Is the way you reason influenced by your culture?

Collectivist and Individualist cultures see the world differently, like a wide-angle versus a telephoto lens. A good leader leverages the different perspectives to get superior results from teams.

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How would you describe the scene above? Take a moment to verbalize to yourself the scene in a few sentences, or write down your observations.

In your description, did you focus on the fishing swimming through the picture? How much of the surrounding scene did you describe? In 2001 social psychologist Richard Nisbett and graduate student Takahiko Masuda showed some 20-second videos of fish swimming in an underwater environment to American and Japanese student volunteers, and then asked them to recall the scene afterwards.  The videos all contained some “focus” fish, which were larger, or had more movement. There were also some background fish, and then other background objects such as rocks or plants.

The Japanese students recalled the contextual details, such as the background fish or objects, 65% more than the Americans. In other words, the Japanese students exhibited a more holistic view of the scene, whereas the American students focused more on the main objects. In an interesting twist, the students were then shown pictures of various fish and asked if they were in the videos—but the fish to be identified were either put in the same background, a white background, or a completely different background.

It turns out the American students were better than the Japanese at identifying fish correctly when the background changed. The point here is not that one way of perceiving the world, holistic or more focused, is any better than another, but that it is very likely that culture strongly affects the way we process visual information and the way we use our reasoning facilities—a fact which every leader should recognize and adapt to in various situations.

In the comedy film What About Bob?, the “almost-paralyzed, multi-phobic personality in a constant state of panic” character Bob, played by Bill Murray, unconvincingly explains to his psychologist why he is divorced, “There are two types of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don’t. My ex-wife loves him.”


Well, maybe dividing the world into haters or lovers of a particular pop singer isn’t all that useful in explaining reality, but experts have found that it is useful to analyze cultures by a significant dichotomy: collectivist and individualist. Culture is a very complex concept, and while dividing into two categories will certainly miss nuances of cultural differences, classifying them as either collectivist or individualist can be useful in understanding and knowing how to behave to get the best results in a work environment. With a few exceptions, the “western” cultures tend to be individualist, while non-western, including Asian, cultures tend to be collectivist. One prominent sociologist, Geert Hofstede, in Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, describes the difference between individualism and collectivism as such: “‘Individualism’ pertains to societies in which the tie between individuals are loose: everyone is expected to look after him- or herself and his or her immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onward are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” Cultures can be anywhere along the line from highly individualistic to highly collectivist. Numerous studies have been made and articles written on this subject, so at the risk of over-simplifying, but to bring the concept within grasp, the following table summarizes significant differences between the two types of cultures.

Collectivist      Individualist
Perceive the world in broader terms – this is called Holistic cognition Focus on objects and their properties – this is called Taxonomic cognition
Reason in terms of relationships and similarities Reason by rules and categories
Define themselves in relation to a group Define themselves as individuals
Give priority to in-group goals Prioritize individual goals
Focus on context more than content in making attributions and in communicating Focus on content more than context in making attributions and in communicating
Pay more attention to external processes as determinants of social behavior Prioritize internal processes as determinants of social behavior
More self-effacing More self-assured

As you can see in the first point, coming from a cultural background that is collectivist or individualist dominant can affect the way we perceive the world, just as it affected the way Japanese (collectivist culture) and American (individualist culture) students perceived the fish videos in our opening example. Here’s an interesting little activity to try on yourself, or your work team, to understand how you might be processing information and what your cultural background might have to do with it. Take a moment to look at the pictures and make your choices as per the questions.










Slide7This method of asking participants to select what they perceive as similar or related objects out of a group is one way to capture how people think.[1] Early investigators used the method seen in the first three questions, called a “triad test,” to determine whether subjects were tending to think about incoming information by focusing on its characteristics and then assigning it to a category (which we will call Taxonomic cognition), or by emphasizing the relationships and similarities among the objects (which we will call Holistic cognition). In 2004, a team doing research in the Dominican Republic asked the subjects to explain their reasoning behind the choices they made, and determined that a third category of cognition, “Functional,” helped to explain some of the results they were getting. A functional cognition is used by a subject who looks at the objects with reference to him/herself and evaluates the usefulness of the objects.  The functional cognition is associated with the holistic cognition, and tends to show up in collectivist cultures as well.

The pictures are designed to have a pair of objects that can be categorized with shared, similar characteristics inherent to them that make them different than another object, as well as a pair of objects that have some kind of relationship and similarity based on that relationship with one another. For example, in the first set of pictures with a train, a bus, and a set of tracks, a train and a bus share the inherent characteristics of being wheeled, powered vehicles, which makes the two of them different than a stationary set of tracks. The train and the tracks, however, have a relationship to one another—the train depends on the tracks to properly function.

To summarize, here are categories of cognition, or reasoning methods, that we can determine from the answers to the questions above:

T – Taxonomic. Arranging things by analyzing and assigning a category.  In taxonomical (analytic) categorization, a person focuses on the central object and its attributes and then reasons about it using categories and rules.

