Westerners and Easterners see the world differently

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Fri Aug 26 14:10:11 UTC 2005

Westerners and Easterners see the world differently
22 August 2005
NewScientist.com news service
Zeeya Merali

Chinese and American people see the world differently literally. While
Americans focus on the central objects of photographs, Chinese individuals
pay more attention to the image as a whole, according to psychologists at
the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, US. There is plenty of anecdotal
evidence suggesting that Western and East Asian people have contrasting
world-views, explains Richard Nisbett, who carried out the study.
Americans break things down analytically, focusing on putting objects into
categories and working out what rules they should obey, he says.

By contrast, East Asians have a more holistic philosophy, looking at
objects in relation to the whole. Figuratively, Americans see things in
black and white, while East Asians see more shades of grey, says Nisbett.
We wanted to devise an experiment to see if that translated to a literal
difference in what they actually see. The researchers tracked the
eye-movements of two groups of students while they looked at photographs.
One group contained American-born graduates of European descent and the
other was comprised of Chinese-born graduate students who came to the US
after their undergraduate degrees.

Each picture showed a striking central image placed in a realistic
background, such as a tiger in a jungle. They found that the American
students spent longer looking at the central object, while the Chinese
students eyes tended to dart around, taking in the context.

Harmony versus goals

Nisbett and his colleagues believe that this distinctive pattern has
developed because of the philosophies of these two cultures. Harmony is a
central idea in East Asian philosophy, and so there is more emphasis on
how things relate to the whole, says Nisbett. In the West, by contrast,
life is about achieving goals. Psychologists watching American and
Japanese families playing with toys have also noted this difference. An
American mother will say: Look Billy, a truck. Its shiny and has wheels.
The focus is on the object, explains Nisbett. By contrast, Japanese
mothers stress context saying things like, I push the truck to you and you
push it to me. When you throw it at the wall, the wall says ouch."

Nisbett also cites language development in the cultures. To Westerners it
seems obvious that babies learn nouns more easily. But while this is the
case in the West, studies show that Korean and Chinese children pick up
verbs which relate objects to each other - more easily. Nisbetts work is
interesting and suggestive, says John Findlay, a psychologist specialising
in human visual attention at Durham University, UK. Its always difficult
to put an objective measure on cultural differences, but this group have
made a step towards that.

Nisbett hopes that his work will change the way the cultures view each
other. Understanding that there is a real difference in the way people
think should form the basis of respect.

Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (vol
102, p 12629) http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn7882

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