The Big Ideas of 2010

What Do You See?

Is your brain East or West?
Is your brain East or West?
IMAGES COURTESY TAKAHIKO MASUDA

A plainclothes cop walks into a diner and finds no less than five gun-wielding criminals holding up the crowded joint. “We’re not just going to let you walk out of here,” the cop says. “Who’s we, sucka?” says one of the criminals. “Smith and Wesson and me,” says the cop. He draws his Smith & Wesson and – in a crowded diner – shoots four of the criminals and advances on the last gunman, who’s holding a pistol to a hostage’s head. One itchy trigger finger and the hostage could be dead. The cop glares at the criminal. “Go ahead, make my day.” The cop is “Dirty Harry” Callahan, but really he could be any Hollywood hero. The movie is Sudden Impact, but really it could be any movie or book or manifestation of Western culture.

With a few modern updates, Western culture has been re-creating the same story over and over again since Homer collected The Odyssey more than two and a half thousand years ago. Since the Greeks, the ideal of the unique and strong individual has become so prevalent in Western culture that we have stopped realizing that it is even part of our culture. Often we mistake our perceptions of the world for how the world really is.

Psychologists have long known that North Americans overestimate their own distinctiveness, especially in comparison with East Asians. When asked to describe themselves, Americans and Canadians tend to talk about their individual personality and personal outlook more than Japanese do. North Americans tend to settle arguments in terms of right and wrong, whereas East Asians tend to seek compromises. Dirty Harry is an extreme and violent example, but he is emblematic of Western culture and he sums up our single-minded, goal-oriented behavior with aplomb. “When I see an adult male chasing a female with the intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That’s my policy.”


New research shows that culture even affects our cognition. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology claims that Americans and Japanese intuit the emotions of others differently based on cultural training. “North Americans try to identify the single important thing that is key to making a decision,” explains Dr. Takahiko Masuda, the study’s author, over the phone from his office at the University of Alberta. “In East Asia they really care about the context.” He studied the eye movement of Americans and Japanese when analyzing a picture of a group of cartoon people. When asked to interpret the emotion of the person in the center, the Japanese looked at the person for about one second before moving on to the people in the background. They needed to know how the group was feeling before understanding the emotion of the individual. The Americans (and Canadians in subsequent studies) focused 95% of their attention on the person in the center. Only 5% of their attention was focused on the background, and this, Dr. Masuda points out, didn’t influence their interpretation of the central figure’s emotion. For North Americans the foreground is all-important.

Dr. Masuda is quick to point out that Americans and Japanese are physiologically the same. The difference in eye movement is tied to the roots of our respective cultures. When trying to explain the natural world, the Ancient Greeks – the founders of Western civilization – tended to focus on central objects and sought to explain their rules of behavior. Funnily enough, Aristotle thought a rock had the property of “gravity.” It didn’t occur to him that a system was working its powers on the rock. The Chinese on the other hand took a more holistic approach. They believed that everything occurred within a context, or a field of forces, and thus they unraveled the relationship between the moon and the tides.

These differences in philosophy can be explained, at least in part, by the environments that spawned them. “We are surrounded by socially created information, which affects our perception,” Masuda explains. And perception affects our culture. Research shows that North American cities are less cluttered than East Asian cities, which means that North Americans can spend more time considering salient objects. When Americans or Canadians visit East Asia, they are often overwhelmed by the amount of information they have to process. I have experienced this phenomenon personally. The first time I bused from Incheon Airport into Seoul, South Korea, I was dumbfounded by the number of buildings, advertisements, lights, cars and people and had to turn away from the window to stop my head from spinning. Dr. Masuda first arrived in North America when he was 26. Compared to Japan, which was crowded with people and objects and “complex pieces of information,” he felt North American cities to be lonely places.

Masuda stresses that no way of perceiving the world is better than another and refuses to interpret his studies too broadly. He has yet to conduct his tests in Africa or South America. But it seems to me that Masuda’s study is important: It reminds us that there is more than one way of seeing the world.

North Americans have a tendency toward isolating singular goals and working doggedly towards them. And we have achieved some remarkable accomplishments. We put a man on the moon, invented the telephone and the airplane and achieved a thousand more seemingly impossible tasks. We congratulate ourselves on our individualism in our movies, our art, our personal relationships and, of course, our politics. But as we do so, we perpetuate this trait – perception informs culture, culture informs perception – until we mistake the way we see the world for the only way to see the world.

