Tiger Eyes. Eye movements from a Chinese student (top) and an American student (bottom) show where the subjects' eyes wandered (orange lines), lingered (blue circles), and how long they stayed at one point (size of circles). The size and position of the white circle represents where the student first stopped and stared.

What Are You Looking At?

Carolyn is a staff writer for Science and is the editor of the In Brief section.

Look at the picture on this page. Does it show an orange tiger or a forest scene? Your answer may depend on your nationality. New research suggests that Chinese and American students focus on different parts of complex pictures--a factor that may influence how they describe the image to others, and how they view the world more generally.

Studies by Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and colleagues have shown that a person's cultural background can influence how he or she recalls a complex visual scene. East Asians tend to remember and note changes to background details more accurately, for example, while Americans retain more detail about a scene's central object. But such studies didn't identify when these differences in perception arise: Do people from different cultures describe or perhaps remember scenes differently, or do they actually see them differently from the start?

To make the distinction, Nisbett and colleagues brought a well-known tool from cognitive psychology into the social psychology realm. Wearing a headset with a built-in eye-movement tracker, 25 European-American and 27 Chinese graduate students (born and educated in China through the undergraduate level) observed 36 pictures for three seconds each. Like the tiger image, the pictures always had a single foreground object with a realistic background.

The Americans zoomed in on the foreground object, such as the tiger, sooner and for a longer time than the Chinese participants, the researchers found. The Chinese, conversely, spent more time taking in the background scene before focusing on the foreground object, and spent less time studying it, the team reports online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"As best I know, this is the first example clearly documenting [cultural differences in] where people look when they're encoding a scene," says Daniel Simons, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Why certain cultures take different approaches to studying pictures--whether it's driven by the nature of the image or by cultural biases--is harder to tell, Simons says. However, Nisbett suggests that these visual perception differences reflect more fundamental outlook differences between these two cultures: East Asians take a more holistic, relational perspective, while the Americans' worldview tends to be more individualistic and object-oriented, he says.

Related sites
Nisbett's home page
Visual Cognition and Human Performance at UIUC
Cultural Psychology resources, from Social Psychology Network

Posted in Brain & Behavior