I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Culture and Perception

A recent study shows that Asians and Americans really do see the world differently, based on eye movement and what people focus on when they describe pictures. I didn't find this particularly suprising, and of course agree with the researchers that the differences are learned and cultural (though I am not sure I entirely believe their explanation for the origins of those cultural differences).

Americans focus on the foreground, or the most prominent object in a scene, while Asians take in the background and see the whole picture and how the object relate to one another. These particular differences forced me to reflect on my own perceptions as an observer and anthropologist--I would like to believe that I see that whole picture, but if I am honest, I probably do see that prominent bit first, then have to remember to register the background too.


rishi said...

Could you please cite this study? The link you've provided doesn't work and I'd love to get more information.

Thanks very much!

Alex said...

Hi Rishi-
Here is some more info. The article (which has now gone offline) was on the AP wires on August 22, 2005, titled "Asians and North Americans see the world in different ways," written by Randolf Schmid. It talked about a study at the University of Michigan led by Hannah-Faye Chua and Richard Nisbett. Here is a quote:

"They literally are seeing the world differently," said Nisbett, with Westerners focusing on objects and Asians taking in more context to view a scene holistically.

He 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."