Book Thoughts – The Geography of Thought by Richard E Nisbett

Richard E. Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought. How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why  isn’t a book about coaching. So why discuss it on a coaching-orientated blog?

The Geography of Thought book coverThe clue is in the subtitle – How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why. As a coach, I’m profoundly interested in how people think. I spend my time in coaching sessions listening, absorbing non-verbal communication, reflecting back my understandings, identifying limiting self-beliefs, challenging… To be effective, all this needs to be based on understanding the coachee’s ‘world’ from the coachee’s point of view. If there’s firm evidence that people from different cultures and areas of the world really do think and see things differently, then I want to know about it…

Nisbett is a Professor of Social Psychology in the US, and in publishing  The Geography of Thought  in 2003 he was contributing to the ongoing debate regarding whether ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’ is most important in determining an individual’s characteristics. Are genes or environmental influences key? Here, Nisbett was presenting tantalising evidence indicating that different ecologies, social structures, philosophies and educational systems can (over time) produce fundamentally different worldviews and approaches, and that individual predisposition is another element to add to the mix.

Nisbett was looking at what he termed ‘East Asians’ (Chinese, Koreans and Japanese) and ‘Westerners’ (people of European culture), But let’s be clear. He wasn’t claiming this was the last word on whether difference in worldview really exists and why.  As a start, though, there’s no doubt that the study was highly significant. It showed that social practices promote worldviews; worldviews dictate appropriate thought processes; and thought processes both justify the worldviews and support the social practices. A key feature was that the psychological tests and experiments described were jointly designed by East Asian and Western researchers. It had been previously assumed that solely western-originated studies provided ‘universally’ valid results. The Geography of Thought showed that this was not the case.

Intercultural aspects of coaching have been investigated extensively since Nisbett’s book appeared (think Philippe Rosinski and Jonathan Passmore). Nevertheless, I’d like to touch on certain ideas from The Geography of Thought because they prepare a coach’s mind to be open to the possibility that differing worldviews exist, whilst not being deterministic in insisting that such differences exist where they do not.

So, in this post I’ll first touch on Nisbett’s list of ‘givens’ that feature in a ‘Western’ worldview which prove not to be universal after all – yet which remain at the core of some approaches to coaching (particularly originating in the US). I’ll then share some thoughts on a couple of coaching scenarios where insights from Nisbett’s book have particular bearing for coaching effectiveness.

Coaching and the ‘Western’ worldview

Nisbett showed that, at least up to the time of his study, in general Westerners were predisposed and socialised towards ‘individualism’ or ‘independence’, whilst East Asians were predisposed and socialised towards ‘collectivism’ or ‘interdependence’. So what?

Read the following generalisations. People of Western origin tend to take them for granted, particularly if they are of Northern European and British Commonwealth/US background.

  • Each individual has a set of characteristic, distinctive attributes, and people want to be distinctive.
  • People are largely in control of their own behaviour, and feel better when they are in situations where choice and personal preference determine outcomes.
  • People are orientated towards personal goals of success and achievement, finding that relationships and group memberships sometimes get in the way of attaining these goals.
  • People strive to feel good about themselves, and personal successes and assurances that they have positive qualities are important to their sense of well-being.
  • People prefer equality in personal relations or, when relationships are hierarchical, they prefer a superior position.
  • People believe the same rules should apply to everyone, and that individuals should not be singled out for special treatment because of their personal attributes or connections to important people. Justice should be blind.

What did you think? Quite a value-laden list, isn’t it? Do you see the commonality with the core of some approaches to coaching? That’s fine – except that Nisbett found that on each count, a typically East Asian worldview differed profoundly.

That should give us pause for thought. Each coachee is an individual, and our role as coaches is to focus on the individual coachee. But here we’re faced with the prospect that we first need to focus on ourselves to bring to awareness our own taken-for-granted assumptions. Not because they are ‘wrong’, but because we need to be aware of how they may interfere with the way we ‘see’ and interact optimally with our coachee.

Two coaching scenarios…

1. ‘Collective mentality’ and recruitment     Nisbett’s study shows East Asians as in general concentrating on establishing and maintaining harmonious social relations above personal success. ‘Feeling good about oneself’ stems from being in harmony with the groups to which one belongs. In this scenario, it’s clear that it might be incredibly difficult for East Asians to single out and praise what they as individuals are good at, and to discuss openly what they as individuals have achieved. 2 seated people below globeWhere a coach is helping a coachee of East Asian origin to think about careers and recruitment processes here in the West, it would be productive to remember that input may be needed to help the coachee adapt to unfamiliar (even unsettling) approaches to applications. One strategy might be to ask the coachee at the start to give input on how she or he would put together a good application. The answers would reveal whether or not the coachee needs help to modify her/his approach to bring it more in line with showing her-/himself at her/his best in a Western application process.

2. The need for a sense of self-worth and competence     It is a truism in coaching that individuals thrive best if they have an inherent sense of self-worth and an underpinning confidence in their own competence. It is assumed that if these are undermined, individuals can begin to show signs of mental distress. Nisbett’s work shows that this tendency is by no means universal. Whilst the Westerners in his study reacted in this way, East Asians tended from the start not to perceive themselves in the same light. Being exposed as incompetent did not cause distress. Rather, it caused them to try harder. Furthermore, lack of competence did not undermine their sense of self-worth. What might this mean for coaching? Well, whilst there is no hard and fast rule on this, it’s worth a coach keeping in mind that everyone is different. Don’t assume that everyone feels the same way as you about things, and don’t assume you know how another individual feels about something without checking it out with them first.

So, the take-away point for me from Nisbett’s book is to remember that different people groups may in general think differently in predictable ways. If in our coaching practice we’re faced with coachees from different backgrounds, we can try to gain some insight into the groups’ general ways of thinking from reliable sources – but making sure we don’t become too deterministic. Any given person is not just a collection of generalised behaviours. He or she is an individual.

As ever, a coach shouldn’t just assume he or she understands what a coachee’s statement means to the coachee. It needs to be clarified by means of sensitive questioning, building a picture of what the coachee means related to the coachee’s own mental space and world, not the coach’s. And it may also mean accepting that what may constitute ‘success’ for a coachee may not do so in the worldview of the coach… This may sometimes stray into the realms of an ‘ethical dilemma’ for the coach – requiring deep reflection, and where necessary even the courage to decide to call a halt to the coaching. Time for the coachee to be referred to someone else…

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