Find Mediators Near You:

Brains Vary From Culture To Culture—A Lot!

Vickie Pynchon at her Settle It Now Blog is posting about the event she is attending: Mediators Beyond Borders Founding Congress. Yesterday in How to Make Your Opponent Do What You Want Him to Do: Part I she posted a list created by Ken Cloke of 12 Ways Systems Resist Change. In reading it, I was reminded of how much cultures vary. This list would apply in some cultures; in many other cultures it would be a mismatch.

Neurocience research is showing us that the brains of people in different cultures are not the same. Because brains differ from culture to culture, so will resistance to change. Also varying will be how conflict is viewed—and resolved. Here are just a couple of examples of the research on brains and culture.

Recently scientists in Singapore and Illinois compared how the brains of East Asians and of Westerners reacted to visual stimuli. They found that the older East Asian’s brains responded differently from the brains of the older Westerners. In an article “Culture sculpts neural response to visual stimuli, new research indicates” principal investigator Dr. Denise Park is quoted as saying:

These are the first studies to show that culture is sculpting the brain.

In another study, researchers looked at how native English speakers and native Chinese speakers did arithmetic. From an Associated Press article about the research:

Simple arithmetic was easily done by both groups, but they used different parts of the brain . . .  .

[Both brain/culture studies are linked to at the end of this post.]

Recognizing the advantages of different ways of seeing the world

For global understanding, one of the many exciting results of this kind of research is described later in the AP article:

Richard Nisbett, co-director of the Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Michigan, said “the work is important because it tells us something about the particular pathways in the brain that underlie some of the differences between Asians and Westerners in thought patterns.”

“Ultimately this kind of work will show us . . . how it may be possible to teach Westerners some of the advantages of Asian thought and Asians some of the advantages of Western thought,” said Nisbett . . . .

Nisbett last year reported on differences in the way Asians and North Americans view pictures.  . . .

“They literally are seeing the world differently,” he said.

The new work extends his findings, Nisbett said, “in that it indicates that the reasoning differences that we find between Asians and Westerners are really quite deep.”

From what we know about neuroplasticity, these findings are not surprising. Of course, people in different cultures see the world differently. Any other results would not be consistent with the brain being sculpted each day, each hour, each moment. Cultures sculpt differently and thus people raised in different cultures will have different ways of learning, thinking, deciding and decoding.

Another way of looking at cultural differences

Even before knowledge of brain differences among the cultures, people studying cross-cultural communication and interaction devised several ways of looking at how cultures differed. One of the most well-known is Geert Hofstede’s value dimensions or cultural dimensions. People using Hofstede will look at cultures on these five dimensions:

  • Power distance—How much does a society expect that power in institutions, relationships and organizations is distributed unevenly? (United States is 40; Hong Kong is 68.)
  • Individualism/Collectivism—How important is the “I” versus the “we”? (Mexico is 30; United Kingdom is in the mid-80s.)
  • Masculinity/Femininity—What is the distribution of the roles between the genders? (South Africa is nearly 60; Japan is 90.)
  • Uncertainty Avoidance—How much does a culture feel threatened by ambiguous and uncertain situations? (Sweden is a bit over 20; Greece is nearly 100.)
  • Time Orientation—Is a culture oriented to the long- or the short-term? (Canada is 23; China is 118.)

Although this chart needs to be redrawn by someone who knows how to design graphics, you can still see the content. There are 16 continua; each culture will lie somewhere on each of the 16. For example, one is called “Time.” Where on the continuum between Past and Future orientation does a particular culture lie? Another is “One should place reliance on.” Some cultures will fall more toward the Self; some cultures will fall more toward Others.

Back to brains again

Each place on the continua will represent brain differences. When involved in cross-cultural conflict or working with a culture not your own, remembering that the brains observing and acting are not doing so in the same way is a critical key, an essential guide. These brains may vary widely in how they see power, conflict, and conflict resolution, as well as in what they will choose for methods and parties of resolution.

Note: Stages of accepting cultural group differences

Note (added February 18, 2008, at 2:15 PM Mountain): from idealawg – What’s universal about mediation? Confidentiality? Ownership of the dispute? Anything?

Note (added February 18, 2008, 8:14 PM Mountain): Today more attention in the blogosphere to Geert Hofstede by Ed Batista at Executive Coaching & Change Management in his very comprehensive post Geert Hofstede on the Dimensions of Cultural Difference. Recommended reading on cultural differences. I post one day and he posts the next about Hofstede—nice synchronicity or even a minor Hofstede buzz?

First study mentioned above: “Age and culture modulate object processing and object–scene binding in the ventral visual area” (PDF)

Second study: “Arithmetic processing in the brain shaped by cultures” (PDF)


Stephanie West Allen

Stephanie West Allen, JD, practiced law in California for several years, held offices in local bar associations, and wrote chapters for California Continuing Education of the Bar. While in CA, Stephanie completed several five-day mediation training programs with the Center for Mediation in Law, as well as a two-year intensive… MORE >

Featured Members

View all

Read these next


The Uncertainty of Taxes—Positively Reframing a Difficult Workplace Communication

Conflict Remedy Blog by Lorraine SegalA wonderful benefit of learning conflict resolution skills is using them to positively reframe my own challenging communications. In difficult interactions, we often have a...

By Lorraine Segal

Where are all the female law bloggers? Hanging out in the ADR blogosphere of course

C.C. Holland, writing for Legal Technology laments the lack of strong female voices among legal bloggers and asks, “Where Are All the Female Law Bloggers?” Holland may not have looked...

By Diane J. Levin

The Real Estate Downturn Spawns an Increasing Need for Mediators and Arbitrators

The growing poor economic cycle for real estate, and growing consensus projections that the reduction in housing prices may last to the beginning of 2009, has resulted in a ever...

By David W. Dresnick