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Of Fish, Sugar, and Discard Piles: Learning from Difference

3 months ago

by Stephen Ryan 


So, what was Dr. Iyengar doing in the coffee shop in Kyoto, thousands and thousands of miles away from her “base of operations” in the U.S? I hope, by the way, that you have had a chance to watch both our DEEP and LITE videos this month (not least because I am going to be discussing them here). What prompted her to travel so far from home, family, and research lab, to leave familiar surroundings and place herself in a situation where even ordering green tea with sugar was an ordeal? 

For that matter, what motivates any of us to travel? Why do we repeatedly and in some cases obsessively, leave the things we know behind in search of novel experiences and adventures? 

Dr. Iyengar tells us she was in Kyoto to do part of her dissertational research. From the rest of her presentation it is clear that she had travelled there in the expectation that she would find a different attitude towards choice (her research topic) than the ones she was familiar with in the U.S. In other words, she had travelled to seek out difference. This human propensity to seek out difference is, according to Tokuhama-Espinosa (2011) and her Delphi panel (foundational to the field of Mind, Brain, and Education), one of the nineteen findings about the brain that researchers are most sure of. 

The reason for this is not difficult to imagine: In the savannahs of East Africa, or wherever the latest research indicates that the human species originated, what was different could very well kill you. Those of our ancestors who failed to spot the predator among the tall grasses are unlikely to have survived long enough to pass their genes on to us. Giving special attention to difference has been a basic survival skill throughout human history, whether in the grasslands, the forests, the ‘hood, or the fast-changing environments in which the Secret Service and others provide vigilant protection to Heads of State and similar VIPs. 

Seeking out difference must also have played a role in bringing us out of the savannah (or wherever) to populate most of the Earth’s land surface. It is also the ultimate motivation behind the travel industry, our students’ desire to study abroad, and the provision of travel grants to academics like Dr. Iyengar. 

We are built to notice differences. We are also built to make sense of them. 

Let me return to my original question about her Kyoto coffee shop encounter: What was she doing there? Well, she was certainly encountering difference, whether you see it as different customs surrounding green tea or, as she was professionally predisposed to do, as different attitudes towards choice. But, what did she do about the difference? As many of us tend to, her first reaction was to try to make the novel environment conform to her “back home” expectations of it: Bring me green tea with sugar. Indeed, one of the commentators below her YouTube video suggests that if she had just ordered the green tea after the coffee that came with sugar, she would have succeeded in this. 

But then she does another thing that we know our brains pre-dispose us to do (one of Tokuhama-Espinosa’s (2011) top six things we are most certain about in brain science): she tries to make sense of the novelty. She tries to fit it into her existing understanding of the world, or, to put it another way, to adjust her existing expectations to accommodate this new discovery. 

This process of making sense, of accommodating the new and different, is worth dwelling on, as it lies at the heart, not only of Iyengar’s career, which she has spent studying how people make choices, but also of the lives and livelihoods of every person reading this Think Tank, and those of our students, too. We are constantly interacting with our environment, in both trivial and complex ways, taking in new information and new experiences and adjusting our expectations of future interactions accordingly. Andy Clark (2015) and an increasing number of cognitive psychologists see the brain’s main function as making predictions about the future. Each new experience modifies and fine-tunes the representations of the outside world that we hold in our heads, helping us to make better predictions in the future and to act appropriately, whether “appropriacy” means not embarrassing ourselves socially or making sure our genes survive to another generation. This process of taking in data to make better and better predictions is so important and so central to the human condition that, to paraphrase Lisa Barrett (2017), we have a special name for it: we call it learning

Yes, it is what we hope goes on in our classrooms when we present new information to students; it is what goes on when the young people in our charge encounter new experiences we have structured for them; it is why working with young people is always an adventure; it is why we travel; it is how we explore and relate to the world; it is what makes life interesting. 

Learning is always effortful, often uncomfortable and sometimes painful. Taking long-standing, comforting beliefs about the world and what is normal in it and challenging them with new experiences can be a highly emotional undertaking. New experiences force us to adjust our internal model of reality, to reach an understanding of the world in which the new experiences also make sense, to, almost literally, broaden our minds so that they include the new experiences. We have words for this, too: the shock of the new, growing pains, adjustment stress, culture shock, and, in the classroom environment, the one where I spend much of my time, resistance. 

Unfortunately, from the point of view of those of us with a professional interest in learning, there are relatively simple ways of resisting. Labelling new experiences and filing them away, instead of processing and accommodating the difference into your worldview, seems to be one of the preferred strategies among my students. “That’s just an American joke” they will say if I mention anything surprising or even slightly out of their ordinary. “That’s English – I cannot speak English,” is their reaction when I wish them a good morning. Instead of dealing with the new, expanding their worldview to include new words or new experiences, they label them and toss them on a kind of discard pile. I have seen similar reactions when accompanying students on study abroad trips: faced with myriads of experiences that are unlike their idea of normal life, they dismiss them with, “That’s just cultural. We knew things would be different here” and miss an opportunity for reflection, deeper learning, and growth. 

Labeling an unexpected difference as“cultural” is helpful insofar as it prepares us to think about how another person’s worldview might make sense to them, helping us to expand our own way of thinking to include this possibility. It is not helpful, though, if it functions as a way to avoid further thought: “Of course she is behaving strangely, she’s fromCountry X. Everyone from there acts strangely. It is their culture.” Though it is natural to be curious about the ways people brought up in different societies think, we must be careful of allowing this desire to block our natural predisposition to make sense of individual encounters with difference. Deciding in advance that we know how people from a certain society are going to behave is a way of not engaging with difference, of not making sense of what we are actually encountering and, ultimately, of not learning. 

Which brings me to Dr. Liddell and her fish tank: Whilst I admire her eloquence, succinctness, and careful choice of words, I do worry that her video and countless publications by both scholars and amateurs attempting to deal with “cultural” difference might encourage people to use the “It’s cultural” discard pile. 

The danger I see is two-fold. First, although she is very careful to speak of people from “Western-based cultural backgrounds” and “non-Western based cultural backgrounds,” the impression that lingers from her video is that some people see the world in one way and some in another, and that what makes the difference is where those people come from: if they happen to be born in China they will see the plants and if they are say, German, they will see the fish—the original experiment was, in fact, conducted with students from Japan and the U.S. (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001). There is a hint of this kind of ethnic determinism in Iyengar’s anagram experiments with children, too–at the 4-minute mark in her TED talk. I’m sure Liddell and Iyengar would be the first to reject the determinism implicit in their academic short-hand: the way you view the world is not determined by the colour of your passport or the genes you inherit from a national (or even continent-wide) gene-pool. It is a result of your individual experience of the world so far, the environment in which you have grown up and lived, and the ways you have made sense of your experiences. Anything that encourages us to think otherwise reduces the possibility that we will achieve a deeper understanding of an encounter with difference. 

The second danger I see is in the nature of the research methodology. It deals with averages and probabilities. Any statement about what Western or non-Western people (to further shorten Liddell’s terms) needs to be preceded by the words “On average….” or “Most likely…” A multiplicity of human experience is subsumed in this averaging, often hiding differences as great as the alleged differences between the Western and non-Western samples. Similar differences in reactions to stimuluses like the aquarium experiment have been found between Japanese people from the northern island of Hokkaido and those living further south (Kitayama, Ishii, Imada, Takemura, & Ramaswamy, 2006) as between the “Westerners” and “non-Westerners” Liddell speaks of. Averaged findings about groups of people will vary depending on exactly how you group the people. And, as we all know, the probability of meeting an entirely average member of a certain group of people is actually pretty low. 

My point is not that the research is flawed, but that it can be a hindrance to the deeper understanding that comes from encountering difference without the kind of pre-packaged labels that allow me to discard the experience rather than trying to make sense of what is happening for myself. The fish-tank experiment is a very poor guide indeed to how I (ostensibly a person of Western cultural background) can expect to interact with any given person from a non-Western background. Insofar as my knowledge of the experiment influences my approach to an encounter with another person and allows me to label any difference I encounter as “non-Western” or “cultural,” it hinders my brain’s natural process of adjusting to the novel input provided by this and subsequent individual encounters, of broadening its worldview, of learning on a deeper level. 

The audience laughs when they hear Iyengar’s green tea story, as they were intended to. That is how humour works: it finds some commonality of worldview among the listeners and points up the behavior of those who do not share that worldview. It is, in itself, a kind of defence against difference, just like labelling, which also allows people to place things on the discard pile. But that is not how learning works: learning is about not only seeking out differences, labelling and discarding them, but about taking them seriously, pondering them, making sense of them, stretching, sometimes overturning, more comfortable and longer-established views to accommodate them. Learning begins when we ask ourselves “I wonder why that might be? I wonder how I can make sense of that?” 


Stephen M. Ryan teaches at Sanyo Gakuen University in Okayama, Japan. It is three years, seven months and seventeen days since he last used the word “culture” in a non-ironic sense. 


Barrett, L. (2017, July 31). Lisa Barrett on how emotions are made. Brain Science Podcast with Ginger Campbell, M. D., Episode 135. Retrieved from 
Clark, A. (2015). Surfing uncertainty: Prediction, action, and the embodied mind. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 
Kitayama, S., Ishii, K., Imada, T., Takemura, K., & Ramaswamy, J. (2006). Voluntary settlement and the spirit of independence: Evidence from Japan’s “Northern Frontier.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91(3), 369-384. 
Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. E. (2001). Attending holistically versus analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(5): 922-934 
Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2011). Mind, brain, and education science: A comprehensive guide to the new brain-based teaching. New York: W. W. Norton.
The article was firstly published in bulletin of the JALT Mind, Brain and Education SIG // Volume 5, Issue 4, ISSN-2434-1002, April 1, 2019

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