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Are You a Holistic or a Specific Thinker? - Erin Meyer - Harvard Business Review

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Psychologists Richard E. Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda wrote about this cultural difference in a famous study. As an experiment they presented 20-second animated videos of underwater scenes to Japanese and American participants. Afterward, participants were asked what they had seen.


While the Americans mentioned larger, faster-moving, brightly-colored objects in the foreground (such as the big fish), the Japanese spoke more about what was going on in the background (for example, the small frog bottom left). The Japanese also talked twice as often as the Americans about the interdependencies between the objects up front and the objects in the background.

In a second study, Americans and Japanese were asked to “take a photo of a person.” The Americans (left) most frequently took a close-up, showing all facial features, while the Japanese (right) showed the person in his or her environment with the human figure quite small.


Notice the common pattern in both studies. The 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.

These tendencies have been borne out in my own interviews with multi-cultural managers. While Northern Europeans and Anglo-Saxons generally follow the American thinking patterns, East Asians respond as the Japanese and Taiwanese did in Nisbett and Masuda’s research.

At first I thought "man the Americans are narcissists" but then I realized that Americans CRAVE individuality, and that is represented in our thoughts and actions.

I think, therefore I am... a thinker.

I am using this to explain why everyone hates the results when they ask me to take pictures.

Do you always take close ups?

The Japanese intrinsically understand the power of context and environment in driving outcomes; the Americans intrinsically understand the power of individuals to change environments in driving outcomes.

One interesting question is whether or not individuals from both cultures can learn the explicit skills of these two complementary dispositions... and then use them to achieve better outcomes.

Well, now knowing I instinctively have biases, I should be able to recognize and adapt, right?

Sure, let us know: the learning is in the doing...

And lessons repeat until they are learned.

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