Until recently, scientists had largely ignored the global diversity of thinking. In 2010, an influential article in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences reported that the vast majority of psychological subjects had been “western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic”, or ‘Weird’ for short. Nearly 70% were American, and most were undergraduate students hoping to gain pocket money or course credits by giving up their time to take part in these experiments.

The tacit assumption had been that this select group of people could represent universal truths about human nature – that all people are basically the same. If that were true, the Western bias would have been unimportant. Yet the small number of available studies which had examined people from other cultures would suggest that this is far from the case. “Westerners – and specifically Americans – were coming out at the far end of the distributions,” says Joseph Henrich at the University of British Columbia, who was one of the study’s authors.

Some of the most notable differences revolved around the concepts of “individualism” and “collectivism”; whether you consider yourself to be independent and self-contained, or entwined and interconnected with the other people around you, valuing the group over the individual. Generally speaking, people in the West tend to be more individualist, and people from Asian countries like India, Japan or China tend to be more collectivist.

Crucially, our “social orientation” appears to spill over into more fundamental aspects of reasoning. People in more collectivist societies tend to be more ‘holistic’ in the way they think about problems, focusing more on the relationships and the context of the situation at hand, while people in individualistic societies tend to focus on separate elements, and to consider situations as fixed and unchanging.

It can even change the way that you see. An eye-tracking study by Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan found that participants from East Asia tend to spend more time looking around the background of an image – working out the context – whereas people in America tended to spend more time concentrating on the main focus of the picture. Intriguingly, this distinction could also be seen in children’s drawings from Japan and Canada, suggesting that the different ways of seeing emerge at a very young age. And by guiding our attention, this narrow or diverse focus directly determines what we remember of a scene at a later date.

Shinobu Kitayama at the University of Michigan has found that people in Hokkaido tend to place a higher value on independence and personal achievement – and emotions such as pride – than Japanese people from other islands, and they were less concerned about the views of others. The participants were also asked to take a social reasoning test, which asked them to discuss a baseball player using performance-enhancing drugs. Whereas Japanese people from other islands were more likely to explore the context – such as the pressure to succeed – the Hokkaido Japanese were more likely to blame the player’s personality or a flaw in his moral character. Again, this tendency to blame personal attributes is characteristic of an individualistic society, and much closer to the average Americans’ responses.

Read the full article "How East and West think in profoundly different ways" at BBC.com