Chinese, Americans Truly See Differently, Study Says

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.

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