You should know these Cultural Differences

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Low contra High-Effort Thinking

Earth is physically huge in comparison with a single person, and its parallel social sphere is arguably larger still. Analogous to the application of a map when you want to navigate Earth geographically, we also use a map to make our way through the social arena. This makes navigation quicker, but it’s far from taking in the panorama of the real thing. Our maps can be very crude, outdated, and even make us stumble into fatal error. Stopping for a moment to take in the real nature of the situation however requires allot of cognitive energy, and that can be very exhausting, so we should find a balance between autopilot and pilot.

I will throughout this primarily compare and contrast western contra eastern-Asian culture, and see to what extent there are cultural differences in social cognition.

Schemas as Mental Framework

Schemas allow us to automatically organize and interpret information. Our categorization of this information is not up to the standards of far-sighted scientific research, but its practical for the now. People with Korsakov`s syndrome live a life without schemas, to them every experience is new, and their misery illustrate the importance of schemas.(Akert, Aronson, Wilson, 2010)  The dark side of schemas is that there`s a close connection between schemas and stereotypes.

A stereotype about Norwegians is that we are good skiers with blond hair and blue eyes. Most Norwegians would find that stereotype quite shallow and probably laugh at it instead of taking it seriously. A less humorous stereotype could be that Norwegians are a  rich, greedy and egocentric people, with an implied correlation between those three. Stereotypes are connected to a type of schema called “implicit personality theories”, i.e. that different personality traits are correlated with each other. Americans reformulated and propagated such theories about the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.(ibid.)

We apply schemas that are primed and accessible. Recent or intense past experiences or goals we look forward to will be primed, i.e. will have a strong influence on our current thoughts and actions. If you have just seen a documentary about sexual slavery in pornography, chances are you would be less likely to support pornographic material in the near future without feeling discomfort; the suffering of those in the documentary is primed. Primed information influence you suddenly and unconsciously, without you intentionally wanting to be so influenced.(Akert, Aronson, Wilson, 2010)

Priming however varies between cultures. A person living in the western, predominantly Christian, world will actually be primed to give more money to a homeless person if she just walked past a church; the church symbolizing Jesus.(Akert, Aronson, Wilson, 2010) If a person living in China walked past a church, she probably would not be so primed because Christianity has been demonized for some time by the communist regime. A Chinese person might hypothetically even feel contempt by the sight of the church, and walk past the homeless person.

One of the saddest aspects of schemas is when we unflinchingly believe them to be accurate, and misinterpret the world to make it fit our schema through a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I believe that many Arabs are potential terrorists, and I continuously redefine the label “terrorist” to make it fit Arabs who act according to the definition of “terrorist”, then I might find that e.g. the “seemingly” innocent conversation two Arabs had about how good the chocolate Twix is, actually is them applauding the 9/11 terrorist attack. The “war on terror” is arguably a war based on a series of cognitive errors, especially when you consider the statistical danger of you actually being a victim of a terror attack. (Akert, Aronson, Wilson, 2010)

Heuristics as Collections of Schemas

While schemas and heuristics are two different labels, it’s important to know that these are human-made labels, and that it can be argued that everything is interconnected with everything. The availability and representativeness heuristics are two kinds of heuristics that are often used as mental shortcuts. Availability heuristics  are attributions that quickly come to mind, and can be used to judge others and ourselves. Due to the extensive specialization of modern medicine, your e.g. chest pain is likely to be explained somewhat differently depending on what kind of doctor you talk to. A cardiologist might heuristically assume that you are showing symptoms of some kind of cardio myopathy, while an orthopedic might think your pain is best explained by damage to your ribs. This kind of heuristic is intimately related to priming of certain schemas.

The representativeness heuristic is related to the schemas and stereotypes discussed earlier, in the sense that we in this kind of heuristic assume that X  belongs to category A because X is similar to other things in category A. If we think about a Japanese student, many people would assume that he probably is good at math and knows martial arts: not that he is an ice-skater who loves lutefisk. Why?, simply because that is what would be representative of an east-Asian person in many minds. Statistics can alleviate this however, by taking base-rate information into account: high-effort thinking. How many east-Asians actually are good in math and know martial arts? What is the probability of both these characteristics being present in the same person?

In summary, we have biases that influence us. We explain our own and others behavior by attributing both internal(dispositional) and external(situational) phenomena to us or them. Some researchers have found that while westerners and east-Asians differ in how we collect information, it seems like we apply the same attribution process.(Jen & Lien, 2010) Others have concluded that westerners (individualists) are analogous to personality psychologists while easterners are more analogous to social psychologists (collectivists).(Akert, Aronson, Wilson, 2010)

Analytic contra Holistic Thinking

Is the forest simply made up of many trees, or is the forest something greater when everything is added up? While that is an age-long philosophic question, there is much data that suggests that westerners contra east-Asians are more disposed to think analytically and holistically, respectively. This is thought to explain why western culture is individualistic in contrast to Asian collectivism, and even why these different cultures favor different city architecture.(Akert, Aronson, Wilson, 2010)

John and Basu found that westerners and east-Asians responded differently to brand extension, i.e. that some commercial brand wanted to expand into other avenues, like with say a shoe manufacturer starting to sell socks. Westerners where found to be more in favor of individual brands for individual merchandise, while east-Asians did not have any problem with a brand expanding its operations.(John & Basu, 2007)

Implicit personality theories also vary across cultures, and it seems like these theories are more holistic among east-Asians, with quantitatively more implied trait correlations than westerners. The Chinese category shi gu can work as an example since it contains allot of traits, and is very broad. When we compare east-Asian with western writing systems, we further find that e.g. the Chinese characters are allot more holistic in nature than our individual letter-based western writing system.

Social Cognition in a Global Culture?

It`s quite clear that there are significant differences in cognition across cultures and that we should think carefully. Different cultures seem to analyze new information differently as well, so this has implications for both low and high-effort thinking. Globalization is however arguably eroding the traditional cultures of the world, so it will be interesting to see what kind of culture will characterize a globalized world.

For more go to:

Music: “Perspectives” Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
Video background: Dirt 3, by Codemasters and Feral Interactive
Akert, Robin M., Aronson, Elliot., Wilson, Timothy D., (2010): Social Psychology – Seventh           Edition. New Jersey ,USA: Prentice Hall
Jen, Chun-Hui,. Lien, Yunn-Wen (2010): What is the source of cultural differences? – Examining      the influence. Acta Psychologica 133 (2010) 154–162
John, Deborah Roedder,. Monga, Alokparna Basu (2007): Cultural Differences in Brand Extension
Evaluation: The Influence of Analytic versus Holistic Thinking. JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, Inc. Vol. 33, March 2007


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