Geography of Theological Thought?

Geography of Theological Thought? November 10, 2012

How might social psychology contribute to our theological and missiological thinking?

Nisbett’s book The Geography of Thought : How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why (Free Press, 2003) is one of the more exciting books I’ve read in terms of both explaining differences between East-West thinking and also backing it up with empirical research. I won’t do a full review here. One qualifier for those who decide to read it––he starts off with some (pretty reasonable) historical conjecture, then defends the conclusions with research data. Frequently, books work the other direction (proof to conclusions), so I don’t want readers to be turned off by the first 20-30 pages where they might assume Nisbett is making sheer assertion.

I want to give an example of how missiologists and theologian can use the insights of social psychology. I would after all agree with ” target=”_blank”>David Clark that our method of theologizing-contextualizing needs to be dialogical.

In one experiment, Nisbett and a colleague explore the tendency of Westerners to dichotomize (use either/or thinking) in contrast to Easterners’ preference for harmonizing ideas (using both/and thinking). First, I’ll insert an excerpt from the book, then comment afterward.

“What would happen if Easterners and Westerners were confronted with apparently conflicting propositions? The logical approach would seem to require rejecting one of the propositions in favor of the other in order to avoid a possible contradiction. The dialectical approach would favor finding some truth in both, in a search for the Middle Way. In order to examine this question, Peng and I asked undergraduates at the University of Michigan and Beijing University to read what we described as summaries of the results of several social science studies. There were five different topics altogether and we asked participants either to read about a study reporting a particular finding, a study strongly implying something quite different, or both. The opposing studies did not necessarily contradict each other in a logical sense, but at least had the character that, if one was true, then the other would seem to be quite unlikely to be true. The pair of statements below was typical of the more obviously contradictory ones” (Kindle Locations 2351-2358).

After explaining the experiment further, Nisbett continues:

“What inferences should the participants have made? That seems pretty clear. The participants who were exposed to two propositions that are apparently contradictory ought to have believed in each of them less than those who knew about only one. This should be particularly true for less plausible propositions that are countered by more plausible ones. But neither the Americans nor the Chinese behaved that way. The Chinese who saw both propositions reported about equal belief in both. They properly rated the more plausible proposition as less believable if they saw it contradicted than if they didn’t. But the Chinese rated the less plausible proposition as more believable if they saw it contradicted than if they didn’t. This inappropriate inference would be the consequence of feeling it necessary to find the truth in each of two contradictory propositions. The Americans, instead of converging in their belief in the two propositions, actually diverged, believing the more plausible proposition more if they saw it contradicted than if they didn’t. This seems the likely result of feeling it necessary to decide which of two conflicting propositions is correct. But it’s pretty dubious inferential practice to believe something more if it’s contradicted than if it isn’t. My guess is that the Americans behaved the way they did because they are good at generating counterarguments— a skill that comes from a lifetime of doing just that. When confronted with a weak argument against a proposition they are inclined to believe, they have no trouble in shooting it down. The problem is that the ease with which they generate counterarguments may serve to bolster their belief in a proposition that ought to seem shakier if it is contradicted than if it is not. There is evidence in fact that Americans do tend to generate more counterarguments than Chinese do. In effect, Americans may not know their own strength, failing to understand how easy it is for them to attack an argument they find implausible” (Kindle Locations 2372-2386).

I won’t write an entire essay here, but think with me of the implications for theology. Many of our theological conclusions and convictions may stem from our basic cultural wiring as much as other factors. This does not lead to relativism or a fatalistic view of interpretation. However, the strength with which we hold a position and thus our openness to other ideas may be result from our habit of mind either to harmonize or dichotomize. I wonder how many controversies in church history reflect more than anything else an inability to think in terms of both-and (rather than simply either-or). to compound the problem, Christians may think they are “defending truth” against error and heresy when in fact the dispute is simply one of emphasis.

Naturally, there are implications for missions. In contextualization attempts, mission strategy, and social adjustment, the propensity to polarize options will doubtless result in conflict and frustration. Consequently, this habit of mind could cut short a missionary’s career and stunt effectiveness in ministry.

What are some other applications of Nisbett’s experiment/observation ? What about social psychology in general? Any reading suggestions or implications for missiology and theology?

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  • Just this week, I went through Lingenfelter and Mayers’ basic values survey (in “Ministering Cross-Culturally”) with my missions students here in Bangkok and talked about the holistic vs. dichotimistic thinking. Funny enough, I scored closer to my students in the values survey than I would have thought.

    I am a rather black-and-white thinker in general (every some Americans would tell me that) but being in Asia for a number of years has changed that somewhat, at least to the degree that I understand the pull to want to harmonize and find a middle ground that doesn’t damage the relationship between two parties by pointing out all the differences. Blogging for a few years now has also forced me to nuance my statements and observations, knowing that it is real people who are reading what I write, some of whom I have relationships with.

    • Especially in Thailand, I could see that effect. I actually find Thailand to be more stereotypical “eastern” in that sense––harmonizing and saving face at all cost. I would love to hear your thoughts on how Thailanders think through problems. I would imagine it’s similar to China but perhaps with a few different nuances or habits. Personality-wise, I tend to have a strong “western” personality, but when it comes to Scripture, I find myself wanting to temper that because there tends to be some degree of truth in even generally wrong answers, so I want to slow down and find out where and how the various (correct) perspectives relate to one another.