How do you categorise?

Which two of these three items would you classify or categorise together: a cow, a chicken, a patch of grass?

Remember your answer and then read this:

The other day I was flipping through various books to gather inspiration for a talk I’m giving on cultural differences as related to water and sanitation project management. I turned to Richard E. Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. It contains some interesting observations and ideas, such as looking historically to explain the differences between so-called Eastern and so-called Western thinking (see p. 138).

For example, on the one hand, ancient Greek philosophy (arguably a major source of modern Western thinking) categorised things together “if they were describable by the same attributes” – i.e., all mammals have backbones, mammary glands, body hair, and warm blood. On the other hand, ancient Chinese philosophy classed things together if they influenced each other or were in relationship. I’m less conversant in this way of organising the world, but according to Nisbett, Chinese philosophy categorises spring, east, wood, wind and green together because changes in one affect the others…in other words, they are in relationship with each other.

Nisbett goes on to cite research conducted with American and Chinese children and students that supports the hypothesis that these ancient philosophies are alive and well in contemporary thinking. The various researchers found that in categorising the trio of cow-chicken-patch of grass into just two groups most American participants put the cow and chicken together because of their similarity as animals, while most Chinese participants put the cow and grass together because of their relationship: cows eat grass. I found this conclusion unsurprising because I’m Western educated and didn’t hesitate to classify cow and chicken together as animals; the grass, as a plant, was obviously separate.

Getting back to my conference presentation, I borrowed this classification difference (similarity vs. relationship) as a way to illustrate cultural differences in conceptual thinking more generally, using a trio of images with more relevance to my talk: a bike, a rowboat and a lake…two objects related by similarity (human powered modes of transport), and one object that is related to one of the others (boats are used in lakes). Assuming my partner would see the world exactly as I did, I showed her the images and figured she would likewise see the boat and bike as similar, the lake as the outlier. But she didn’t! She immediately said, boat and lake. And she reckoned most Australians would be like her. Huh?!! Really?!!

And here’s where it gets interesting. To see if my partner is an odd Westerner (still assuming Nisbett’s cited research is accurate), I posted the question regarding the cow-chicken-patch of grass grouping to my Facebook page and asked a few others via email or in person. (Yes, I realise that this is totally unscientific and unrepresentative…since they are all connected to me and most are Americans or Australians – so, no, the results don’t actually ‘mean’ anything … but still interesting!). Lo and behold, I’m the odd Westerner in my circle! Though not by much. Of the 78 people who had replied by the time I began writing, 37 (47%) of us put the cow and chicken together and 41 (53%) put either the cow or the chicken with the grass.

Interestingly, my partner’s idea that Australians would favour the relationship grouping over the similarity one did pan out: 66.5% of Australians chose either chicken or cow with grass. But the Americans didn’t overwhelmingly choose similarity: only 54% did. Other factors that my friends posed as potential hypotheses were likewise weak predictors. Men only slightly favoured similarity, 54.5%, over relationship groupings, and women were the opposite by only 55%. Education seems also not to matter: exactly half my friends with a PhD picked cow-chicken, as did exactly half my friends without a university degree. I’ve also been asked about a rural-urban split but I don’t have enough data from Facebook profiles to tell me about either a person’s upbringing or their current living conditions…what I can say is that I grew up in a pretty rural place, with cows across the street from my high school, and two-thirds of the respondents who attended my high school chose cow or chicken and grass.

What’s it all mean? Well, in terms of being able to talk about Eastern and Western ways of thinking – probably nothing. But it certainly does point to the depth of cognitive difference between people who on the surface may seem to be very similar, and the surprising similarities between those who appear so different.

**Just to follow up, 15 more people have answered my question since I wrote this; 8 (4 of them raised in Australia) chose cow-chicken, 7 (4 of them raised in Australia) chose cow-grass. Interestingly, almost every single participant who has reported their partner’s answer has found that it is opposite of their own! Apparently the cow-chicken people fall in love with the cow-grass people, and vice versa!!

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