Cross-Cultural Cognition:Contrast between Eastern and Western Mental Processes

Cross-Cultural Cognition: America versus China.

From the moment human infants are brought into the world, the stimulus that they are exposed to (sights, sounds, smells) are processed by their brain. As Piaget said, children are not brought into this world with a blank slate. They are brought into this world as their brain is in the process of development, and the first step in their cognitive development is to take the influx of stimulus and make sense of it. (Flavell ,1992) The environment in which the child is born into will influence how the child will build the walls of their cognitive infrastructure. One way to see the impact children can have when raised in different countries is to examine monozygotic twin studies, in which twins are separately adopted, and raised from birth. From the conclusion of many of these studies, we know that when these twins reunite later in life, they will be completely different from each other. (Little & Lopez, 1997)

The United States and China are much different places to grow up in. China presents a primarily collectivist society, in which children are reared to put their family first. This mentality extends as they grow to putting the interests of society far before the needs of the individual. In the United States, children are raised in a capitalist’s paradise. The goal from birth is to stand out enough in society to get into the best schools, get the best jobs, and make the most money. As Markus says: In America, the squeaky wheel gets the grease, where as in China, the nail that stands out gets pounded down. (Markus, 1991) Because of these two entirely different cultures, it makes sense that the cognitive process of American and Chinese residents is entirely different. (Berry & Dasen, 1974)

Specific differences in American and Chinese cognition:

Because America is an individualistic culture, and China is a collectivist culture, it is no surprise that the cognition processes in western and eastern individuals is drastically different. The following studies show examples of the opposing cognitive processes.

  • In a study done by Mesuda & Nisbett (2001), cross-cultural cognition was observed in a study on change blindness. In this study, American and Asian test subjects sat before an animated underwater scene. After watching the animation once, and then twice, the test subjects were asked to describe to the experimenter what happened. American participants were drawn to the brightest, fastest, most colourful animations and said things like “The big trout in the center swam left and disappeared.” Asian participants looked at the animation more holistically. After only two views of the animation, the Asian participants began talking about the background contexts of the animation. The Asian participants showed 60 percent more details about the context than American participants. They were able to see more subtle changes in the animation, along with the obvious focal changes.
  • When sorting objects, Americans are more likely to sort according to type. (a cow is similar to: A horse, a sheep, a pig, a chicken.) All these animals are grouped into farm animal types of animals. When sorting objects, Asians are more likely to list items that had some relationship to the original word provided. (A cow is similar to: pasture, farm, barn, hills, etc. ) All these items focus on the cow’s relationship with its environment.

Differences in American and Chinese neuroanatomy that explain the differences in cognition styles:

  • Cultural differences in eye fixation for complex visual stimuli:
    • The change blindness study above explained that the difference between American Cognition, and Asian cognition is that Americans were primarily focused on interesting focal points, whereas Asians were more focused on context clues of the environment.
    • Eye-tracking software was used to gather information on where the eye look when it looks at an image, and how much time the eyes spend looking in a specific spot.
    • American eye movements focused for longer periods of time on focal points: The animal, some of the more interesting background information.
    • Asian eye movements were quicker, and instead of looking at one focal point, they spent less time looking in one particular spot, and instead shifted their gaze to multiple points in the background of the stimulus and spent even less time glancing at the main focal point of the picture. They looked at this last. (Park, 2010)
  • Structural differences in brains between cultures:
    • The neural structure of Asian individuals shows more growth and grey matter density in four spots across the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, and temporal lobe. The growth is mainly in language centers, as well as information processing centers. The reason for increased brain activity in these areas is because of the difference in the cognitive work that goes into language acquisition for a Chinese language. Cognitive strategy differences are based off of Chinese people having to have more of a complex view on language and communication than American people. (Park, 2010)

Bi-cultural Cognition

*For the purposes of not turning this blog post into a novel, I will make this brief. Although I have to say. Researching bi-cultural cognition was the coolest part of this particular foray into social cognition.*

  • Bi-cultural cognition involves an individual comfortably ingrained in two different cultures. A good example of an individual who may fall into this category is and Asian American citizen, perhaps the child of a Chinese immigrant.
  • Bi-cultural cognition involves frame-switching. Frame switching is a cognitive process that occurs in all humans where we act differently when entrenched in different  social settings. (The way a teenager may act in the presence of friends is different from the way a teenager may act in the presence of a parent).
  • When a bi-cultural individual frame-switches from one culture to another, for example coming home from school to eat dinner with family, the way the individual would respond to the same questions is different.
  • When asked about selfesteem levels, Asian American students will rate themselves with a higher self-esteem when speaking in contexts of school, but a lower self -esteem when speaking in contexts of home. (Ross, Xun  & Wilson, 2002)
  • In experiments of priming and visual stimulus (Hong, Chiu & Kung, 1997), as well as experiments proving that language was a powerful motivator for frame-switching and different cognition patterns, what both experiments have in common is that once exposed to a cultural stimulus (stereotypical cultured images, or that culture’s language), the way they think is altered.
  • After getting primed by either visual stimulus or language, bi-cultured Asians in the presence of Asian stimuli will show more collective cognitive thought patterns, while when in the presence of American stimuli and language, the cognitive patterns prove to be more unique and individualistic. (Ross, Xun & Wilson, 2002)


Berry, J.W. & Dasen, P.R., (1974) Culture and Cognition: Readings in Cross-Cultural Psychology. Methuen’s Manuals of Modern Psychology, London, England. Methuen & Co.

