Chinese and Americans differ in visual analysis

asian_girl.jpgAn experiment conducted by psychologist Richard Nisbett suggests that Chinese and American people analyse scenes differently. The Americans focused on the main object in the picture, while the Chinese took a more holistic approach, and examined more of the visual context.

Traditionally, Western societies are characterised as ‘individualistic’ and Eastern societies as ‘collectivist’, suggesting that in countries like China and Japan, the focus is on society as a whole, rather than each person’s individual characteristics.

Some have suggested that this reflects the different philosophical traditions of these cultures, with the West tending to approach problems by analytically breaking them down into component parts, and the East looking at problems in their wider context.

Nisbett’s experiment suggests that this tendency may influence mental function even on the unconscious level, as his effect was found when participants were simply asked to view pictures, while their eye movements were tracked with an infra-red camera.

Importantly, the participants were unaware of the full intention of the experiment, and were told they were taking part in a study to test memory for pictures.

Why the picture of the Chinese girl? I just thought she looked beautiful.

Link to write-up from Science (with good example of eye-tracking result).
Link to New Scientist story.
Link to Scientific American story.

2 thoughts on “Chinese and Americans differ in visual analysis”

  1. Maybe I am being too simplistic here, but couldn’t most of the difference be tracked down to something so basic as the writing systems?
    I believe other studies have occasionally shown how levels of literacy (e.g. reading/tv-watching) may impact general perception of objects… It doesn’t sound far-fetched then to imagine that radically different reading habits influence mental functions differently too.
    The visual approach to hanzi/kanji reading is very much unlike alphabet reading… Oddly enough, native readers hardly ever consider the composing elements of a Chinese character, but instead subconsciously look at the general shape to extract the meaning and pronunciation. Even assuming a certain degree of grouping to alphabet reading (e.g. an entire word instead of composing letters), it is nowhere near the level.
    Likely, this could also be attached to the traditionally holistic attitude found in Eastern philosophy, compared to Western analytical thought. But wouldn’t it then become a cause rather than a consequence of this phenomenon?

  2. Dr. Dave – Nisbett agrees with you – he is saying that the differences in perception IS a product of culture (of which language and philosophy is a function). Take a look at this article:
    Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2001). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition. Psychological Review, 108(2), 291-310.

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