H – Holistic.  Holistic (thematic) categorization emphasizes the relationships and similarities among objects and events in the broad perceptual and conceptual field.

F — Functional.  Referring to oneself and reasoning only with utility to self or family, i.e. finding the two objects useful to oneself.

Answers to the questions can be interpreted as follows:

1 T – train, bus H – train, track
2 T – glove, scarf H – glove, hand
3 T – monkey, panda H – monkey, banana
4 T – dog, rabbit H – rabbit, carrot F – dog, carrot
5 T – snake, goat H – snake, eggs F – goat, eggs
6 T – bee, cow H – bee, honey F – honey, cow
7 T – grass, coffee bean H – cow, grass F – cow, coffee bean
8 T – horse, cat H – cat, milk F – horse, milk
9 T – log H – hammer Open to Interpretation – saw or hatchet

For further clarification, take a look at the following explanatory responses by Dominican Republican respondents, as reported by Brown, McDonald and Roman in their studies that used the examples in questions 4-8.

Cognitive pattern Pairing Response
Functional Dog–Carrot The dog helps people in protecting; the carrot is used as my food.
Functional Carrot–Rabbit Rabbit you can eat; carrot is a plant and gives nutrition to people.
Functional Eggs–Goat Eggs can be eaten and the goat produces milk for my children.
Functional Horse–Milk I can ride the horse, and I can drink the milk.
Holistic Rabbit–Carrot The rabbit eats the carrot.
Holistic Bee–Cow The bee produces honey, and the cow produces milk.
Holistic Cow–Grass The cow uses the grass for nutrition.
Holistic Cat–Milk The cat is nourished by the milk.
Taxonomic Goat–Snake They live in the same habitat.
Taxonomic Horse–Cat Both belong to the Animal kingdom, are mammals, and are four-legged.
Taxonomic Goat–Snake Because both are animals.


It’s no secret that “westerners” and Asians think in different cultural contexts. The idea of an individualist versus collectivist society is fairly easy to see and understand, and is not that earth-shaking either. Recognizing the depth of the cultural differences, including how people perceive their environment, however, is fairly new and exciting to contemplate. Dr. Nesbitt, of the fish video experiment, compares the differences in the way of thinking to people using either a wide-angle lens versus a telescopic lens on a camera. The holistic way of thinking associated with collectivist cultures takes in the big picture, a wide field of view, showing all the relationships of things with each other, yet makes it more difficult to see the details. The taxonomical way of thinking, on the other hand, focuses tightly on the details, with the ability to break things down into their component parts; yet the intense focus can miss external influences not inside the field of vision of the lens. It’s interesting to note that even the western idea of higher education is much like this increasing magnification on details—as one advances along the education hierarchy, one learns more and more detail about a narrower and narrower field of knowledge.

A wide angle can capture the big picture and the relationships of more things to each other.
The telephoto lens can focus details not easy to see with a wide angle.

In the workplace and business environment, leaders need to have both perspectives. I enjoy photography, and have a very simple equipment set (besides my iPhone, of course!). I carry a variable wide angle lens (10-22mm) and a medium, variable telephoto lens (55-250mm). With that flexibility, I can take shots of the same subject, as above, with very different effects depending on the lens. Leaders of multi-cultural teams should take advantage of the perspectives provided by members from either collectivist or individualist cultures. They can guide or coach those with the focused, taxonomical thinking to put on the wide-angle lens and see the relationships of the big picture, while encouraging those with the holistic viewpoint to pay attention to detail. Different perspectives on a team complement one another and produce a synergistic effect.

A study published in 1997 observed the relative productivity of 800 small teams with members that came from either single cultures or mixed cultures. This graph shows the distribution of effectiveness according to the composition of the teams[2]:

CrossCulture Team Effectiveness

It appears from this result that cross-cultural groups, with their different perspectives, have the potential to outperform groups stuck in one cultural paradigm. But success can only happen with effective leadership that leverages the differences and gets them cooperating toward a common goal. Cross-cultural teams have the potential for very low effectiveness as well, such as when team members refuse to accept or understand different perspectives. Even within cultures, of course, members may have either more taxonomic or holistic reasoning perspectives, depending on their education, home environment, or other factors. A good leader will get to know his or her team members to understand their perspective and reasoning approaches, and coach them accordingly.

[1] The five examples in questions 4-8 are taken from a study of Dominican Republican subjects, and published by Jill Brown, Colin A. McDonald, and Fabiola Roman in their article titled “’The dog and the carrot are both useful to me’: Functional, Self-Referent Categorization in Rural Contexts of Scarcity in the Dominican Republic,” International Perspectives in Psychology: Research, Practice, Consultation 2014, Vol. 3, No. 2, 63-75.

[2] Adler, Nancy. International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, 3rd ed. and Martin J. Gannon, Cultural Metaphors: Applications and Exercises, retrieved at

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

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