Chinese, Americans Truly See Differently, Study Says

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 22, 2005
Chinese and Americans literally view the world differently,
according to a new study, which found that the two groups tend
to move their eyes in distinctly different patterns when looking
at pictures.

"If people are literally looking at the world differently, we think it would be natural for them to explain the world in different ways," said Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Over the past decade reasearch by Nisbett and his colleagues has surprised the social sciences with numerous studies showing that Westerners and East Asians think differently.

Westerners tend to be analytical and pay more attention to the key, or focal, objects in a scene—for example, concentrating on the woman in the "Mona Lisa," as opposed to the rocks and sky behind her.

East Asians, by contrast, tend to look at the whole picture and rely on contextual information when making decisions and judgments about what they see, Nisbett said. (See sidebar at lower right.)

The new study was designed to determine if the difference in the thought processes of East Asians and Westerners affects how Westerners and East Asians physically look at the world.

To find out, the researchers measured eye movements of 45 U.S. and Chinese students as they looked at photographs that featured single focal objects against complex backgrounds.

For example, one image showed a tiger by a stream in a forest. Another image showed a fighter jet flying over a mountainous landscape.

When test subjects looked at the pictures, differences emerged between the U.S. and Chinese students within the first second of an average viewing, Nisbett said.

"Americans are looking at the focal object more quickly and spend more time looking at it," he said. "The Chinese have more saccades [jerky eye movements]. They move their eyes more, especially back and forth between the object and the [background] field."

The finding suggests that East Asians literally spend more time putting objects into context than Americans do. The differences are not just reflected in how individuals recall and report their memories but in how they physically see an image in the first place.

The study, which was led by Nisbett's graduate student Hannah-Faye Chua, is reported tomorrow in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cultural Differences

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 society—the prototypical Western society—was 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.

Characterizing Differences

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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