Culture and Perception

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While taking a break, we are happy to republish some of our favorite 'oldies but goodies'. This one was first put online in December of last year (2008). It was the first installment of a series of posts on Richard Nisbett's theory of culture and perception. Enjoy!

In a lively account published in Trends In Cognitive Sciences (see here), Nisbett and Miyamoto (2005) made the case for "cultural" influences on perception. The crux of the argument is this : visual perception in Americans is more analytical, while in Asians it is more holistic. Americans pay attention to details, Asians to the larger picture. Americans examine objects in isolation, Asians are more sensitive to context. In the authors' own words (p. 469):

"[...], we believe there is considerable evidence that shows that Asians are inclined to attend to, perceive and remember contexts and relationships whereas Westerners are more likely to attend to, perceive and remember the attributes of salient objects and their category memberships. It should be noted that the perceptual and attentional differences just described are in general quite large, sometimes even close to one standard deviation. Indeed, in the typical study, Asians and Westerners were found to behave in qualitatively different ways."

The evidence referred to above consists of psychological experiments that compared the behaviour of Westerners and Asians using mostly well-established paradigms. Change blindness, for example, is a popular staple of visual psychology: people often fail to detect large differences between two pictures shown in succession.

Masuda and Nisbett have found that Japanese subjects are more likely to detect changes to the background, while Americans are relatively more likely to detect changes in salient objects. From this and other findings, the authors argue that Asians and Westerners show qualitative differences in patterns of attention

This is meant as a challenge to a well-entrenched view in psychophysics (the part of psychology that deals with perception) that the main features of visual perception are defined by the common biological background of the human species and that issues of culture are, thankfully, someone else's headache. This allows for a convenient focus on exclusively running work colleagues and undergraduate students as subjects.

Psychophysicists like to cut up visual perception into an ill-defined hierarchy that runs from low-level stuff to high-level stuff. Examples of low-level stuff include contrast detection and orientation discrimination, whereas face perception is high-level stuff, and the perception of emotions is practically social psychology (ewww). It is understood that any topic that falls a level or two below your own favourite object of study is terribly technical and therefore boring, and anything above your own level is badly-controlled pop science, and boring. Hence, to someone who studies orientation discrimination, the properties of receptors in the retina is too low-level a topic and boring, and object recognition is a high-level nightmare, a philosophical quagmire, and boring.

It's probably fair to say that most people working in the field assume that low-level mechanisms are less susceptible to interindividual variation (pathologies aside), whereas high-level mechanisms are less constrained, people have better conscious control over them, etc. It is absolutely fair to question this assumption, but that is not really the point here. The point is that, given this assumption, evidence for inter-cultural variations in low-level mechanisms is more surprising and can be construed as going against the consensus. Color perception is thought to be low-level, and that is why there has been much interest in potential influences of language on the perception of colors ever since the original Berlin & Kay study. So when Nisbett & Masuda (2006) talk about cultural variation in "basic visual processes", what level in the...
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