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Asian Psychology Coming of Age

During the late 1970s, I was an undergraduate at Kyoto University. I chose to major in psychology, but I was deeply puzzled by one fact: Why was it that not a single Japanese name could be found in psychology textbooks? Nearly all of the names sounded European or American. Naturally, I increasingly felt pulled to the United States for further study in psychology. I was curious about who these people were. Were they special? Did they think differently? This pure curiosity brought me all the way to Michigan for graduate work.

Times have changed, and psychology in Asia has come of age. This change was initially fueled by the pioneering efforts of the “founding parents” of Asian psychology, such as Quicheng Jing in China, Hiroshi Azuma in Japan, Ku-Shu Yang in Taiwan, and Durganand Sinha in India. Now there are quite a few excellent researchers in Asia who regularly publish papers in top international journals. Reflecting the region’s strength in modern technology, there is a growing group of researchers in perception and psychophysics, with a focus on cutting-edge imaging techniques. At the same time, also reflecting unique cultural heritage, the study of culture on human development and psychological functioning has continued to be a notable strength in Asian psychology. In this article, I would like to trace my own intellectual growth, juxtapose it with the parallel growth of Asian psychology, and present a vision for the future.

I arrived in Ann Arbor in the summer of 1982 as a new PhD student in social psychology. I had studied English for more than 10 years, but alas, my English proficiency was extremely limited. Back then, this problem was applicable to virtually all students from Asia. English education in Asia was focused nearly exclusively on reading. So most Asian students could read articles, but they could not understand what others were saying, to say nothing of the challenge they had in expressing their own thoughts verbally in English.

Nevertheless, it did not require much English proficiency to notice that many things my American friends did were “strange.” Why was it, for example, that students in my cohort could speak up so quickly during the graduate seminar? Did they have enough time to think before they said anything? Or did they think at all? (Yes, they did!) Or, why was it that my dear hosts at parties constantly perplexed me by asking me to make so many choices? How could they expect me to know, let alone to care about, any differences between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc? I wish I had known what Heejung Kim later found out, namely that, unlike Asians, Americans are entirely capable of thinking aloud. I also wish I had known what Sheena Iyengar later discovered: that personal choice is truly essential for American selves. Unlike Asians, Americans are highly motivated by choices they make for themselves.

Around that time, the field of social psychology was dominated by social cognition and person perception was a hot topic. Biases and heuristics in information processing were on the cutting edge of the field, and questions about affect and “hot” (as opposed to “cold”) cognition were on the horizon. All this was very interesting and fascinating. Yet for someone who constantly felt puzzled by the “strange Americans,” something even more interesting was underway. In part because of the feminist movement of the previous decades in the United States; in part because of increasing attention given to ethnic diversity within American society; and in part because of the “economic miracle” of one East Asian country (Japan), which was soon to be replicated in its Asian neighbors such as South Korea and Singapore, diversity had become a central concern in some small quarter of social and behavioral sciences. An increasing number of researchers became interested in culture and ethnicity as many of us in psychology began to realize that culture’s practices and meanings might have formative influences on some significant aspects of mental processes.

The resulting new field of cultural psychology has had a big impact, not only on me personally, but also on contemporary psychology in general. The field hit Asia as well. East Asia in particular became the locale of choice for those of us who wanted to see if psychological effects that were then believed to be deeply universal might be culturally mediated and thus cross-culturally variable. Hazel Markus and I suggested that if North Americans are wedded to the idea of the self as independent, Asians find it far more natural to think of the self as interdependent. Following Joan Miller, Mike Morris and Kaiping Peng showed that the fundamental attribution error — one of the staples in social psychology — does not happen in Asia. Soon Ying-yi Hong and C.Y. Chiu entered the field and told us that culture is “primable,” meaning that those raised in multiple cultural environments can adapt so that one set of cultural knowledge becomes more prominent when necessary.

In the last two decades, psychology in Asia has contributed greatly to both theories and the empirical database of the field. In my view, the most unique contributions are research ideas that are informed by unique philosophical, epistemological, and ontological perspectives of Asian thought. These ideas are made even more forceful and persuasive because they are tested with what Asians typically do very skillfully: state-of-the-art technologies and techniques in experimentation. Recent fMRI work by Shihui Han in Beijing is an excellent example of the nice marriage between research ideas inspired by Asian thought and state-of-the-art experimental technique.

As the old Eastern idea of yin and yang goes, reality is not uniform. To the contrary, it is composed of a number of opposing forces and tendencies. So anything we study may best be illuminated when juxtaposed with something very different. For many of us in Asia, if West was yang, East was yin, and vice versa. The contrast was extremely useful in illuminating the West, which in turn could be reflected back on our understanding of the East. This symbiotic relationship between West and East may someday enable us to reveal something fundamental about psychological processes as both biologically enabled and culturally realized. Regardless, it will continue to serve the psychologists of both cultural regions very well. Now, both theoretically sophisticated and technologically well-equipped, psychologists in Asia are poised to play even greater roles in psychological science as this field grows further to encompass humans from all around the globe. ♦



Observer Vol.20, No.11 December, 2007

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