The East Is Far

[Researchers] tested the bias of 72 Dutch participants towards either global or local processing. … Life-long atheists showed the strongest bias for the big picture, followed by the Liberal Calvinists, and then the Conservative Calvinists and the former Conservative Calvinists turned atheist. The latter two groups performed similarly suggesting that more than seven years without religious practice wasn’t enough to remove the effects of the religion on a person’s attentional mindset. …

They … speculated that religions that place more emphasis on communal solidarity and an external locus of control (with destiny seen as being in God’s hands) could have the opposite effect. To test this, they recruited Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics in Israel and Italy, respectively, and compared their big picture/small details bias with secular citizens from the same countries. Consistent with their predictions, this time the researchers found it was the religious folk who showed a bias for the big picture when compared with the performance of their secular compatriots. As in the first study, these differences were observed even though the participants had been matched for educational background, IQ and age. (more; HT Tyler)

This is part of a larger trend toward more far-thinking in the East. From the paper itself:

People growing up in Asian cultures exhibit a more holistic perceptual style (i.e., are more responsive to the global than to local features of visual objects or scenes) than people growing up in the North-American culture. Westerners seem to focus on salient objects while East Asians attend more to the relationships between objects and background elements or context. This fits with the observation that East Asians allocate their attention more broadly than Americans do and provides converging evidence for the claim … that social interdependence is associated with a more holistic processing style. (more)

It seems religion is generally useful to help instill local norms – far thinking in the East, and near thinking in the West.

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  • blink

    This sounds almost opposite what I would have expected. According to Nisbett (Geography of Thought), “holistic” East Asian thinking is context-dependent and dialectic, emphasizing hierarchy, harmony, collective action, and parochialism. In contrast, “analytic” Western thinking is rule-based and deductive, emphasizing formal equality, distinctiveness, individual action, and universal rules. If he is right, then it is Western thinking that is far and Eastern thinking that is near according to your summary.

    Regarding law, for example, Nisbett presents examples showing law applied on a case-by-case basic in Asia (near) in contrast to Western-style reliance on abstract rules (far) and with Continental Europe falling somewhere in between. He find similar differences in medical approaches, language (topic vs. subject prominence), as well as teaching and parenting methods.

  • Matt

    Face processing is an area where differences have been found, but appear to be the reverse of the Western “prominent salient objects” vs Eastern “examination of the whole scape” trend:

    “Research has indicated that when viewing faces, East Asians focus on the central region of faces while Westerners look more broadly, focusing on both the eyes and mouth.”

    This still seems to be binned as Eastern holistic vs Western analytical though, for reasons I’m not sure of.

    (It seems that this Eastern face processing strategy is suboptimal though:

    “Eastern observers use a culture-specific decoding strategy that is inadequate to reliably distinguish universal facial expressions of fear and disgust. Rather than distributing their fixations evenly across the face as Westerners do, Eastern observers persistently fixate the eye region.”)