in different ways.


(1)Nisbett, R. E. (2003); The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently…and why; New York: The Free Press.

(2)Nisbett, R. E. & Masuda, T. (2003); Culture and point of view; PNAS

(3) Mallon, R. & Stich, S. (2000); The odd couple: The compatibility of social construction and evolutionary psychology. The odd couple: The compatibility of social construction and evolutionary psychology.

(4) Ekman, P. and Rosenberg, E. (1997) in (3). What the Face Reveals. New York: Oxford University Press.

(5) Pinker, S. 2002; The Blank Slate. Viking; p. 39

(6) Fields R.D., (2005); Making memories stick; http://www.sciam.com

Paula Bourges Waldegg has a web page here She can be emailed at bwaldegg@prodigy.net.mx

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