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?”

Displaying 51 - 60 of 66

Page 6 of 7

bruno b

i think Mr. Masuda designed an interesting study (and I think the commenter above that noticed the 'white guy' in front needs to check his assumptions, as this picture may or may not have been one that was used in the study), and i applaud his refusal to 'interpret his studies too broadly'.

i also think that the article was great while reporting on the study, but feel that the comments in the last two paragraphs (as well as the subtitle "is your brain east or west") constitute conclusions reached through exactly the same kind of thinking that Dirty Harry used: If it's broke, kill (change) it. i further suspect that using the same kind of thinking that got you into a mess ain't gonna get you out of it.

as someone wise once said, 'every complex system is perfectly designed to produce the results it is currently producing, and any intervention in such a system will just as inevitably create unintended consequences rather than improving results'.

my thought is that we should probably work on understanding the connection between our society / culture, our thinking, and our 'results' a bit more before assuming that what is needed is an attitude adjustment...

bruno b

i think Mr. Masuda designed an interesting study (and I think the commenter above that noticed the 'white guy' in front needs to check his assumptions, as this picture may or may not have been one that was used in the study), and i applaud his refusal to 'interpret his studies too broadly'.

i also think that the article was great while reporting on the study, but feel that the comments in the last two paragraphs (as well as the subtitle "is your brain east or west") constitute conclusions reached through exactly the same kind of thinking that Dirty Harry used: If it's broke, kill (change) it. i further suspect that using the same kind of thinking that got you into a mess ain't gonna get you out of it.

as someone wise once said, 'every complex system is perfectly designed to produce the results it is currently producing, and any intervention in such a system will just as inevitably create unintended consequences rather than improving results'.

my thought is that we should probably work on understanding the connection between our society / culture, our thinking, and our 'results' a bit more before assuming that what is needed is an attitude adjustment...

Anonymous

While New Research Shows that Culture Affects our Cognition, Common Knowledge Shows that Lack of an Education Affects an Individual's Cogitation

"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."

Ugh? Right. Of course the Ancient Greeks believed Earth to be flat (a disk), they had no idea of the distance between Earth and the moon and things related (such as tides), et cetera. In other words: reading up on your Classics, e.g. the Eleatics, might help you avoid sputtering utter nonsense and making a fool of your self (space intended).

Anonymous

While New Research Shows that Culture Affects our Cognition, Common Knowledge Shows that Lack of an Education Affects an Individual's Cogitation

"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."

Ugh? Right. Of course the Ancient Greeks believed Earth to be flat (a disk), they had no idea of the distance between Earth and the moon and things related (such as tides), et cetera. In other words: reading up on your Classics, e.g. the Eleatics, might help you avoid sputtering utter nonsense and making a fool of your self (space intended).

Graeme

Interesting, but overwrought.
There are stereotypes here of teeming Asia. Rural Asia, in large part, does not fit the stereotype of the cities. Conversely, to this Australian's eyes, many Nth American cities are relentless.
Nor is there a single Western way: the French for instance have an aesthetic that the deregulated consumer capitalism of the US, and much of England and Australia, lack.

Graeme

Interesting, but overwrought.
There are stereotypes here of teeming Asia. Rural Asia, in large part, does not fit the stereotype of the cities. Conversely, to this Australian's eyes, many Nth American cities are relentless.
Nor is there a single Western way: the French for instance have an aesthetic that the deregulated consumer capitalism of the US, and much of England and Australia, lack.

Anonymous

I would recommend the work of the following experts who have spent considerable effort in studying cross cultural attitudes.

1. Frans Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner.
http://www.amazon.com/Riding-Waves-Culture-Understanding-Diversity/dp/0786311258
---
2. Geert Hofstede.
http://www.amazon.com/Cultures-Consequences-Comparing-Institutions-Organizations/dp/0803973241
---
3. Richard E. Nisbett
http://www.amazon.com/Geography-Thought-Asians-Westerners-Differently/dp/0743255356
---

Anonymous

I would recommend the work of the following experts who have spent considerable effort in studying cross cultural attitudes.

1. Frans Trompenaar and Hampden-Turner.
http://www.amazon.com/Riding-Waves-Culture-Understanding-Diversity/dp/0786311258
---
2. Geert Hofstede.
http://www.amazon.com/Cultures-Consequences-Comparing-Institutions-Organizations/dp/0803973241
---
3. Richard E. Nisbett
http://www.amazon.com/Geography-Thought-Asians-Westerners-Differently/dp/0743255356
---

American in Seoul

I can't go on a date in Korea without going out with the girl's entire cadre of friends. It's interesting when it's not frustrating.

