Asians, Americans See World Differently

By RANDOLPH E. SCHMID, AP Science Writer

Monday, August 22, 2005


(08-22) 14:07 PDT WASHINGTON, (AP) --

Asians and North Americans really do 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, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.


The researchers led by Hannah-Faye Chua and Richard Nisbett tracked the

eye movements of the students 25 European Americans and 27 native

Chinese to determine where they were looking in a picture and how long

they focused on a particular area.


"They literally are seeing the world differently," said Nisbett, who

believes the differences are cultural.


"Asians live in more socially complicated world than we do," he said in a

telephone interview. "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


And that, he went on, goes back to the ecology and economy of times

thousands of years ago.


In ancient China farmers developed a system of irrigated agriculture,

Nisbett said. Rice farmers had to get along with each other to share water

and make sure no one cheated.


Western attitudes, on the other hand, developed in ancient Greece where

there were more people running individual farms, raising grapes and

olives, and operating like individual businessmen.


So 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


He illustrated this with a test asking Japanese and Americans to look at

pictures of underwater scenes and report what they saw.


The 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 and twice

as much about the relationship between background and foreground objects

as Americans, 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 on the background and back and forth between the

main object and the background, he said.


Reinforcing the belief that the differences are cultural, he said, when

Asians raised in North America were studied, they were intermediate

between native Asians and European-Americans, and sometimes closer to

Americans in the way they viewed scenes.


Kyle R. Cave of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst commented:

"These results are particularly striking because they show that these

cultural differences extend to low level perceptual processes such as how

we control our eyes. They suggest that the way that we see and explore the

world literally depends on where we come from."


Cave said researchers in his lab have found differences in eye movement

between Asians and Westerners in reading, based on differences in the

styles of writing in each language.


"When you look beyond this study to all of the studies finding cultural

differences, you find that people from one culture do better on some

tasks, while people from other cultures do better on others. I think it

would be hard to argue from these studies that one culture is generally

outperforming the other cognitively," Cave said.