Flavell, J.H., (1992). Cognitive Development: Past, Present, and Future. Developmental Psychology, 28(6), 998-1005.

Hong, Y.-Y., & Chiu, C.-Y. (2001). Toward a paradigm shift: From cross-cultural differences in social cognition to social-cognitive mediation of cultural differences. Social Cognition, 19, 181–196

Kesebir, S., Uttal, D. & Gardner, W. (2010). Socialization: Insights from social cognition. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 93-106.

Little, T.D. & Lopez, D.F., (1997). Regularities in the Development of Children’s Causality Beliefs about School Performance across Six Sociocultural Contexts. Developmental Psychology, 33(1), 165-175.

Markus, H.R., (1991). Culture and the Self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), 224-253.

Masuda T, Nisbett RE. (2006). Culture and change blindness. Cognitive Science, 30(2), 381–399.

Park, D. C., & Huang, C.-M. (2010). Culture Wires the Brain: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science : A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science5(4), 391–400.

Ross, M., Xun, W. Q. E., & Wilson, A. E. (2002). Language and the bicultural self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1040–1050.


7 thoughts on “Cross-Cultural Cognition:Contrast between Eastern and Western Mental Processes

  1. Iain McGilChrist theory refutes the theory of the split brain, in the way was proposed. He attempts to de-mythy the (1960s-70s) idea of the separation of ‘logic-mathematical’ (left hemisphere) and ‘emotional-art’ (right-hemisphere). His observations are founded in animal behaviours and in human history (ideologies). He proposes that the over-used and appreciated left/brain (logical) perhaps began its transformation when the scientific way of thinking (Cartesianism) demands the focus on specific subjects and objects, rather a holistic understanding of them.

    The psychiatrist suggests that we are moulded by our culture. As a result, the Western culture, based on European philosophy, is object and subject focused, and have an individualistic tendency. The researcher suggests that this way of thinking increased the lateralization of functions between the two hemispheres.

    The Wester (Cartesian based thinking) promotes the engaging mostly in rational thinking. Emotions and perceptions are not science. He theorises that early human beings had less inhibition between the two hemispheres. “The left hemisphere as having an intermediate role: it ‘unpacks’ what the right hemisphere knows, but then must hand it back to the right hemisphere for integration into the body of our knowledge and experience.” it is like having to ways of perceive the world.

    According to McGilChrist, the right hemisphere has a broader, environmental, holistic understanding, while the left hemisphere is subject-object focused. He arrived at this conclusion observing the brain structure, the differences between the hemispheres, and comparing human and other animal behaviours as well as comparing Western and Eastern philosophy, art, and literature.

    Politics, economics, ideology, art, religion, shape our cognitions. As evolutionary theorist suggested, we change and adapt to our environment and environments constantly change.

    The psychiatrist has, also, a philosophy background. According to his holistic interpretations, he suggests that “The right hemisphere was capable of appreciating ambiguity, the implicit and the metaphorical, where the left hemisphere tended to require certainty, the explicit and the literal; the right hemisphere saw the broad context and the world as a seamless whole, interconnected within itself, where the left hemisphere focussed on detail and produced a lot of separate fragments; the right hemisphere was far more capable of understanding new information, while the left hemisphere dealt with the already known”

    He is the author of the book “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and The Making of the Western World”. In his book, he presents scientific evidence that supports his theory.

    I am willing to know more about his interesting ideas. It is not a casualty that nowadays different sciences including neuroscience acclaim the value and importance of Easter practices such as meditation, contemplation, an understanding of the body emotions (body-knowledge) etc., and more attention to social problems and less promotion of the individualistic way of thinking.


  2. Love this topic! A question that your presentation/blog post really triggered for me was if the actual structure of the language itself influences how we think? I’m thinking of doing a post about the Whorfian hypothesis; however, it is really difficult to study because of how controversial it is. I found an article you might find interesting that includes a number of studies, but I think the ones you’d be most interested in involve Chinese-English bilinguals. The studies found that bilinguals that spoke both Chinese and English scored higher on dialectal thinking when speaking Chinese rather than speaking English, regardless of whether or not Chinese or English was their first (native) language. The study also found that when speaking Chinese, the bilinguals perceived personality traits of themselves differently than they did in English. Simply speaking, English and Chinese speakers perceive personalities differently, which is really interesting. Other studies within the article also discuss cultural differences which further relates to your discussion here. Great topic! I’ll include the link below if you’re interested.