I'm a rather avid reader of post-colonial literature, so this type of article tickles my intellectual fancy. I'm also an American student in Seoul - so I often get that feeling of ideological conflict. I've had to alter my attitude quite a bit regarding social propriety, problem solving, and social relations since coming here.

With that said, I'd like to note that the above comment by "History Punk" is somewhat inaccurate. I think there's no doubt that S.E. Asia has become modernized, but this is a relative and often misleading term. S.E. Asia, particularly countries like Korea, are highly undoubtedly modernized come economic development, urban and technological expansion, and the distribution of wealth. However, this doesn't ineluctably lead to a total transformation of culture. Individualism is still largely frowned upon. Collectivism and traditionalism still pull mightily at the social psyche. A deference to one's "seniors" is still, by and large, strictly followed. There is an immensely strong emphasis on filial piety, and a habit of sharing everything, including the somewhat unhealthy habit of sharing food (although I've grown used to it, even if it's made me sick a few times). I know these a just a few surface level examples, but, trust me, there are plenty more.

I must note though that even in the short few years that I have been here, I've noticed quite significant changes in attitudes and cultural norms - if not total changes, then at least deviating patterns. Without getting too complex or elaborate, anyone who spends a significant amount of time in Asia notices first hand the influence of Western culture and ideas - I think of Gramsci's "Cultural Hegemony." The effect is an alteration in 'individual' attitude. There are benefits and downfalls to this, of which I don't care to divulge at the moment.

Personally I believe that it's inaccurate to try and parse "culture" into two competing categories - i.e. East-West. I've read too much Derrida and seen more than my fare share of cultural hybridity to believe too strongly in such distinctions. Doing so sets up the volatile East-West dichotomy. The solution is looking at culture (and ideology for that matter) as a living, breathing, ubiquitous and unclassifiable force. There is no pure "Western" or "Eastern" culture now - if there ever was. Now, in our hot, crowded and flat world, we are always connected, always sharing. The goal is to find the right balance that is suitable to the prevailing "norms of behavior" for a particular group of people while maintaining its openness to new ideas and constant evolution. That is what culture is about. Unfortunate, it cannot do without power(knowledge) and all its accompanying ills.

American in Seoul

I can't go on a date in Korea without going out with the girl's entire cadre of friends. It's interesting when it's not frustrating.

I'm a rather avid reader of post-colonial literature, so this type of article tickles my intellectual fancy. I'm also an American student in Seoul - so I often get that feeling of ideological conflict. I've had to alter my attitude quite a bit regarding social propriety, problem solving, and social relations since coming here.

With that said, I'd like to note that the above comment by "History Punk" is somewhat inaccurate. I think there's no doubt that S.E. Asia has become modernized, but this is a relative and often misleading term. S.E. Asia, particularly countries like Korea, are highly undoubtedly modernized come economic development, urban and technological expansion, and the distribution of wealth. However, this doesn't ineluctably lead to a total transformation of culture. Individualism is still largely frowned upon. Collectivism and traditionalism still pull mightily at the social psyche. A deference to one's "seniors" is still, by and large, strictly followed. There is an immensely strong emphasis on filial piety, and a habit of sharing everything, including the somewhat unhealthy habit of sharing food (although I've grown used to it, even if it's made me sick a few times). I know these a just a few surface level examples, but, trust me, there are plenty more.

I must note though that even in the short few years that I have been here, I've noticed quite significant changes in attitudes and cultural norms - if not total changes, then at least deviating patterns. Without getting too complex or elaborate, anyone who spends a significant amount of time in Asia notices first hand the influence of Western culture and ideas - I think of Gramsci's "Cultural Hegemony." The effect is an alteration in 'individual' attitude. There are benefits and downfalls to this, of which I don't care to divulge at the moment.

Personally I believe that it's inaccurate to try and parse "culture" into two competing categories - i.e. East-West. I've read too much Derrida and seen more than my fare share of cultural hybridity to believe too strongly in such distinctions. Doing so sets up the volatile East-West dichotomy. The solution is looking at culture (and ideology for that matter) as a living, breathing, ubiquitous and unclassifiable force. There is no pure "Western" or "Eastern" culture now - if there ever was. Now, in our hot, crowded and flat world, we are always connected, always sharing. The goal is to find the right balance that is suitable to the prevailing "norms of behavior" for a particular group of people while maintaining its openness to new ideas and constant evolution. That is what culture is about. Unfortunate, it cannot do without power(knowledge) and all its accompanying ills.

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