Nisbett says that any explanation for the cultural differences is, at this point, speculation. However, he and his colleagues suggest that the differences may be rooted in social practices that stretch back thousands of years.
"Westerners are taught to pay attention to objects that are important to them, to have goals that they can follow," he said. "East Asians are more likely to pay attention to the social field. ..."
Nisbett traces the origins of the variation to at least 2,500 years ago. At that time collaborative, large-scale agriculture was the primary driver of the East Asian economy. For most workers, economic survival required paying attention to the person in charge as well as co-workers in the fields. Context was important.
By contrast, ancient Greek societythe prototypical Western societywas characterized by individualistic activities, such as hunting, fishing, and small-scale farming.
The difference, Nisbett said, still holds today. East Asian societies tend to be more socially complex than Western societies. Understanding context, therefore, has more value in East Asia than in the West.
Anthropologist Alan Fiske said the researchers' data is "very sound." But he questions the complex social reasons that the study authors use to explain the differences.
"Social scientists have not been successful in characterizing in absolute general terms what the difference is between East Asian and European-American societies," said Fiske, the director of the Center for Culture, Brain, and Development at the University of California, Los Angeles. "We all agree there are huge differences, but [they're] difficult to characterize."
Nevertheless, Fiske said, the study shows "a statistically significant and scientifically interesting" difference in how Chinese and Americans view a scene. This difference, he added, strengthens the argument for multicultural teamwork in business and academe.
Fiske said the differences revealed by the study are not so great that people from Western and East Asian cultures can't understand each other when speaking the same language, he said. "But it suggests people have different strengths in remembering and noticing things, and that would be valuable."
Nisbett, the lead study author, said that the research also has implications for international relations. "Understanding there are differences and why these differences exist can be very helpful," he said.
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