    Xiaohua Chen, S., Benet-Martínez, V., & Ng, J.C.K. (2013). Does Language Affect Personality Perception? A Functional Approach to Testing the Whorfian Hypothesis. Journal of Personality, 82, 2, 130-143


    • Oh my goodness Brittany! My two favourite things! Psychology and linguistics! I had never heard of the Whorfian Hypothesis before, and once I looked it up I could not stop reading about it! So the Whorfian Hypothesis is this idea that language influences cognition. To go in a little bit deeper, it is essentially the hypothesis that our human cognition is based off of the language we learn at birth. Although, like you said, the Whorfian Hypothesis is controversial because it has been disproved by multiple researchers, it still includes aspect of social cognition and cross-cultural cognition that made it a compelling argument in the first place. One of the articles I read about discussed the neuroanatomy of American males versus Asian males, and it was found that because of how complicated the Chinese alphabet is, and because it takes so long to learn completely ( about 2000 are used in everyday language, yet scholars use upwards of 5600 characters) the neuroanatomy of Asian males is different in that the areas of learning, language and communication have more grey matter than American males. (Park & Huang, 2010) So while the Whorfian Hypothesis is a little bit far fetched, there is legitimate science that says that from language to language, the brain structure is different.


      Park, D. C., & Huang, C.-M. (2010). Culture Wires the Brain: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science : A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 5(4), 391–400.


  3. Great topic! I’ve actually taken a few classes that have certain components that are very focused on the differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures. So reading all of these studies was even more interesting. Maybe you’ve read this article, maybe you haven’t but “The weirdest people in the world? Behavioural and Brain Sciences” by Henrich et al. is super interesting in showing the differences between industrialized vs. small-scale societies, Western vs. Non-western industrialized society, Americans vs. other western societies and university educated americans vs. non-student adults. When they say weird they mean Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Some of the visual tasks they used in this study resulted in very similar results, such as those who are collectivist tend not to focus on just the main element of the picture but rather the whole of the picture. If you want to read more about the differences between the cultures i’ve cited it below for you!

    Henrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61-135.


    • I read this exact article only two weeks ago for a women and gender studies class! It was a fantastic read, and I was most fascinated with the fact that every single test executed proved that Westerners were the outliers! As a social concept it is very intriguing! It was a big influence in my choice of topic this week! But to talk more about the cognitive side of this, I think rather than saying that non-western people’s collectivist means of thinking is “Weird”, we should in turn realize that the American/ western way of turning our minds int more individualistic machines, rather than participate in the communal cognitive process that has occurred across cultures from the beginning of time, it only makes sense that it is our neurology, and our social cognition that is “weird”. We are the only culture who works better on individual cognitive tasks than group tasks. In reference to my topic last week on social loafing, Asian buisness men had a work efficacy rate of 110% better when working in groups than when working alone, while American buisness men only had a group efficacy rate of 85% their normal self efficacy. (Park & Huang, 2010) It really makes me want to do more research into cross cultural differences in neurocogntitive processes, but I’ll be back next week for a new topic. Thanks for your contribution, Megan!


      Park, D. C., & Huang, C.-M. (2010). Culture Wires the Brain: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science : A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 5(4), 391–400.


  4. Hey Anthony!
    Thanks for your blog post, I thought that it was very informative and did a great job at digging into the contrasting cognitive processes employed by American and Chinese individuals. Although I have done previous reading on the differences in terms of group-dynamics and behaviours between individuals from these two countries, this is the first time that I have seen research the physical differences in cognitive processing. It was especially fascinating that these differences have neural correlates that are detectable on brain scans. Reading your post, it made me wonder if there was a genetic component to these cognitive processes, or it if was entirely due to social and cultural influences. Unfortunately, despite much searching, I wasn’t able to find a paper that did an explicit genetic analysis on individuals from the two countries. However, I was able to find a paper that looked in differences in asocial and social learning. This paper was unique because it had four populations groups that were studied. It had people in mainland China, who were heavily influenced by Chinese culture ; British people born in Britain, who were heavily influenced by western culture; Chinese people born and living in Hong Kong, a Chinese city which is subjected to more westernized culture; and lastly they had people who had been born and raised in China, but who had immigrated to the UK. Surprisingly, they found that the social learning patterns of people were largely dependent on the culture that they currently lived within. People in Hong Kong, British nationals, and Chinese immigrants to the UK all exhibited similar social learning patterns, with higher levels of asocial (individualized) learning. While people in mainland China, who stayed in mainland china, exhibited much higher levels of social learning, indicative of their highly collectivist culture. At least for social learning processes, it appears that genetics does not play a significant role. Thanks again for your post!



    • Thanks Micha! Cross-cultural cognition didn’t seem as popular as my social loafing one, but I enjoyed research the cross-cultural cognition so much more! It completely blows my mind that neurobiology can be influenced by the part of the world we are born into! You seem particularly interested in the neuroscience of the cross-cultural cognition subject which is cool because i was very wary of including the neuroscience at all because it isn’t very popular in a social psychology class. If you are super interested in the neuroscience, I would love to direct you to the research done by Denise Park in an article called “Culture Wires the Brain: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective”. She goes into incredibly interesting detail discussing more examples of the neurological differences between Asian and American individuals, and she also shares six or more studies on cross-cultural cognition which prove her thesis. If you have twenty minutes, I think you would be very interested.

      Park, D. C., & Huang, C.-M. (2010). Culture Wires the Brain: A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science : A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 5(4), 391–400.


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