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Spring 2004 · Vol. 33 No. 1 · pp. 70–84 

Many Counselors Bring Success: Making Room for Holistic and Analytic Reasoning

Marlene Enns

Without wise leadership, a nation falls; with many counselors, there is safety (Prov. 11:14 NLT passim). Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many counselors bring success (Prov. 15:22). Victory depends on having many counselors (Prov. 24:6b).

Holistic and analytic cognition represent important complementing cultural traditions which can be a source of tremendous enrichment when valued and pursued.

The world is increasingly being transformed into a global village in which “monocultural contexts hardly exist anymore” (Ionita, 54). This can be a source of potential enrichment, since “overlapping cultures can mutually contribute to the dynamic vitality of each” (Volf, 52), but it also can be a source of misunderstandings, conflict, and ultimate destruction. If it is to be a source of mutual enrichment, this reality requires—among other things—that churches, mission agencies, schools, and work places allow the emergence of many counselors and involve them in decision-making processes. This article will (1) give a brief description of holistic and analytic variations of reasoning present in contemporary East Asian and European-American populations, (2) {71} propose how these variations are formed and kept alive, and (3) point out their contributions and suggest how contexts and structures can better make room for the emergence of many counselors.


Nisbett and colleagues (2001) indicate that for too many years psychologists have wrongly assumed that cognitive processes are the same across cultures. They conducted empirical research with college students, reasoning that such persons “would be expected to be more similar to one another than to more representative members of their parent populations” (2001, 305), since “higher education around the globe is likely to expose students to a similar set of experiences, values, and knowledge” (Norenzayan, Choi, and Nisbett, 259). Their results reveal that East Asians (Easterners) and European-Americans (Westerners) perceive and process information in different ways: Easterners are predominantly holistic in their way of reasoning, Westerners are analytic. The researchers organized their findings in the following five areas.

Attention and Control

Reasoning processes start with attention to surrounding information. While attending to the environment, everyone is selective since it is impossible to attend to everything all the time. However, it is interesting to note that what is attended to seems to be socioculturally influenced.

Ji, Peng, and Nisbett found that East Asian populations coming from China, Korea, and Japan are “more attentive to the field and to the relationship between the object and the field,” while Americans are “more attentive to the object and its relation to the self” (Ji, et al. 2000, 951-52). Hence, the former showed greater ability to perceive relationships within a field (covariation judgment) than the latter. In fact, Masuda and Nisbett suggest that Japanese might be seeing far more of the world than do Americans; although on the other hand, it seems to be more difficult for them to separate objects from their contexts (Masuda and Nisbett, 934).

Not only does culture seem to influence attention habits and abilities, but also the meaning and importance of control. In the above-mentioned study, Ji, Peng, and Nisbett (2000) added a control manipulation dimension (illusionary control) to the experiment. They found that Americans increased their estimated covariation when they believed that they had control over the process, while Chinese judgments trivially decreased. {72}

Explanation and Prediction

Peng, Ames, and Knowles (2001) point out that after people have attended to phenomena in the environment, they typically try to assign them to their presumed causes in order to make inferences for future events, i.e., they make causal attributions and predictions (lay reasoning). When they do so, their reasoning processes again seem to be influenced by sociocultural factors.

While researching the explanations that Chinese and American newspapers gave for mass murders, Morris and Peng (Morris; Morris, Nisbett, and Peng; Morris and Peng) found that American newspapers focused more on personal dispositions such as personality traits (e.g., “very bad temper”), attitude (e.g., “personal belief that guns were an important means to redress grievances”), and psychological problems (e.g., “psychological problem with being challenged”). However, Chinese newspapers focused more on situational factors, such as relationships (e.g., “did not get along with his advisor”), pressures in Chinese society (e.g., “Lu was a victim of the ‘Top Students’ Education Policy”), and aspects of American society (e.g., “murder can be traced to the availability of guns”). Further, Menon and colleagues (1999) found that East Asians were more likely to make group dispositions than Americans when explaining scandals in organizations.

