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The fascinating cultural reason why Westerners and East Asians have polar opposite understandings of truth

beijing tourists
beijing tourists

(Kevin Frayer / Getty) Tourists in Beijing.

Starting the spring of my 23rd year, I spent 13 months straight in East Asia, teaching English and traveling through South Korea, Japan, and China.

As a 6'3'' blonde guy, it was pretty obvious that I looked different than just about everybody else.

What was less obvious is that as a Westerner, I thought differently than my new East Asian friends. Contracts, agreements, appointments — the cultural differences were huge.

According to cultural philosophers, Westerners and East Asians have had contrasting views about the concept of truth and how it works for thousands of years — and it shows up in present-day psychology.

It all goes back to the cradles of two civilizations: ancient Greece and ancient China.

It comes down to two different "laws":

• The Greeks followed the "law of the excluded middle," which states that if two people are debating, then one of them must be exclusively right and the other exclusively wrong.

• The Chinese followed the "doctrine of mean," which states that if two people are debating, then they're probably both partly right and partly wrong — the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

These things have deep roots.

The doctrine of the mean dates back to Confucius, who lived some 2,500 years ago. It is "widely considered as the highest ideal in Confucianism," write scholars Li-Jun Ji, Albert Lee, and Tieyuan Guo in "The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Psychology."

chinese rice fields
chinese rice fields

(Shutterstock) Rice fields encourage cooperation.

"Accordingly, Chinese are encouraged to argue for both sides in a debate (i.e. both arguments are correct), or to assign equal responsibilities in a dispute (i.e. no party is at complete fault)," they write. "This presents an interesting contrast with the law of the excluded middle in Western philosophies, according to which one ought to eliminate ambiguity or inconsistency by selecting one and only one of the conflicting ideas. Unlike the Chinese tradition, it assumes no merit in the middle ground."

The "law of the excluded middle" has a very fancy Latin name: principium tertii exclusi.

Aristotle wrote about it in his "Ethics" about 2,300 years ago.

"There cannot be an intermediate between contradictories," he wrote, "but of one subject we must either affirm or deny any one predicate."

Incredibly, those ancient takes on truth show up in present-day psychology experiments.

In a widely cited 1999 paper, psychologists Kaiping Peng and Richard E. Nisbett gave Chinese and American college students a range of scenarios describing conflicts between people and asked for advice about how to resolve them.

As Confucianism would suggest, the Chinese students were more likely to give "dialectical" responses, or seeing truth and fault in both parties.

One prompt was a family conflict:

Mary, Phoebe, and Julie all have daugthers. Each mother has held a set of values which has guided her efforts to raise her daugther. Now the daugthers have grown up, and each of them is rejecting many of her mother's values. How did it happen and what should they do?

The responses were remarkably different:

• 72% of Chinese students gave compromise-oriented responses, like "both the mothers and the daugthers have failed to understand each other"

• 74% of Americans found fault on one side, with responses like "mothers have to recognize daugthers' rights to their own values."

Just as the differences between Confucius and Aristotle would suggest, Easterners and Westerners had different approaches to conflict.

But those approaches didn't fall from the sky. They came from culture.

In his 2004 book "The Geography of Thought," Nisbett describes the evolution.

Here's Nisbett on China:

The ecology of China, consisting as it does primarily of relatively fertile plains, low mountains, and navigable rivers, favored agriculture and made centralized control of society relatively easy.

Agricultural peoples need to get along with one another ... This is particularly true for rice farming, characteristic of southern China and Japan, which requires people to cultivate the land in concert with one another.

But it is also important wherever irrigation is required... In addition to getting along with one's neighbors, irrigation systems require centralized control and ancient China, like all other ancient agricultural societies, was ruled by despots. Peasants had to get along with their neighbors and were ruled by village elders and a regional magistrate who was the representative of the king.

The ordinary Chinese therefore lived in a complicated world of social constraints.

Way different than Greece.

Again, Nisbett:

The ecology of Greece, on the other hand, consisting as it does mostly of mountains descending to the sea, favored hunting, herding, fishing, and trade (and — let's be frank — piracy). These are occupations that require relatively little cooperation with others. In fact, with the exception of trade, these economic activities do not strictly require living the same stable community with other people.

Settled agriculture came to Greece almost two thousand years later than to China, and it quickly became commercial, as opposed to merely subsistence, in many areas.

The soil and climate of Greece were congenial to wine and olive oil production, and by the sixth century B.C., many farmers were more nearly businessmen than peasants. The Greeks were therefore able to act on their own to a greater extent than were the Chinese. Not feeling it necessary to maintain harmony with their fellows at any cost, the Greeks were in the habit of arguing with one another in the marketplace and debate one another in the political assembly.

Nisbett's argument continues from there.

The geography shaped the way people interacted with one another. In ancient Greece, one could decide to move his goat heard with little consideration of what other people thought — unless his livestock invaded somebody else's property. But, if in ancient China, one were to make the most of his rice harvest, he'd need cooperation from neighbors.

That's where you get the Greek emphasis on the individual and debate, and the Chinese emphasis on the collective and harmony.

The takeaway: While those cultural differences have their seed in the craggy mountains of Greece and the open plains of China, they're present with us today.


(Shutterstock) Instead of open fields, Greece has mountains.

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