Holistic or Specific Thinking?
Experiments conducted by psychologists Richard E Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda vividly demonstrates how the most basic approach to thinking can impact on international trade. They presented 20-second animated videos of underwater scenes to Japanese and American participants who were afterwards questioned on what they had seen.
While the Americans mentioned the big, brightly coloured fish in the foreground, the Japanese spoke more about the background (the small frog, bottom left). The Japanese also talked often about the interdependencies between the objects up front and the objects in the background. Next, Americans and Japanese were asked to take a photograph of a person. The Americans frequently took a close-up, showing all facial features, while the Japanese showed the person in his or her environment with the human figure quite small.
The psychologists deduced that Americans focus on individual items separate from their environment, while the Asians give more attention to backgrounds and to the links between these backgrounds and the central figures. A tenet of Western philosophies and religions is that you can remove an item from its environment and analyse it separately. Cultural theorists call this “specific thinking”.
Asian philosophy has traditionally emphasised interdependencies – the Ancient Chinese thought in a “holistic” way, believing that action always occurs in a field of forces. Commenting on the studies, a Chinese business executive said: “Chinese people think from macro to micro, whereas Western people think from micro to macro. When writing an address, the Chinese write in sequence of province, city, district, block, gate number, and put the surname first. Westerners do the opposite.”
If you understand that one person sees a fish and another sees an aquarium, and you think carefully about the benefits of both the specific and holistic approach, you can learn to turn these cultural differences into your team’s greatest assets.
Share your experiences of the differences between specific and holistic thinking
Adapted from an article by Erin Meyer, Harvard Business Review
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