Overall, East Asian people hold to a complex and interactionist theory of causality by emphasizing the interaction between the object (or person) and the context (or situation). Hence, an honest person can at times behave dishonestly depending on the situation, and it is not likely that this will cause surprise to people. However, European-American people hold to a more simplistic and dispositionist theory of causality by emphasizing more the dispositions or traits of the person. Hence, an honest person is believed to always behave honestly regardless of the situation, and if this is not the case, it is more likely that situational determinants of the behavior will be underestimated (Choi; Choi and Nisbett; Choi, Nisbett, and Norenzayan; Norenzayan, Choi, and Nisbett).

Relationships and Similarities vs. Rules and Categories

Cultural variations of attending to the environment also lead to differing ways of organizing objects, events, and people. For instance, Ji and Nisbett (Ji and Nisbett; Ji) found that Chinese students were more likely to group on the basis of some kind of relationship, either functional (e.g., pencil and notebook), or contextual (e.g., sky and sunshine), and would also justify their choice based on relationships (e.g., {73} “the sun is in the sky”). However, American students were more likely to group on the basis of a shared category (e.g., notebook and magazine), or a common feature (e.g., sunshine and brightness), and would also justify their choice based on category membership (e.g., “the sun and the sky are both in the heavens”; in Nisbett, et al. 2001, 300).

Formal Logic vs. Experiential Knowledge

When making deductions about the studied characteristics of target objects and events, the West has traditionally relied on logical knowledge and not allowed experiential knowledge to “interfere” with it. However, such tradition has not prevailed in the East, where plausibility and sense experience is considered to be appropriate when engaging in deductive reasoning, since argument structure does not necessarily need to be analyzed apart from content (Nisbett, et al. 2001, 301; Norenzayan, 4).

When studying university students, Norenzayan and colleagues (2000) found that Koreans relied more on experiential knowledge when evaluating the logical validity of arguments than Americans. In fact, “the results indicate that when logical structure conflicts with everyday belief, American students are more willing to set aside empirical belief in favor of logic than are Korean students” (reported in Nisbett, et al. 2001, 301).

Dialectics vs. the Law of Noncontradiction

When engaging in deductive reasoning, East Asians and Westerners do not have the same commitment to avoiding the appearance of contradiction. Peng and Nisbett (Peng; Peng and Nisbett), point out that in folk Western logic (based on Aristotelian logic), rules about contradiction, such as the following have played a central role:

  1. The law of identity: A = A. A thing is identical to itself.
  2. The law of noncontradiction: A € not-A. No statement can be both true and false.
  3. The law of the excluded middle: Any statement is either true or false. (Nisbett, et al., 301)

However, folk Chinese logic is based on Chinese dialecticism which Peng and Nisbett (Peng; Peng and Nisbett) describe in terms of three principles: {74}

  1. The principle of change: Reality is a process that is not static but rather is dynamic and changeable. A thing need not be identical to itself at all because of the fluid nature of reality.
  2. The principle of contradiction: Partly because change is constant, contradiction is constant. Thus old and new, good and bad, exist in the same object or event and indeed depend on one another for their existence.
  3. The principle of relationship or holism: Because of constant change and contradiction, nothing either in human life or in nature is isolated and independent, but instead everything is related. It follows that attempting to isolate elements of some larger whole can only be misleading. (Nisbett, et al. 2001, 301)

These differences in reasoning between West and East have been pointed out for years in the work of historians, ethnographers, and philosophers. What is interesting, though, is that they now are supported by empirical evidence from the psychological laboratory in contemporary populations. For instance, while conducting studies about resolution of social contradiction with undergraduate students at the University of Michigan, Peng and Nisbett (Peng; Peng and Nisbett) made the following finding. Chinese students tended to be compromising and to find a “middle way” (e.g., both the mothers and the daughters have failed to understand each other”), while American responses were more likely to be noncompromising and to favor one or the other side within the conflict situation (e.g., “mothers should respect daughters’ independence”).


