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Scientific American: A study ($) of Chinese and American students has found that the two groups looked at scenes in photographs in distinct ways. The findings indicate that previously observed cultural differences in judgment and memory between East Asians and North Americans derive from differences in what they actually see. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that whereas North Americans tend to be more analytic when evaluating a scenario, fixating on the focal object, East Asians are generally more holistic, giving more consideration to the context. Researchers have not known, however, whether these differences originate during the encoding, retrieval, or mental comparison stages of perceptual-cognitive processing, or whether they might even be the result of reporting bias.

To try to pinpoint when these differences emerge, Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which Chinese and American students were shown a number of images, each depicting a single subject against a realistic and complex background. The participants--who wore an eye-movement tracker during the tests--were then shown pictures containing the same subjects on either old or new backgrounds and asked to judge whether they had seen the subjects before.

percept01As the team predicted, the American students homed in on the focal subject sooner and longer than did the Chinese students, who paid more attention to the background imagery. This suggests that the Americans encoded more visual details for the focal objects than did the Chinese, which would explain why the Americans fared better when it came to determining whether they had seen a given subject before, even when it was presented against a new backdrop.

Nisbett and his collaborators posit that these differences in attention to object and context arise through socialization practices. "East Asians live in relatively complex social networks with prescribed role relations. Attention to context is, therefore, important for effective functioning," the scientists observe. "In contrast, Westerners live in less constraining social worlds that stress independence and allow them to pay less attention to context. [Source]

percept02Proportion of fixations to object or background, across the 3-s time course of a trial. Data points are sampled every 10 ms for 0–1,500 ms, and every 50 ms for 1,500–3,000 ms, averaging over all 36 trials. The sum of percentages at each time point may not total 100% because, at times, participants were in the process of making a saccade, thus they were in between fixations. The graph illustrates distinct eye tracking patterns of Americans and Chinese during the 3-s period. Cultural differences begin by 420 ms after onset, when an interaction of culture and region was observed, with the Chinese, but not the Americans continuing to fixate the background more than the focal object. Averaging the data from 420 to 1,100 ms, Americans were fixating focal objects at a greater proportion than backgrounds, compared with Chinese. Averaging the data from 1,100 to 3,000 ms, Chinese were fixating more often to the backgrounds and less to the objects, compared with Americans.