Wed, Aug 24, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Chinese and Americans just don't `see' eye to eye

CULTURAL GLASSES?Researchers have found that people of different ethnicities process certain visual data differently, and think culture is responsible


Asians and North Americans may really see the world differently.

Shown a photograph, North American students of European background paid more attention to the object in the foreground of a scene, while students from China spent more time studying the background and taking in the whole scene, researchers at the University of Michigan say.

Researchers led by Hannah-Faye Chua and Richard Nisbett tracked the eye movement of the students -- 25 European Americans and 27 native Chinese -- to determine where they looked in a picture and how long they focused on a particular area.

"They literally are seeing the world differently," said Nisbett, with Westerners focusing on objects and Asians taking in more context to view a scene holistically.

He believes the differences are cultural.

"Asians live in a more socially complicated world than we do," he said. "They have to pay more attention to others than we do. We are individualists. We can be bulls in a China shop, they can't afford it."

The key thing in Chinese culture is harmony, Nisbett said, while in the West the key is finding ways to get things done, paying less attention to others.

And that, he went on, goes back to the ecology and economy of thousands of years ago.

In ancient China farmers developed a system of irrigated agriculture, Nisbett said, in which farmers had to get along with each other to share water and make sure no one cheated. This is especially the case in rice farming, he said.

Western attitudes, on the other hand, developed in ancient Greece where more smallholders ran individual farms, raising grapes and olives, and operating like individual businessmen.

Thus, differences in perception go back at least 2,000 years, he said.

Aristotle, for example, focused on objects. A rock sank in water because it had the property of gravity, wood floated because it had the property of floating. He would not have mentioned the water. The Chinese, though, considered all actions related to the medium in which they occurred, so they understood tides, they understood magnetism, long before the West did.

He illustrated this with a test asking Japanese and Americans to look at pictures of underwater scenes and report what they saw.

Americans would go straight for the brightest or most rapidly moving object, he said, such as three trout swimming.

The Japanese were more likely to say they saw a stream, the water was green, there were rocks on bottom and then mention the fish.

The Japanese gave 60 percent more information on the background than the Americans and twice as much about the relationship between background and foreground objects, he said.

In the latest test, the researchers tracked the eye movement of the Chinese and Americans as they looked at pictures.

The Americans looked at the object in the foreground sooner -- a leopard in the jungle, for example -- and they looked at it longer. The Chinese had more eye movement, especially more eye movement in the background and back and forth between the main object and the background, he said.

"The Americans are seeing an object and explaining behavior in terms of the object and the Chinese are seeing the context more," Nisbett said.

Reinforcing the belief that differences are cultural, he said, was the finding that when they study Asians raised in North America, they lie between native Asians and European-Americans, and are sometimes closer to Americans, in the way they view scenes.

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