How do holistic and analytic variations of reasoning come about? Nisbett and colleagues (2001) suggest that social organizations with their practices—such as those that reflect collectivistic and individualistic orientations—guide and form cognitive content and process. Differences in determining what is important to be known and how it is to be known can be sustained by sociocognitive systems for millennia. East Asian contemporary populations stand in the tradition of ancient China with its social organization and practices, while European-Americans stand in those of ancient Greece. {75}

Origin: Ancient China and Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks (Ionians and Athenians in particular) developed a sense of personal agency in a way that was quite unparalleled to that of other ancient civilizations. According to Hamilton, the Athenian state “was a union of individuals free to develop their own powers and live in their own way, obedient only to the laws they passed themselves and could criticize and change at will” (1973). This location of power in the individual seems to be intimately related to the political organization (independent city-states) and the tradition of debate among the Greeks (Cromer, 71-80; Lloyd 1990, 12, 122-26, 132-34; 1991, 121-40).

The Chinese, on the other hand, fostered a sense of collective agency. The individual was part of a closely knit group (whether a family or a village) in which, according to Confucianism, the role fulfillment between emperor and subject, parent and child, older brother and younger brother was of crucial importance (Lin; Munro). Hence, “individual rights were construed as one’s ‘share’ of the rights of the community as a whole” (Nisbett, et al. 2001, 292). The location of power in the group also seems to be intimately related to the political organization: monarchy (Nakamura, 188-89, 204-16). Ancient China did not develop the polis in its democratic forms, and “the practice of public debate was relatively rare” (Nakamura, 189).

According to Lloyd, this emphasis on the individual and on debate led the Greeks to be concerned with ultimate foundations and rigorous demonstration/explicit justification of a position. However, the emphasis on collective agency and harmony led the Chinese to the doctrine of the opposing forces of Yin and Yang—which are correlative, interdependent, and depend on mutual cyclical exchanges—and their interest in experience and dialectic instead of formal logic (1990, 105-34; 1991, 121-44). In fact, knowing had a different role for Platonists and Confucians. Munro summarizes it as follows: “The Platonists were more concerned with knowing in order to understand, while the Confucians were more concerned with knowing in order to behave properly toward other men [sic]” (Munro, 54).

The fundamental difference in social organization also influenced the way that science and mathematics developed in these ancient civilizations. For instance, because the Chinese saw the world as interpenetrating and continuous, and recognized the importance of the whole field when explaining physical events, they were able to analyze the behavior of the tides, and had a knowledge of magnetism and acoustic resonance much earlier than their Greek/European counterparts. However, because the Greeks gave preference to studying the properties of {76} an individual object, they were concerned with definitions and with devising systems of classification and rules in order to be able to understand, predict, and control the behavior of objects independently of their particular context. Thus, they made different significant contributions, such as the invention of formal logic and deductive mathematics, as well as the theoretical nature of science (Ji, Peng, and Nisbett; Logan; Moser; Needham; Norenzayan).

Perpetuation through Homeostasis

How have differences in the above described sociocognitive systems been sustained throughout centuries? Nisbett and colleagues (2001) suggest that social practices and cognitive processes are in homeostatic balance, i.e., they influence each other in a reciprocal way. They support their view through examples such as the following.

The basic writing system of the Chinese language is pictographic and highly contextual. It encourages a person to think of the world as interpenetrating and, since words have multiple meanings, they need to be considered within the context of a sentence. However, the Western alphabet seems to be more atomistic and analytic, and language socialization for middle-class American children decontextualizes language (Freeman and Habermann; Hansen; Heath; Logan).

In the area of education, Tweed and Lehman (2002) have reviewed current studies which compare learning approaches among East Asians and Westerners. They conclude that while in both cultures genuine learning is fostered, East Asians have a learning approach that tends to encourage appreciative thinking, while Westerners tend to encourage critical thinking. Hence, for instance, the former will prefer to engage teachers through thoughtful listening, while the latter through critical questioning.

In everyday life, harmony is a key feature for relationships among East Asians. Ohbuchi and Takahasi (1994) found that twice as many Japanese as American business people will use avoidance as a means of resolving conflict situations with fellow managers. However, three times as many Americans as Japanese participants will use persuasion when in conflict situations.


