Millions of people around the world watched Michael Phelps step onto the podium to receive his eighth gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. They all saw the same broad grin and brown eyes, but they didn't see them in the same way, new research shows.
For years, psychologists believed all humans perceived faces in a piecemeal fashion: first scanning across the eyes and then down to the nose and mouth. The idea meshed well with other findings that Westerners generally process visual information analytically, one bit at a time, like a computer. But it didn't match research showing that East Asians process the same information more holistically. For example, an American might watch the swimming medal ceremony and fixate on Phelps and his cache of medals. A Beijing native might watch the same scene and notice the winner but also the coach standing nearby, the platform, the television cameras, and other features of the background.
The discrepancy puzzled Roberto Caldara, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow in the U.K. To investigate whether people in countries in East Asia see faces in the same manner, Caldara's team tracked eye movements of 15 Caucasian students and 14 East Asian students as they viewed a series of faces and were tested on those images. The East Asian students--eight Chinese and six Japanese--had spent only about 1 week in the United Kingdom before the experiment. The subjects viewed 14 faces on a computer screen and had to press a button when they recognized one of them in a series of new faces. In a separate task, the students had to categorize 56 faces as either East Asian or Caucasian. During the tasks, the team tracked the students' eye movements with tiny cameras.
The eye-tracker confirmed that Westerners tend to dart from the eyes to the mouth and back again. Conversely, the East Asian students fixated on central points in the face, which the researchers believe enables them to view all its information at once, they report today in PLoS ONE. Both groups scored about the same on the recognition and categorization tasks, showing their methods were equally effective in identifying faces, Caldara notes. "In this difference, there is still something common and universal."
Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, says the findings fit with other research on culture and visual perception. Speaking broadly, says Nisbett, people in East Asian cultures tend to prize collectivism and harmony above the individuality valued in Western cultures. These social values are so powerful, he says, that they may influence a trait biologists previously thought was hard-wired in our species.