Think the Asian Way!

Imagine a Chinese student applying to study in the U.S. One requirement is a certain score on an IQ test. In one question he is asked to look at three objects – panda, monkey, banana – and determine which two belong together. Which one would you choose?

If you are from the West, you probably thought: “Easy! The panda and the monkey are both animals. How could somebody get this wrong?” The problem is: Chinese students think differently. They don’t place much value on categories. Instead they will think: “Easy! Monkeys love bananas”. No wonder they are surprised when they fail the test.

Where does this problem come from?

Before we answer that question, have a look at the picture below. Take a piece of paper and write down a bit about what you observe.

fish experiment

Done? Alright, good job! This picture shows how different the thought patterns of westerners and East Asians are. Don’t believe me? Let’s see.

If you are from a western country, the first thing you noticed was probably the fish. The one that most likely drew your attention was the biggest one. He is the killer in this pond.  The winner. Just look at what you have written. Have you written something about the frog? the snail? the sea grass? Maybe. But it was probably more in the form of “and yeah, there was this frog, too”.

And what about the background? Did you describe that the fish swam in water and the water was green? The ground consisted of stones and the scene was probably  a fish pond? I doubt it. That’s more the terrain of Asians.

If you are from the West you might have written something like “there are three big fish and two small fish”. But if you are Asian, you probably wrote something about the relationship between the fish. “There  are three big fish in the pond swimming together to the left. The two small fish are not with them – they avoid the big one’s and swim in the opposite direction.”

I don’t claim that what I guess here is 100% correct, but it is likely. Let’s now have a look at the reasons why this is the case. The expert on this subject is Richard Nisbett. In his book “The Geography of thought”, he describes the differences between western and East Asian thinking.

The Asian way of thinking

Asians look at the relationships between things. To them, simple cause and effect logic is not enough to describe a world as complex as ours. Many factors play a role in any situation and to neglect them will lead to wrong decisions. That’s why they describe the whole picture instead of focusing on single details. In the case of our fish pond – quite literally. But in real life they do the same thing.

I’m sure you ever had an experience with a bully. What do you think were the reasons why he or she acted that way? Westerners would probably argue that he was lonely, couldn’t control his emotions, or that he was too selfish so that other people wouldn’t want to make friends with him. In short: westerners would focus on the bully’s character traits.

Asians on the other hand would be more likely to say that external forces like the learning-teaching, parent-child, or class environment were not in harmony and therefore led him to act the way he did. They look at the whole environment and consider more details that could have an effect on the situation.

Both ways of thinking have their advantages and disadvantages. The more complex a situation is, the more likely it is that the western way fails. How many factors would we have to list up to tell what “causes” economic growth? Hundreds? Thousands? I think we will never be able to tell.

I believe in this case the Asian model simply makes more sense. We need to look at the complex web of relationships between the factors that play a role pushing growth forward. Which factors are positively correlated with growth, which negatively and how do they impact each other?

Asians are natural system thinkers, Westerners natural logical thinkers.  Asians believe that contradictory things should be put in harmony, westerners strive for the “right” answer – ultimate truth. Let’s go Asian style for once and bring both ways of thinking in harmony.

Most of you are expats in Asia. Answer this question honestly for yourself: do you make the best out of your visit there? Do you learn what it is like to live the Asian way? Do you learn as much about the culture as you can? Do you try to adopt to it as much as you can? If yes, great! If no,that’s fin, too. But don’t forget: this is a great opportunity. Make the best out of it and learn to think the Asian way. You won’t regret it.

And again I want to know more about you guys. Did living abroad change you? your way of thinking? If yes, in what way?


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