Most teaching/learning situations worldwide encourage the Greek analytic way of reasoning, which is considered to be the most elaborate way of reasoning. Peng and Nisbett, however, make the pointed correction that it is not about which way of reasoning is higher or better, but of making wise decisions: {77}

The logical ways of dealing with contradiction may be optimal for scientific exploration and the search for facts because of their aggressive, linear, and argumentative style. On the other hand, dialectical reasoning may be preferable for negotiating intelligently in complex social interactions. Therefore, ideal thought tendencies might be a combination of both—the synthesis, in effect, of Eastern and Western ways of thinking. (Peng and Nisbett, 751)

Peng and Ames remind the readers that even Kant “maintained that logical reasoning is very effective within the confines of science, but ‘all the worse for the beyond’ ” (Peng and Ames, 3634). Likewise, Norenzayan, Choi, and Nisbett make the following comment: “It appears that East Asian folk psychology, as it relates to causal attribution, better corresponds to the findings and theory of scientific psychology than does American folk psychology” (Norenzayan, et al. 1999, 257). Such comparisons demonstrate the need for valuing these alternative approaches and allowing them to complement each other.

When the biblical book of Proverbs suggests that many counselors be involved in decision-making processes, it is likely that this was meant to be understood not only in quantitative but also in qualitative terms. It is not only a matter of numbers, but of the ability to perceive and process information in different ways. In the twenty-first century, when many churches, mission agencies, schools, and work places are multicultural and recognize the need for internationalization, this advice to have many counselors is even more pertinent.

Now, if the claims of the research presented in this article are true, then the many counselors do not just emerge on their own. In fact, because reasoning and sociocultural environments prime or evoke each other, it is possible to either encourage or to subdue (or even to modify) the original sociocultural way of reasoning that people use through different factors in the contexts and structures. Hence, contexts and structures in churches, mission agencies, schools, and work places determine to a great extent whether the many counselors will be so only quantitatively or also qualitatively, and whether the existing differences in reasoning will surface or be buried. Dynamic constructivism suggests how room can be made for holistic and analytic variations of reasoning.


Dynamic constructivism is an emerging account of cultural variations which emphasizes that such variations—including those of {78} reasoning—are not sweeping or deterministic. Hong and colleagues emphasize that cultural knowledge is not to be compared to an overall mentality or “a contact lens that affects the individual’s perceptions of visual stimuli all of the time” (2000, 709). Moreover, people may have several cultural “lenses” and switch back and forth between these. In other words, when bicultural people absorb a second culture, their original culture is not necessarily blended into nor replaced with the new one. In fact, they may have “internalized two cultures to the extent that both cultures are alive inside of them” (Hong, et al. 2000, 710). Which one of them is activated and used can be determined by cues in the environment (Chiu, et al. 2000; Hong and Chiu; Hong, et al. 2001; Higgins; LaFromboise, Coleman, and Gerton; Morris and Fu; Morris, Menon, and Ames; Phinney and Devich-Navarro). Some examples will show what is meant by this.

For instance, Hong and colleagues (2000) conducted a series of studies with bicultural Chinese American college students. These students were primed (i.e., stimulated) with significant cultural icons such as symbols (e.g., American flag vs. a Chinese dragon), legendary figures (e.g., Superman vs. Stone Monkey), famous people (e.g., Marilyn Monroe vs. Chinese opera singer), as well as landmarks (e.g., Capitol Building vs. Great Wall). Then they were presented with different scenarios in which they had to give reasons for the behavior of those involved (attributional thinking).

For instance, all read the story of an overweight boy whom the doctor had advised not to eat food with high sugar content, but who nevertheless ate a delicious-looking cake at a buffet dinner which he attended with his friends. The results were as predicted: participants responded with group (Eastern) or individual dispositional (Western) attributions depending on the cultural icons with which they had been primed. That is, those primed with Chinese cues before reading the story accorded less importance to personality dispositions (e.g., they said that he ate because of the friends’ pressure on him), while those stimulated with American cues accorded less value to pressures and constraints of the environment (e.g., they said that he lacked the ability to control himself). In other words, cues in the environment can determine which cultural framework of reasoning will be used.

