The East vs West match up is an old one, but psychologist Hazel Markus has been going beyond the simplistic headlines to reexamine the real differences (and similarities) between Eastern and Western cultures.
Markus sees stark variations in how different cultures cultivate motivation. Western culture places a lot of emphasis on internal motivation (Just think of all those “inspirational” posters put up in offices and locker rooms across America), while East Asian cultures emphasize external motivation, doing something for the good of the whole.
One of Markus' experiments looked at how these different motivation styles play out in the real world — at least the real classroom world. Markus gave students of East Asian and Western backgrounds a stressful task, and then asked them to think about their mothers. “What we found was that for the students with East Asian backgrounds, thinking about their mom at their time of failure, boosted their motivations. And we found exactly the opposite in students of Western backgrounds.”
Cultural differences like these came about, Markus says, not because of anything intrinsic; instead, it could boil down to something as basic as food. Namely, wheat and rice. In countries like China and Japan, the food staple that’s easiest to grow is rice, a fussy plant that requires a lot of cooperation to cultivate effectively. And in Europe, the staple crop is wheat, which doesn’t need a lot of community cooperation to plant and harvest. This small contrast in ecology leads to divergent behavior patterns among groups of people.
There are downsides to both sorts of behavior, of course, especially within the context of classrooms and universities. The Western approach ignores the benefits of working together as a social unit, while the Eastern approach can lead to talented members of a team failing to speak out for fear of disrupting the group.
Neither of these ways of viewing the world is necessarily better than the other, and Markus cautions against reductive (and Orientalist) reasoning. In particular, she points out that Eastern thought isn’t about robotic social cohesion. “It’s the idea that in the beginning you are interdependent, you are connected with others, so it makes sense to pay attention to other people and their expectations. That’s not just mindless conformity, that’s the way life is, and it’s a sensible thing to do.” And, she says, in a global world, it’s important to look at the benefits of both approaches.