“Westerners also prefer uniqueness in the environment and in their possessions. Social psychologists Heejung Kim and Hazel Markus asked Koreans and Americans to choose which objects in a picture array of objects they preferred. Americans chose the rarest object, whereas Koreans chose the most common object. Asked to choose a pen as a gift, Americans chose the least common color offered and East Asians the most common”. – Richard Nisbett, Geography of Thought
I got into an argument with a brilliant woman I adore and she recommended I read Richard E. Nisbett’s Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently… and Why? so naturally I took her advice. The book is interesting on so many levels and does the best job I’ve ever come across of contrasting the two cultures. Nisbett provides excellent background on concepts I only vaguely knew about such as the behavioral significance of coming from an individualist versus a collectivist society. Behavior in this regard, has been linked in countless studies to nitty-gritty perceptual differences such as the ability to detect contrast and remember salient items in photographs. As usual, I wondered if differences of the type Nisbett describes affect any of our flavor preferences and the answer I think is yes which may reveal a lot about a very prestigious flavor mystery.
My position has always been that we have innate drives to seek out the extraordinary as exemplified by Nobel laureate Niko Timbergen‘s super normal stimulus concept, but that may not be the case when you factor in culture as illustrated in the above quote. For decades we have been seduced by the explain-all ideas of genetics & DNA, also that we may be inescapably hardwired for certain behaviors, but this might have denied & downplayed the staggeringly significant power of cultural override.
Nisbett claims that Eastern and Western cultures at times are so different that it has shaped the programming of their attentional spot lights on even the relatively micro level and thus the rest of their thinking. I had previously been influenced by ideas in Slights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde which led to my teasing out the order of operations of the multi sensory perception of flavor, as confirmed by Spence & Auvray, and ultimately developing the simplified gustation model which explains a lot of the patterns that exist in cocktails. Simplified gustation posits how the path to perceiving olfaction can be flattened when the motive is to compete for attention with the other senses in a flavor experience and win. The idea makes assumptions that things about attention are hardwired. Macknik & Martinez-Conde explain how attention can work so consistently that a magician can manipulate an entire room full of people (with the sometimes exception of the autistic).
But if Nisbett claims Eastern attention can differ markedly from Western attention, can magicians just as easily manipulate rooms of Eastern observers with tricks designed for the West? Westerners often get hung up on foreground salient features while Easterners are more capable of noticing background, relationships, and context which is at the heart of collective thought. Believe it or not, food experiences have all the same attentional features used by the psychologists in studies that Nisbett examines so can any of it apply to flavor?
Westerners focus on objects while slighting the field and they literally see fewer objects and relationships in the environment than do Asians. – Geography of Thought
Previously the journal, Nature, had published a study, Flavor network and the principles of food pairing, which was exciting and well discussed but came up sort of dry in its conclusions. Inspired by the work of poets, I had been naming the two creative linkage strategies the study described alliteration & collage and I had even singled out a few drinks that typify them which I was recently able to present to some illustrious food scientists after their lecture at Harvard (these chemistry focused guys loved the drinks but seemed to have zero curiosity about categorizing creative linkage). I consider these creative linkage strategies as a means of creating a super normal stimuli and I’ve tried to explain what these experiences do to us and why we return & gravitate towards them (the argument which led to the book concerned those ideas).
Remember, where there is a response tendency, we are creating a delicious exaggerated response tendency through flavor pairing. In Western food, the study found aroma compounds repeated which creates extraordinary, individualistic, salient, foreground objects to pay attention to (hang a set of breast implants on it) while in Eastern food, aroma compounds are typically not repeated but rather linked as a collective collage of relationships. To apply the ideas of Nisbett, the collective collage of aromas appeals to the Eastern mind. Besides the super normal stimulus idea, this new idea of why each creative linkage strategy developed within each culture explains a gigantic piece of the puzzle, which was not seized upon by the study in Nature. We end up with different creative linkage strategies for minds of different attentional proclivities.
