On this sad anniversary of the twin towers, I’ve been thinking about how different people on earth see things differently. I’ve been reading of the work of psychologist Richard E. Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerns See Things Differently and Why (Free Press, 2003).
Nisbett’s life work powerfully demonstrates that those of us in the West (by which he means Europeans and North Americans) see the world and think very differently that people in Eastern Asia, which includes the Chinese, and all those historically influenced by it.
We Westerners see the world as a big collection of individual things jostling around in empty space. We judge things only in relationship to themselves - their properties and the categories to which they belong.
We understand a labrador by observing its behavior and then logically deduce that it belongs to a category encompassing all creatures which bark and wag their tails, to which we assign a category called ‘dogs’. Where a labrador lives, who or what else affected by labrador behavior, the labrador’s relationship to the earth and sky — all of this, to our minds, is beside the point to the reductive categorizing label.
Life as a field
Eastern Asians, on the other hand, learn to understand things only in relation to other things. They see life only in relationship within a field of forces. They understand matter in the universe, not as discrete objects but as protean — continuous and interpenetrating. Confucius would be right at home with Niels Bohr and quantum physics.
An East Asian is brought up with such a strong sense of connection to others that he can only understand himself in terms of his relation to the whole, whether that be his family, his neighborhood, his culture, the Tao or even his sense of consciousness.
Because Easterners define their world so differently, they have learned to see it with a different set of eyes.
Nesbitt and his team at the department of Psychology at the University of Michigan have demonstrated the stark differences between Eastern and Western perception with a fascinating series of studies. Nesbitt, working with a colleague at Hoakkaido University in Japan, gathered together two groups of students at the two universities and showed them 20-second videos of underwater scenes.
After viewing the film twice, each participant was asked to report what he saw. The Americans invariably began describing the scene with the objects in the center – the fish. To the Japanese, the context, the field itself, was most important: the color of the water, the plants undulating in the current, the ocean floor. In total the Japanese made 65 per cent more observations about the field than did Americans and twice as many relationships between objects.
They were even more likely to see emotions in the fish than were their Western counterparts.
A different set of eyes
Fascinated by this, Nesbitt and his graduate student Hanna Fay Chua wished to study if Easterners and Westerners actually take in their surroundings in a different way. They designed a batch of photographs, each with a single object in the foreground – an airplane, or a tiger, say — against a complex background — the sky or the woods.
The researchers then monitored the eye movements of Americans and Chinese participants while they viewed the photographs.
When viewing the same scene two cultures actually saw something quite different. The Americans quickly fixated on a central object far more than the Chinese and also looked at it more quickly.
The Chinese, on the other hand, had far more rapid intermittent eye movement than the Americans, flitting from one point in the background after another. The Chinese had culturally learned to attend to the whole far more than the Westerners.
These cultural differences are particularly evident in the way members of the two cultures represent themselves in society. When the two groups of students were asked to take a photo of another student, the Japanese would always photograph the entire scene, with the whole person as relatively small against the entire background, whereas Americans would photograph the person in closeup.
When asked to describe themselves, North Americans will stress their individual personality traits, exaggerate their uniqueness and prefer to talk about what they regard as most distinctive about themselves and their possessions.
Indeed, in one intriguing study, when American and Korean students were given the choice of different colored pens to keep as a gift, the Americans chose the rarest colors, whereas the Koreans chose the most common.
One wanted to be the coolest man in the room; the other wanted to be the most invisible. One wanted to be most separate, the other the most embraced.