How different are we?

Take one person from a western country like America, for example. Now take one person from an East Asian country like Japan, for example. How different are these people likely to be? Do they have anything in common? Is our way way of thinking and our way of seeing the world innate — or does it develop in very different ways based on experience? Western philosophy has recently come to believe that people are basically the same, with the same way of thinking and seeing the world.

David Hume, 1711 - 1776. Historian and philosopher
David Hume followed the tradition of Aristotle in thinking that people come into the world like a blank page. Their varied experiences are written on that page. What do you think? Photo.

However, recent research takes us back to older ideas. It suggests that there may be very big differences between people from different cultures; it seems that Westerners and East Asians, for example, may actually see the world in very different ways. From birth, we use different tools to understand the world and we end up very different creatures. This idea — that humans are like a blank page when they are born and that we are the products of our experience — is actually rather old. It goes back at least as far as the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In fact, human beings have always been discussing whether human nature is innate or a product of culture.

Aristotle suggested that, when humans are born, they are like a blank slate. This means we do not have to think that humans bring anything with them into the world. Our way of thinking about and seeing the world is just the result of our very varied experiences.

So how are Westerners and East Asians different? One suggestion is that Asians tend to see things as interdependent and connected. By contrast, Westerners see things as independent and separate. There is interesting evidence that East Asians are able to see relationships among events better than Westerners. Westerners, for example, tend not to notice the influence of context on the behavior of objects and people. It seems that Western children even learn nouns more quickly than verbs while Eastern children learn verbs more quickly than nouns! What do you think? Are these differences exaggerated or are Westerners and Easterners really fundamentally different in their view of the world?

How different are we?

Quiz about cultural differences.


Featured image: Utamaro [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons