Do Americans See Differently from Asians? The Myth Revealed

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Researchers at the University of Michigan measured the eye movements of American and Chinese graduate students who viewed photographs which had a focal object on a complex background. The Americans looked longer at focal objects and tended to move to them more quickly. The Chinese made more eye movements to the background. (Eye movements are largely unconscious and reflect innate needs or long established habits).

In another experiment, Americans and Japanese were asked to describe an underwater scene. While the Americans tended to see the large, brightly colored and moving object in the foreground, the Japanese were 60% more likely to describe more the background, like the rocks, small stationary objects and the color of the water. Other researchers have made similar observations. Eastern Asians tend to see an object in relation to its context whereas Americans focus on the details of the object itself, quickly putting it in a category, like naming it. Thus Americans can recognize the same object placed in a different background better than Eastern Asians.

It has been speculated that the difference is due to the West’s Greek influence, the Aristotelian logic, as opposed to the Chinese Confucian culture of social fabric and interrelations, e.g. the independent vs. the interdependent ways of the self, and the analytic vs. holistic views of life.

However, in a recent review (2010), Richard Nisbett , who had led the original experiment in 2005, concluded, along with his co-authors, that such is not likely the case. For example, Eastern Europeans like the Russians and Croats are more interdependent (holistic) than Americans. And even within Europe, Russians are more interdependent than Germans.

The most convincing proof came from studies on cultural subgroups over the years. For example, northern Italians are more independent than southern Italians; Hokkaido Japanese, who had emigrated from the south, are more independent than those who remained. Secular Jewish boys are more independent than Orthodox ones. In the Black Sea region of Turkey, it was found, herders (as well as hunters and gatherers) were more independent than farmers while fishermen, who go out to fish but return to the home village, are intermediate between the other two.

[In the U.S.] Working-class adults are more interdependent than middle-class adults in terms of attention to vocal tone, patterns of emotional experience, and symbolic representation of the self… Working-class adults also tend to show more holistic patterns of cognition, demonstrating greater attention to visual context…

So it appears that an overall cultural pattern of behavior does not necessarily apply to every individual in each culture. Since our behavior is a result of genes and upbringing, nature and nurture (not to mention the  complications of epigenetics), to get to the bottom of cultural differences, I am afraid, we are back to the basics: understanding the behavior of our molecules and our neural circuits that underlie each and every one of our actions. That would be a long way off because there are more urgent things to find out with new technology, like cancer and  mental illnesses. But if we get to that, I am confident that we’d be able to unlock the secrets of creativity in the arts and sciences.

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