Asian Thinking – Culture, Cognition and Contradiction

A client recently expressed his frustration about the lack of consistency of findings when undertaking qualitative research in China. His complaint centred on the observation that there appeared to be less consistency in response and often more contradiction than he was used to when viewing research in other parts of the world. Given the increasing importance of China as a research market, it is probably important to pause for a moment and reflect on what may have been bugging him.

It is a fact that the nature of thought differs by geography. Put simply, Asians think ‘differently’ to Westerners.

Let’s Get Something Straight

There is a flourishing academic research field – inhabited by the likes of Richard Nisbett and others – which highlights the fact that our differing cultural backgrounds lead us to contextualise and ultimately process information in different ways.

Central to this is the cultural ‘shape’ of thinking. The Western world is dominated by Greek philosophical thought and reasoning (remember Aristotle?). This encouraged people to identify objects as unique and distinctive items, isolated from the world around them. This spawned the notion of reason and logic which is sometimes described as linear thinking. Such an approach encourages us to focus on the unique or the individual, to disentangle complexity and to resist apparent contradiction.

Asian thinking is equally heavily anchored in its defining philosophy, Confucianism. However, it’s the resultant ‘shape’ of East Asian thinking which is entirely different. In China, harmony and balance are the most desired states. The solo pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake which drove the early Greeks was the opposite of the personal self-control and the desire for social harmony which was aspired to in China.

As a result, Chinese thinking is more nuanced and less definitive. They see the world as a more organic structure, where each element is either blended or in close proximity to everything around it. There is less categorisation, there is an ease with contradiction and there is a constant adjustment of understanding based on new or evolving circumstances. Call this circular thinking.

Do You See The Wood, The Trees Or The Ecosystem?

You can probably see the problem in the Chinese focus group already. The constant shifting of interpretation by the local Chinese respondents runs counter to the Western demand for a singular and direct pattern of logic.

Stemming from the above there are 2 main lessons for researchers:

  • Firstly, the further East you travel, the more sensitive you must be to apparent contradiction.
  • Secondly (and arguably a more important lesson), is to ask how far the desire for logical consistency and self-justification in Western markets inhibits our ability to be truly creative?

Whether we are trying to unpick chaotic information patterns or encouraging people to ‘step out of the box’ remember that culture does affect cognition.

Countries: China and Far East
Topics: Getting Started, Localisation, and R&D
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