When you look at the picture on the computer screen at right, where do your eyes linger longest? Surprisingly, the answer to that question might differ depending upon where you were raised. Americans stare more fixedly at the train in the center, while Chinese let their eyes roam more around the entire picture, according to research by psychologist Richard Nisbett, PhD.
That difference reflects a more general divide between the ways that Westerners and East Asians view the world around them, says Nisbett, who heads the Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Michigan. He and his colleagues explore how people's cultural backgrounds affect their most basic cognitive processes: categorization, learning, causal reasoning and even attention and perception.
The researchers have found increasing evidence that East Asians, whose more collectivist culture promotes group harmony and contextual understanding of situations, think in a more holistic way. They pay attention to all the elements of a scene, to context and to the relationships between items. Western culture, in contrast, emphasizes personal autonomy and formal logic, and so Westerners are more analytic and pay attention to particular objects and categories.
The idea that culture can shape the way people think at these deep levels is a departure for psychology, which as a field traditionally assumed that basic cognitive processes are universal, according to Nisbett. But it's an idea that has gained traction over the past decade or two.
Now, Nisbett and others are investigating the cognitive effects of the more subtle cultural variations between, for example, different areas of East Asia. They hope that these new studies will also help explain more precisely how and why culture and cognition interact.
In a recent study, Nisbett and graduate student Hannah Faye Chua used a tracking device to monitor the eye movements of 25 American and 27 Chinese participants-all graduate students at Michigan-while the students stared for three seconds at pictures of objects against complex backgrounds. The 36 pictures included, among others, the train shown above, a tiger in a forest and an airplane with mountains in the background.
The researchers found that the Americans focused on the foreground object 118 milliseconds sooner, on average, than the Chinese participants did, and then continued to look at the focal object longer. The Chinese tended to move their eyes back and forth more between the main object and the background, and looked at the background for longer than the Americans did.
The study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August (Vol. 102, No. 35, pages 12,629-12,633), complements earlier research that suggested-in a more general way-that Westerners and East Asians focus on different aspects of scenes.
In a 2001 study, for example, Nisbett and then-graduate student Takahiko Masuda, PhD, showed Japanese and American participants animated underwater vignettes that included focal objects-three big fish-and background objects like rocks, seaweed and water bubbles. When they asked participants to describe the scenes, Americans were more likely to begin by recalling the focal fish, while Japanese were more likely to describe the whole scene, saying something like "it was a lake or pond." Later, the Japanese participants also recalled more details about the background objects than the Americans did.
"Americans immediately zoomed in on the objects," Nisbett says. "The Japanese paid more attention to context."
Cognitive differences between Westerners and Asians show up in other areas as well. For example, in tests of categorization, Americans are more likely to group items based on how well the items fit into categories by type-so, say, a cow and a chicken might go together because they are both animals. Asians, in contrast, are more likely to group items based on relationships-so a cow and grass might go together because a cow eats grass.
Another difference between Westerners and Asians regards the fundamental attribution error-a mainstay psychological theory for the last 30 years that, it turns out, may not be so fundamental after all. The theory posits that people generally overemphasize personality-related explanations for others' behavior, while underemphasizing or ignoring contextual factors. So, for example, a man may believe he tripped and fell because of a crack in the sidewalk, but assume that someone else fell because of clumsiness.
But, it turns out, most East Asians do not fall prey to this error-they are much more likely to consider contextual factors when trying to explain other people's behavior. In a 1994 study, for example, psychologist Kaiping Peng, PhD, analyzed American and Chinese newspaper accounts of recent murders. He found that American reporters emphasized the personal attributes of the murderers, while Chinese reporters focused more on situational factors.
Although such studies provide convincing evidence of cognitive differences between Asians and Westerners, says Nisbett, they don't explain why those differences occur.
"Our assertion is that these cognitive differences come from social differences," he says. "But that's a very tenuous connection. There's no direct evidence for it yet."
To find that evidence, psychologist Shinobu Kitayama, PhD-who co-chairs Michigan's culture and cognition program with Nisbett-is examining other cultures to determine how their different takes on collectivism, interdependence and other social attributes affect cognition. Kitayama is studying the cognitive style of residents of Hokkaido, Japan-what he calls Japan's "Wild West."
Settlers from the rest of Japan arrived there in the mid-19th century to seek their fortune in the wilderness. If this frontier spirit is associated with a kind of American-style individualism, Kitayama reasoned, then perhaps Hokkaido Japanese might look more like Americans than like other Japanese in their cognitive processes.
And indeed, in a study recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he and his colleagues found that Hokkaido residents were nearly as likely as Americans to commit the fundamental attribution error.
"The frontier doesn't really exist anywhere anymore," Kitayama says, "but its myth and discourse are still powerful."
Another strand of evidence comes from Asian Americans, who often are raised with some blend of Asian and Western cultural traditions.
"In studies that look at Asians, European Americans and Asian Americans, Asian Americans usually fall somewhere in between the other two," Nisbett says.
Finally, Nisbett is beginning a series of studies that will examine cognitive differences between people in cultures that are quite similar in many ways, but differ in their degree of collectivism.
For example, Eastern and Western Europe, and Northern and Southern Italy-Eastern Europe and Southern Italy being generally more collectivist societies than Western Europe and Northern Italy.
"We've only done a couple of categorization tests," Nisbett says, "but so far we're finding the expected differences."
Why it matters
In an increasingly multicultural world, these culture-induced cognitive differences can have practical implications, according to University of California, Santa Barbara, psychologist Heejung Kim, PhD. Kim, who is from South Korea, found her research inspiration in her experience as an international graduate student in the United States. In her graduate seminar classes, her inclination was to listen quietly and absorb what was going on around her-but she felt pressured to speak up.
"After struggling for a while, I began to think that someone should question whether the process of talking is valuable for everyone," she says, "because it certainly wasn't for me."
She decided to test European-American and first-generation Asian-American students by giving them a complex logic problem to solve. Control-group members solved the problem silently, while members of the experimental group had to talk out loud and explain their reasoning as they worked. Kim found that European Americans who talked out loud solved the problem just as well as those who stayed silent, but being forced to talk seriously undermined the Asian students' performance.
In general, Kim says, Asians may think and reason in a less readily "verbalizable" way than Westerners.
"It's more intuitive and less linear," she says. "So when you have to talk aloud, European Americans just vocalize their thoughts, but Asian Americans-on top of solving the problem-have to translate their thoughts into words."
In general, Nisbett says, he expects that over the next few decades work by researchers like Kim-and other Asian and Asian-American psychologists-will profoundly influence the way psychologists think about which aspects of thinking are universal and which are culture-specific.
"They're going to be bringing very different ways of thinking about cognitive psychology, social psychology, developmental psychology," he says. "They're going to change the field."