David Brooks, starting his conversation with Gail Collins on why "Western Men are Doomed" (NYT, 11/19/2009):
China always gets me thinking big. I look at the long history and bright future of that civilization-state and suddenly you’ve got to chase me down with a butterfly net to impose the grip of reality on my grandiose and free-floating ideas.
Wielding a butterfly net would be a welcome change, in my opinion — I feel more like the guy with a shovel assigned to follow behind a circus elephant. Luckily the elephant is putting out pretty much the same old stuff, which makes the clean-up easier.
Asians place emphasis on context while Westerners place more emphasis on individuals. This seems like a gross generalization but it is robustly supported by hundreds and hundreds of studies. Richard Nisbett’s book, “The Geography of Thought” summarizes some of the evidence.
If you show Americans a fish tank, they’ll talk about the biggest fish in the tank. If you show Asians a tank they will make, on average, 60 percent more references to the context and the features of the scene. Western parents tend to emphasize nouns and categories when teaching their kids, Korean parents tend to emphasize verbs and relationships. If you show Americans a picture of a chicken, a cow and grass, they will lump the chicken and the cow, because they are both animals. Asians are more likely to lump the cow and the grass because cows eat grass. They have a relationship.
The mode of thought more common in Asia is better suited to the complex networks that make up the modern world. The contextual, associational style is simply more valid. The linear style we’ve inherited from the Greeks is less adaptive toward the modern age. I think the West may be doomed.
Me with a shovel: "David Brooks, Social Psychologist" (8/13/2008); "One question, two answers, three interpretations" (8/14/2008); "How to turn Americans into Asians (or vice versa)" (8/15/2008). See also James Fallows, "David Brooks from Chengdu: my lord" (8/12/2008) and "More on Chengdu and collectivism" (8/13/2008).
I haven’t even mentioned gender differences yet. I think the same things I’ve said about Asians can be said about women as compared to men.
[M]y understanding is that the cognitive processing of male and female brains is mostly the same except for in one area: social cognition. Women, on average, pick up more social signals.
Me with a shovel: "David Brooks, Cognitive Neuroscientist" (8/12/2006); "David Brooks, Neuroendocrinologist" (9/17/2006). For some discussion about sex differences in perception of "social signals", see e.g. the discussion here of Erin McClure, "A Meta-Analytic Review of Sex Differences in Facial Expression Processing and Their Development in Infants, Children, and Adolescents", Psychological Bulletin 126:424-53, 2000; and the discussion here of Jennifer Connellan et al., "Sex Differences in Human Neonatal Social Perception", Infant Behavior & Development, 23:113-18, 2000.
As James Fallows wrote:
In my twilight years, I am not looking to pick a fight with anyone, and explicitly am not looking to do so with the amiable David Brooks. But I didn't like the argument or craftsmanship of this column, and I do hope he recognizes the danger of applying this kind of theorizing to big, important parts of the world.