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Discovering 'Truth' in Very Different Ways

Polarities in Chinese and American Cultures Go to the Heart of How We Reason

by Patricia McBroom, Public Affairs
posted August 26, 1998

Americans wear black for mourning. Chinese wear white. Westerners think of dragons as monsters. Chinese honor them as symbols of God.

Chinese civilization has often shown such polarities with the West, as though each stands at extreme ends of a global string.

Now Berkeley psychologist Kaiping Peng has discovered deeper polarities between Chinese and American cultures -- polarities that go to the heart of how we reason and discover truth.

His findings go far toward explaining why American cultures seem so contentious and Chinese cultures so passive, when compared to each other.

More importantly, the research opens the way for the peoples of the East and the West to learn from each other in fundamental ways.

The Chinese could learn much from Western methods for determining scientific truth, said Peng, a former Beijing scholar, who is now an assistant professor of psychology.

And Americans could profit enormously from the Chinese tolerance for accepting contradictions in social and personal life, he said.

"Americans have a terrible need to find out who is right in an argument," said Peng. "The problem is that at the interpersonal level, you really don't need to find the truth, or maybe there isn't any."

Chinese people, said Peng, are far more content to think that both sides have flaws and virtues, because they have a holistic awareness that life is full of contradictions.

"Life is not easy in China," he said. "Yet people there seem to be happier, less anxious and less depressed than in this country."

Peng believes that this edge on happiness is a benefit of the kind of dialectical thinking he has identified as folk wisdom among the Chinese.

Born and raised in China, Peng taught psychology at Beijing University until 1989, when he attended the University of Michigan on a scholar's exchange program. He had planned to return to China, but the Tiananmen Square crackdown encouraged him to stay in the United States and pursue his academic career as an expatriate.

Fascinated by intellectual differences between the two cultures, Peng has devoted the past eight years to exploring the way ordinary Chinese make inferences about truth and resolve -- or fail to resolve -- contradictions in information. His dissertation on what he calls "naive dialecticism" has been nominated for a research award this year from the American Psychological Association.

His research, studying the responses of some 500 students in China and America, including a group of Taiwanese students in the U.S., track cognitive differences between the two cultures that have pertained at least since the time of Aristotle and the I Ching, China's 3,000-year-old "Book of Change."

In five different experimental studies, Peng has shown that folk wisdom -- the ordinary logical processes that people use around the kitchen table -- reflect these historic philosophical traditions of East and West.

"The cultural differences are remarkably strong," said Peng.

In studies of interpersonal argument, for example, when subjects were asked to deal with contradictory information stemming from conflict between a mother and a daughter or a student and a school, Peng found that Americans were "non-compromising, blaming one side -- usually the mother -- for the causes of the problems, demanding changes from one side to attain a solution and offering no compromise."

Compared to this angry, blaming stance, the Chinese were paragons of compromise, finding fault on both sides and looking for solutions that moved both sides to the middle.

In tests of scientific thinking, however, the Chinese came up short. Asked to determine which statement was true -- whether, for instance, smoking makes people gain or lose weight -- Chinese respondents took the middle road, even when they believed one statement to be less true than another.

"It can hardly be right to move to the middle when you have just read evidence for a less plausible view. Yet that is what the Chinese subjects did," said Peng.

Peng emphasized that the Chinese do not apply dialectical thinking to the physical material world. They do not believe, for instance, that the sun can rise in both the East and the West.

But when it comes to social interpretations of scientific fact, such as deciding whether it is healthier for vegetarians to eat white meat or no meat at all, Chinese will waffle or move to the middle when faced with an opposing argument.

He believes that this tendency to find the middle way has hampered Chinese efforts to seek scientific truth through aggressive argumentation, the classic Western method of identifying right and wrong answers.

It may also have contributed to a Chinese willingness to tolerate dictators, said Peng. Although dialectical reasoning is "less aggressive, less competitive and more tolerant in some situations, on the down side, people who tolerate contradictions may not challenge the status quo or change very much."

Dialectical thinking also has a Western version, which Americans often consider the highest, most sophisticated form of reasoning, said Peng. This type of reasoning allows people to proceed from thesis to antithesis to synthesis.

In this way, said Peng, the "cognitive elite" resolve contradictions and arrive at higher levels of knowledge. Nevertheless, the result is still one "right" answer.

In Chinese folk wisdom, by comparison, people do not attempt to work through the contradictions. Their cultural tradition holds that reality is "multi-layered, unpredictable and contradictory," and is in a constant state of change, Peng said.

"This type of approach works very well for interdependent relationships," said Peng. "Human life is very much about contradictions. You need more dialectical thinking to have a happy life."

The American style, however, seeks right and wrong answers even where that is not appropriate, he said.

For example, Peng found that American respondents become even more convinced of the rightness of their position after reading a counter argument. On a scale measuring the strength of their belief, Americans moved -- not to the middle, but further to the end, after learning of an alternative point of view.

Peng said he has observed that Americans will readily come up with counter arguments, but their purpose is to "trash" the opposite view.

"Most people's reason for doing a critique is not to understand another's point of view, but to disprove it," he said.

"Western thinking is very effective," said Peng. "You make quick judgments and try to find the truth. Contradictory thinking is not acceptable. If you make a contradictory statement, people will say you are wrong.

"This is essential for good scientific thinking. The problem is that you risk being intolerant in a personal situation," said Peng.

Peng believes that more dialectical thinking among Americans would make public life here less contentious.

"We could stop blaming each other, poor people and immigrants, and talk about what we can do as a society to become more tolerant," he said.

Chinese, on the other hand, "could learn from the Western tradition to think more about action, truth and the right thing to do. This would make them more democratic and scientific," said Peng.

The psychologist said that many people ask him which way is best -- the flawed Chinese way or the flawed American way.

"I always say that life is full of contradictions," said Peng. "The best way is to use both -- one style for science and another for relationships.

"Maybe that will be the real benefit of multiculturalism."

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