24 August 2005

Another Way Asia Will Kick Our Ass

A study published in the latest Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS or “pee-nas” to researchers) details differences in eye movements of Asians vs. Americans. In other words, how they look around at stuff. Apparently, this is more meaningful than we think:

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 University of Michigan researchers.

To be specific:
Nisbett 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 the 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, Nisbett 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.

But the important thing is to keep your self-esteem intact:
"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.

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