The problem, for researchers, with these last three levels of explanations is that they would all interact, and it would be difficult, if not impossible to tease them apart in practice. And of course, there are all sorts of observed differences, which may all have different causes. The best we can do, then, is look to see whether manipulating something from the environment, culture, or language (which, I know, isn't really separate from culture, but neither is the environment) affects a particular cultural difference. This won't tell us where that level fits in the causal chain, but it would at least be positive evidence that it fits in it somewhere. For example, by manipulating an hypothesized effect of culture, like fear of isolation, we can show that one factor resides at the level of culture, or by showing that cultures with different numbers of color terms perceive colors differently, we can show that language has some influence. Having talked about those levels in previous posts, I thought I'd talk a little bit about the potential role of the environment this time. Again, looking at one level doesn't exclude the other levels, because we don't know how the different levels might interact. It just says that that level plays a role. So the purpose of the research I'm going to describe is not to show that perception is the cause of cultural differences in cognition and perception, just that it might be one among many.
One interesting observed difference between Europeans an East Asian (e.g., Japanese and Filipinos) has to do with attention and perception. The difference is usually framed in terms of analytic vs. holistic perception. For example, in one experiment1, Japanese and European American participants were first given a square (which served as the frame) with a line inside it (see the figure below). That square was then removed, and they were given an empty square different in size from the original, and asked to draw a line inside it that was either the same length as the original line (absolute condition) or that had the same length relative to the frame (relative condition).
The European American participants were significantly more accurate than the Japanese participants in the absolute condition, while the Japanese participants were significantly more accurate than the European American participants in the relative task.
In another experiment2, this one on "change blindness", European American and Japanese participants were presented with moving scenes. In each scene, there were large, "rapidly moving" foreground objects set against a static background scene. In one condition, aspects of the objects in the foreground changed, while in others, aspects of the static background changed. European Americans were significantly better than the Japanese participants at detecting changes to foreground objects, while Japanese participants were better at detecting changes to the background.
These findings, and others, have been used to argue that Europeans tend to focus their attention on objects, independent of context (i.e., to attend and perceive analytically), while East Asians focus on the context (attending and perceiving holistically). But again, they just demonstrate the difference, and weren't designed to assess any causal hypotheses. However, these findings do contain clues. Miyamoto, Nisbett, and Masuda3 noted that in the change blindness experiment, when the participants were shown Japanese scenes, both the European Americans and Japanese noticed more changes to the background than to the foreground objects, and when the scenes were American scenes, participants from both cultures detected more changes in the foreground objects. Might there be some difference in typical scenes to which people from the two different cultures are exposed, then, and might these differences influence the adoption of particular attentional styles?
To answer this question, Miyamoto et al. first gathered photos of scenes from similar contexts (schools, hotels, and post offices) from six cities, three in the U.S. and three in Japan. For each country, one of the cities was a small city (population less than 5,000), one medium-sized (population ~100,000), and one large (population ~8,000,000). Examples of the photos are below. They hypothesized that at each city-size, the Japanese scenes would be more "complex" and "ambiguous" than the American scenes. This, they further hypothesized, would cause the Japanese scenes to prime the holistic, context-focused attentional style observed in East Asian participants in previous experiments, while the American scenes would prime the analytic, object-focused attentional style observed in American participants. To test the first hypothesis, they used two measures of complexity and ambiguity. For the first, they presented participants with 82 photos, 41 of Japanese scenes and 41 of American, and asked them to answer the following four questions about each photo (on a 5-point scale):
- "How ambiguous is the boundary of each object?"
- "How many different objects do there seem to be?"
- "To what degree do there seem to be parts of the scene that are invisible?"
- "To what degree is the scene either chaotic or organized?"
Having shown that the Japanese scenes were indeed more complex and ambiguous, Miyamoto et al. conducted another change blindness study to test their second hypothesis. In this study, culturally neutral scenes were presented to both Japanese and European American participants. In each scene, changes occurred either in the background or to foreground objects, as in the previous change blindness experiments. In this experiment, though, participants were primed with either Japanese or American scenes prior to viewing the culturally neutral scenes. Miyamoto et al. predicted that priming them with scenes from Japanese cities would prime holistic attentional focus, and the American scenes would prime analytic attentional focus, regardless of whether the participants were Japanese or American.
As in the previous change-blindness study, Japanese participants in this study perceived more changes to the background, overall, than American participants, though both American and Japanese participants detected about the same number of changes to foreground objects. In essence, Japanese participants detected more changes than American participants. More importantly, when primed with scenes from Japanese cities, both the American and Japanese participants detected more changes to the background than when they were primed with American scenes, and when primed with American scenes, Japanese participants detected more changes to foreground objects than when primed with Japanese scenes. American participants' detection of changes to foreground objects did not differ as a function of the type of priming image.
Overall, then, the data is consistent with the second hypothesis, that the different types of scenes in the two countries contribute to the differences in attentional style between the two cultures. Miyamoto et al. don't really offer any reasons why this might be. Perhaps the greater complexity in the Japanese scenes makes attending to specific objects more difficult, or makes each individual object slightly less salient, thus making it easier and more effective to attend to the overall context. They do, however, make it clear that differences in the complexity and ambiguity of the scenes is not likely to be the only cause of the differences in attention, and that there may be cultural factors that influence what types of scenes predominate in a particular culture, though they don't speculate on what those factors might be. In the final analysis, then, the study doesn't tell us a whole heck of a lot. At least the study provides a step in the right direction though, in that it shows that there are environmental factors at work in shaping cultural styles in attention and perception. So, while the study doesn't add anything to my answer to questions about cultural differences in cognition, it at least lets me feel more confident in telling people that environmental factors are one type of potential cause.
1Ishii, K., & Kitayama, S. (2003). Selective attention to contextual information in Japan. Poster presented at 25th Annual meeting of Cognitive Science Society; Kitayama, S., Duffy, S., Kawamura, T., & Larsen, J.T. (2003). Perceiving an object and its context in different cultures: a cultural look at new look." Psychological Science, 14(3), 201-206.
2Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R.E. (In Press). Culture and change blindness. Cognitive Science.
3Miyamoto, Y., Nisbett, R.E., & Masuda, T. (2006). Culture and the physical environment: Holistic versus analytic perceptual affordances. Psychological Science, 17(2), 113-119.