As alluring as the Dirty Harry approach may be, is it time to put away our Smith & Wesson and start considering the other customers in the diner? The problems we face today – the environmental degradation of our planet, global recession, religious fundamentalism – don’t fit inside borders or simple categories. Context is unavoidable. We need to start looking for it.

66 comments on the article “What Do You See?”

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History Punk

Please, the Japanese are as Western as Americans or the Brits. Sure, there are minor difference as there is within "Western" cultures, but since the civilizing, modernizing, and lets be honest, improving done by the American Occupation of Japan after the Second World War the Japanese have become, for good or ill (but almost for good) respected members of the West. South Korea is the same way. As is Taiwan. Singapore is getting there.

History Punk

Please, the Japanese are as Western as Americans or the Brits. Sure, there are minor difference as there is within "Western" cultures, but since the civilizing, modernizing, and lets be honest, improving done by the American Occupation of Japan after the Second World War the Japanese have become, for good or ill (but almost for good) respected members of the West. South Korea is the same way. As is Taiwan. Singapore is getting there.

Anonymous

"Harry is an extreme and violent example, but he is emblematic of Western culture and he sums up our single-minded, goal-oriented behavior with aplomb. “When I see an adult male chasing a female with the intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That’s my policy.”

Yes, if I'm ever being raped or see someone else about to be, maybe I'll take the apparent 'japanese policy' and stand there and survey the context of the situation. I'd hate to be guilty of being "single-minded" or "goal orientated".

Anonymous

"Harry is an extreme and violent example, but he is emblematic of Western culture and he sums up our single-minded, goal-oriented behavior with aplomb. “When I see an adult male chasing a female with the intent to commit rape, I shoot the bastard. That’s my policy.”

Yes, if I'm ever being raped or see someone else about to be, maybe I'll take the apparent 'japanese policy' and stand there and survey the context of the situation. I'd hate to be guilty of being "single-minded" or "goal orientated".

Anonymous

yeah... that was probably the worst example the author could have given. I might steal those quotation marks:
"When I go into a situation, I go in with both guns blazing. That's my policy." or "Every problem can be solved quickly with power. That's my policy." something... else. Did you even try there? OK OK...! let me try to think of a worse one! ahem. "When I see a 500 lb Gorilla sodomizing a bus full of nuns.... ahhh nothin

Anonymous

yeah... that was probably the worst example the author could have given. I might steal those quotation marks:
"When I go into a situation, I go in with both guns blazing. That's my policy." or "Every problem can be solved quickly with power. That's my policy." something... else. Did you even try there? OK OK...! let me try to think of a worse one! ahem. "When I see a 500 lb Gorilla sodomizing a bus full of nuns.... ahhh nothin

rusl

Well, you could try to actually stop the rape instead of shooting someone to extinguish your own burning desire for "justice."

Do you really think that for the victim it is going to be wonderful to have a crazy person shot dead in front of you/onto you/the gun nearly just missing you? What if cowboy's aim fails? Would you be thankful or further traumatised when someone "saving" you didn't care for your safety enough to prioritise protecting it over shooting someone "bad." You almost get shot along with a crazy man you see die right in front of you? Fun.

In this example the context to consider might be even the victim. Or, look around, find out what is going on, maybe it isn't a rape but just looks like it because you are looking at things down the barrel of a gun? Maybe it is consenting role-play: Thanks for shooting my kinky boyfriend asshole?

rusl

Well, you could try to actually stop the rape instead of shooting someone to extinguish your own burning desire for "justice."

Do you really think that for the victim it is going to be wonderful to have a crazy person shot dead in front of you/onto you/the gun nearly just missing you? What if cowboy's aim fails? Would you be thankful or further traumatised when someone "saving" you didn't care for your safety enough to prioritise protecting it over shooting someone "bad." You almost get shot along with a crazy man you see die right in front of you? Fun.

In this example the context to consider might be even the victim. Or, look around, find out what is going on, maybe it isn't a rape but just looks like it because you are looking at things down the barrel of a gun? Maybe it is consenting role-play: Thanks for shooting my kinky boyfriend asshole?

Anonymous

You people take this article WAY too literally. All they're doing is comparing eastern and western minds. Nobody said "just stand there and let them get raped".

Anonymous

You people take this article WAY too literally. All they're doing is comparing eastern and western minds. Nobody said "just stand there and let them get raped".

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