But where do we go from here and what is nature and what is nurture? Our nature might only be to pay attention and nurture, or rather culture, might be what to pay attention to. It must be pointed out that we are capable of enjoying and finding powerful repose in each creative linkage strategy. The forces of culture make it hard to create but not to enjoy and this raises some interesting other ideas.
In food, the often utilitarian realm of merely decorated sustenance, some short sighted famous person(s) claim there is no art, and within this criteria being discussed, they might be somewhat correct because according to the paper in Nature, East & West really stick to their patterns. Yet somehow the cocktail came about and things truly got creative, as evidenced by analyzing drinks in the Savoy cocktail book. Something happened to flavor which might reveal a property of artists and that is a unique structure of their attention, and thus ability to construct the world in a way which they can break away from their culture and its sweeping inertia. (Wassily Kandinsky explained this in a very grasping mystical way but it might be useful to psychologists to examine the concept in terms of attention and perceptual differences relative to the surrounding culture.)
Cocktails in the West, even early on, had both alliteration, which I hypothesize is a product of individualism, and collage, which I hypothesize is a product of collectivism. The layman has only the patterns of attention of their broader culture but the artist has their own patterns of attention, and thus own one-person culture (but yes, schools of art do form!). These early cocktail artists were able to see possibilities and create what Western food culture could not for nearly a century.
I hypothesized long ago that the cocktail might actually have led to modernism. Cocktails, which were able to break away from the patterns within food described by the study in Nature, may have dissolved crystallized culture thus incubating artists of other mediums and inspiring them to break away. Of course this is wildly speculative and I have no credentials, but if you look at the time line of art history, the abstract expressionism of the cocktail, a very popular medium, does precede so much other modernism. Hopefully by now I’ve painted enough of a picture that the creative linkage of the cocktail is especially anomalous relative to the rest of food culture.
Long ago I waged war on the word balanced in the culinary arts and tried my damnest to trade it in for the more expansive concept of harmony which I thought better respected acquired tastes. To apply Nisbett, I may have been shifting to an Eastern relatively more holistic mentality, accepting context and the multitude of factors that could effect an experience. As part of my theory of acquired tastes, things are harmonic only in the context that someone possessed the relevant acquired tastes. Balance considered no such context which is typical of Western mentality.
But if Eastern thought has a tendency to emphasize context, should they not have the foremost thinkers on the topic of acquired tastes and flavor theory? I would say no, because both cultures have not developed the categories for which to apply their unique points of view and according to Nisbett, Eastern thought is less concerned with categories. So, flavor, a gigantic hole is our knowledge, is caught between a culture that neglects context and another culture that neglects categories. My work is very big on categories and until you have them, you cannot detect contrast and cannot find patterns to develop theories. Embracing the advantageous qualities of East and West is what it is going to take to unravel flavor, but no need to reinvent the wheel, the harmony concept can borrow ideas from subjects like musicology (cough, cough, Arnold Schoenberg!) which have already seen plenty of intellectual investment. (Kandisnky actually borrowed heavily from Schoenberg to expand ideas about painting and the visual arts.)
Countless people in the food world tell grim tales of how we are hard wired for junk food and unhealthy eating but this meditation on the differences of the East & West show that it may just be culture. Culture comes with serious momentum but it is also quite malleable so our problems can be overcome. But is all this just academic nonsense? Sort of, but it does support and add critical mass to the underdog culture idea. Many of Nisbett’s ideas were supported by ingenious experiments and throwing food ways into the fold adds avenues of potential perceptual experimentation. Many people are also itching to throw cocktails into solid discussions of art history right alongside cubism or abstract expressionism.
What is going to hold a lot of these ideas back is the strange interdisciplinary nature and the lack of a nitty-gritty perceptual understanding of flavor to see these patterns. The culinary world barely recognizes the concept of the multi sensory perception of flavor, most scientists aren’t even aware of the super normal stimuli idea (even though it won a Nobel prize!), recognizing culturally influenced perceptual differences leading to patterns in food ways will make heads spin. These ideas are doomed to be ahead of their time for years to come.