The Psychology of Broad and Eastern Thinking

The Psychology of Broad and Eastern Thinking October 25, 2022

Have you ever thought about the link between cognitive psychology, Eastern thinking, and biblical theology? Yeah, me too.

For everyone else, let me share with you how psychological studies yield significant insights that can help us think through contextualization, whether for missions or theology.

Broad versus Narrow Focus

I’ll begin by summarizing a study that has since been replicated several times by others. Researchers gave participants one of two maps. In the first group, people received a state map (e.g., Arkansas, Iowa, etc.). The second group also received a state map but with a single adjustment— this map had a red start marking the central city in the state (e.g., Little Rock, Ames, etc.).

The two maps primed participants in different ways. The first gave people a “broad perceptual scope” of the state in contrast to the latter group, which was primed to have a “narrow perceptual scope” (since the start narrowed their attention to a particular area of the map).

Finally, the researchers used tests to assess participants’ creativity. Can you guess what happened?

The first group (with a “broad perceptual scope”) scored significantly better in originality than did the second group (with a “narrow perceptual scope”). In other words, what this experiment and others demonstrate is a link between broad/narrow perceptual thinking and cognitive flexibility (measured in terms of one’s ability to think with originality).

If you want to solve problems or think more flexibly, which person do you want to be? The one who is more attentive to a broader context and spectrum of issues.

East Asians and Broad Perception

Numerous studies have long documented an interesting phenomenon among East Asians. The latter are far more attentive to background and context. (For a sample of findings, see here, here, and here.)

This broader attention focus manifests in several ways. For example, researchers compared differences in eye movement between East Asians and Westerners when looking at the same picture. Westerners focused more quickly and longer on objects with a picture in contrast to East Asians, who were more attentive to background context.

Likewise, East Asians are much more likely to attribute causation to environmental and relational forces compared to Westerners, who focus more on the attributes of individual persons or objects.

However, these observations raise a question. Although East Asians generally have a broader “perceptual scope,” why do they routinely score lower on various tests that measure original thinking (compared to Western study participants)?

At least two reasons contribute to these lower test scores. First, people in the West and East understand creativity in different ways. One article explains:

“Overall, to Westerners, creativity implies a break with tradition and a move beyond what exists, whereas to Easterners, creativity suggests the reinterpretation or rediscovery of tradition.

Relatedly, in the West, creativity is valued primarily for solving particular problems through insight or achieving personal success, whereas, in the East, the value of creativity primarily lies in the social and moral contributions an individual can make to society.”[1]

The article suggests that “the definition and assessment of creativity are highly dependent on culture.” To say it differently, cultures esteem different spheres and expressions of creativity.

Second, East Asian cultures emphasize group identity and tradition. Conformity is highly valued. Individuals are keenly aware of implicit boundaries that would evoke censure from their community. As a result, people are generally familiar with fewer divergent expressions of thought and behavior.

(For more on how social psychology sheds light on Eastern and Western thinking, click here.)

Possible Implications?

Imagine how these dynamics could affect biblical interpretation and cross-cultural ministry. This post has laid the groundwork for the next one, where I will apply these observations to contextualization and biblical theology.

Meanwhile, what do you suspect are the implications of broad versus narrow thinking on theology and ministry?


[1]  Online:

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