However, not only bicultural people may engage in framework switching. In one study, after giving instructions and providing one of two versions of a warrior story, participants were asked to complete the Kuhn and McPartland (1954) self-attitudes test which requires completing twenty sentences that begin with “I am” and reveals whether {79} individuals hold private/idiocentric (“I am intelligent”), collective (e.g., “I am a Roman Catholic”), or public self-construals (e.g., “I am a person who wants to help others”). The researchers found that regardless of cultural background, participants would reveal in the test a self-construal which matched the trait of the warrior in the priming story, i.e., those who received a private/individualistic self-prime in the story made more idiocentric responses on the Kuhn and McPartland test than those who received a collective self-prime, and vice versa (Trafimow, Triandis and Goto,).

The reasoning of negotiators can also be primed through the social context in ways such that cultural variations emerge. Morris and Fu suggest that,

The atmosphere and setting of negotiations vary in many details, including the structure of the table and room, the level of formality, the persons present, the language spoken, the drinks consumed, background music, and so forth. Details which negotiators subconsciously associate with their culture will prime related knowledge structures and induce culturally typical behaviors. (Morris and Fu, 338)


Since cultures impinge on each other in churches, mission agencies, schools, and work places, how can room be made for both holistic and analytic reasoning so that the existing potential of many counselors can emerge? Rather than giving many concrete suggestions—since they will change from context to context—questions will be offered according to several categories. By asking these, an agency can be more alert regarding what persons or what ways of proceeding are being valued as “counselors” within a given setting.

  • Who are the pastors, administrators, teachers, personnel? What cultural background do they have?
  • What cultural icons are represented on church premises and school campuses, at work places, and in board rooms? Cultural icons can include flags, legendary figures, famous people, landmarks, artistic expressions (pictures, music, ornaments, etc.). Whose names are given to buildings and why so? What languages are represented and in what ways?
  • What theological icons are represented? Who is quoted? Whose stories are told? Whose publications are in exhibition? Whose books {80} are in the library? Who are the guest preachers, lecturers, and speakers? Whose history is recorded and remembered? What makes it to the news? What is worthy to be recorded? In what format is it recorded?
  • Which events are celebrated? When is an event special? Who determines this? How are they celebrated? What types of contributions are valued? Who is invited to them? What are appropriate expressions of faith?
  • In teaching/learning situations—be they nonformal (e.g., church, workplace) or formal (e.g., schools)—who determines the format of courses and schedules? Who determines what the valid expressions of teaching, learning, and research are? What is evaluated and why so? How is assessment done? What does fairness constitute? What are considered to be valid reasons to justify inabilities to meet requirements? What are the procedures to have appointments with professors, program directors, administrators, and pastors? Who determines them and why?
  • In deliberating sessions, who leads them? Who determines the flow of the agenda and what is important? How is data for decision-making processes collected/screened, by whom, and why so? What types of suggestions/ideas are pursued and how are they pursued? Who decides what “makes sense” and why? To what degree and in what ways are reasons for “sense making” pursued, actively listened to, and wisely discerned? To what degree is uneasiness/restlessness among participants perceived and investigated? How are these situations handled and who handles them?

Although this is not an exhaustive list, it nevertheless gives an idea of the issues and elements that have a priming effect. They influence which cultural variation of reasoning will be allowed to surface and be pursued.


Holistic and analytic cognition are not the only existing variations of reasoning. However, they represent important cultural traditions. When these and others are valued and pursued they can be a source of tremendous enrichment. No one cultural type of reasoning has the capacity to provide either the answers for all problem situations or the insight for all decision-making processes. Many counselors are needed who perceive and process information in qualitatively different ways. The challenge for churches, mission agencies, schools, and workplaces is to make room for them. {81}


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  • Marlene Enns earned her M.Div. in 1986 from Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California, and her Ph.D. in Educational Studies in 2003 at Trinity International University, Deerfield, Illinois. As the daughter of German-background former Soviet Union-born immigrants who are missionaries in Paraguay, she learned about biculturalism while being raised among Spanish-speaking Latino people. Her vocational interest is in the area of intercultural theological education, and she is a full-time faculty on one of the campuses of the School of Theology of the Evangelical University of Paraguay where she has taught for thirteen years.
    This article develops one of the main arguments of the author’s dissertation, “Toward a Theoretical Model of Mutuality and Its Implications for Intercultural Theological Education: Holistic and Analytical Cognition,” written under the direction of Linda M. Cannell and Paul G. Hiebert, Trinity International University, Deerfield, Illinois, May 2003.

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