Why Westerners and Easterners Really Do Think Differently

While pejorative stereotypes have been properly cast aside, the question remains whether there is a fundamental difference between how Eastern and Western societies are configured.


Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet. 

So begins the poem by noted imperialist Rudyard Kipling. They line is often misinterpreted to support the notion that the world is divided between two great spheres, and that they are fundamentally dissimilar. Never could they unite, suggests Kipling.

In Western culture, we suppose that people from the East are different, even if we don’t mean to be prejudiced. In the US, asians are subject to stereotypes that are, at first glance, positive: they good musicians, good at mathematics, etc. Or take India. Being a land of superior spiritual knowledge drew many in the 1960s and 70s to investigate, including such great minds as Steve Jobs and John Lennon.

While older, repulsive, stereotypes regarding Asians have been properly cast aside, the question remains whether there is a fundamental difference between how Eastern and Western societies are configured.

Well, new studies offer the idea that the answer may be yes.

After it was realised that over 70% of all subjects in psychological studies had historically been American students looking for a quick buck or college credit, many psychologists began asking if more diverse groups of subjects gave differing solutions. It was found that those studies not only gave differing data, but that the results were often remarkably different from the American dominated studies. The uniqueness of college-aged American subjects was immortalized with the acronym WEIRD (Western, Education, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic).


Celebrity devotees of the Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi and friends, at his academy in India, high up in the Himalayas, where they are studying transcendental meditation, March 1968. From left to right, Patti Boyd, John Lennon (1940 - 1980), Mike Love of The Beach Boys, Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi, George Harrison (1943 - 2001), Mia Farrow, John Farrow, Donovan, Paul McCartney, Jane Asher, Cynthia Lennon. (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While the studies cover many different topics, the subject of an individualistic or holistic thinking style is noteworthy. Individualist thinkers tend to see problems as being made up of separate components. Holistic thinkers, on the other hand, tend to see problems as parts of flawed systems.

In one study, complex images were shown to test subjects from East Asia and North America. The scientists tracked the eye movements of the participants in order to gauge where their attention was focused. It was found that the Chinese participants spent more time looking at the background of the image, while the Americans tended to focus on the main object in the picture. Holistic and individualistic thinking manifested in one clear example.

This is only the beginning of the interesting findings in this field. For example, a simple test can demonstrate the cultural differences in word association. A subject is given three worlds, such as chair, table, and lift, and then asked to relate two of the words.

Go ahead, relate two of them, I will wait. Any combination will do.

People who tend to think individualistically associate chair and table in this example, as they are both furniture items. While people who think holistically relate chair and lift, as they work together to create a function system, so the theory goes.

Of course, these tendencies are generalizations. There are collectivist thinkers in the West and individualist thinkers in the East. As the world globalizes, and the thought of thinkers of both sides continues to disseminate into the other, the differences are likely to become less intense.

But, why is this?

A multitude of hypotheses abound for why this might be the case. Some suggest that it comes down to philosophy. While western thinkers have tended to focus on the individual, Eastern thought tends to be holistic in nature, with China’s greatest thinker, Confucius, basing most of his philosophy- and therefore most of later Chinese thought- on the concept of “Filial Piety”.  


Chinese philosopher Confucius (551 - 473 BC), circa 500 BC. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Other, perhaps more interesting, explanations exist. One is that the staple food of a region may have something to do with it. This is excellently seen in China, where the northern half of the country grows wheat and the southern half grows rice. Rice growing is a labour intensive activity, that requires the coordination of several neighboring farms to do properly. Wheat farming, on the other hand, takes much less work and does not require coordination of irrigation systems in order to work.

When individuals from northern and southern China are given the tests to determine their tendencies to holistic or individualistic thinking, the results show that southerners tended towards holistic thinking while wheat eating northerners tended to more individualist thought.

Then there are the historians, who point out the case of the Hokkaido in Japan as a case study. Cold, remote, and with poor weather, the island was largely unsettled even into the late 1800’s. The wilderness here was often compared to the American frontier, and the importing of American professionals to assist in the colonization program the Japanese government financed helps that image.

Even today, more than 100 years after the colonization effort, the effects of living in a society that was so recently a frontier show up in individual and holistic thinking tests. With residents of Hokkaido demonstrating tendencies towards individualism to a larger extent than the rest of the Japanese population.

And, here is the rest of that poem by Kipling, showing his real goal was to focus on individuals rather than competing worldviews, and how those differences of East and West, circumstance, and nationality fall apart when great minds met:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,

Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;

But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!


16th January 1928: Rudyard Joseph Kipling (1865-1936), English writer and Nobel laureate, who wrote novels, poems, and short stories, mostly set in India and Burma during British rule. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.