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Last Updated: Monday, 22 August 2005, 23:23 GMT 00:23 UK
Different view for East and West
Student looking at a picture of a tiger during experiment
Students' eye movements were monitored
Western and Eastern people look at the world in different ways, University of Michigan scientists have claimed.

Researchers compared the way 26 Chinese and 25 US students viewed photographs of animals or inanimate objects set against complex backgrounds.

Westerners' eyes tended to focus on the main subject while the eyes of their Eastern counterparts kept flicking to background details, they said.

The study is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

People from different cultures may allocate attention differently, even within a shared environment
University of Michigan

Its findings appear consistent with previous research which has suggested Eastern people think in a more holistic way than Westerners, instinctively paying greater heed to context.

In contrast, Westerners were thought to be more focused and analytical.

The latest study found that to start with, both American and Chinese students fixed mainly on the background.

But after 420 milliseconds the Americans began to concentrate their attention more on the foreground objects.

This was not true for the Chinese, who kept throwing glances at the background.

Memory differences

The researchers also tested the ability of volunteers to remember previously seen foreground objects when they were superimposed against new backgrounds.

The Chinese students were more likely to forget they had been shown an object before.

In their memory, the foreground object and its original background appeared to be bound together.

The researchers, led by Dr Richard Nisbett, wrote: "The Americans' propensity to fixate sooner and longer on the foregrounded objects suggests that they encoded more visual details of the objects than did the Chinese.

"If so, this could explain the Americans' more accurate recognition of the objects even against a new background."

The researchers suggested social practices may play a role in the differing approaches.

"East Asians live in relatively complex social networks with prescribed role relations.

"Attention to context is, therefore, important for effective functioning.

"In contrast, Westerners live in less constraining social worlds that stress independence and allow them to pay less attention to context.

"The present results provide a useful warning in a world were opportunities to meet people from other cultural backgrounds continue to increase.

"People from different cultures may allocate attention differently, even within a shared environment.

"The result is that we see different aspects of the world, in different ways."


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