The way we think can be profoundly influenced by our cultural upbringing. Few psychological patterns are universal. Some patterns of behavior might be really reliable among European Americans but hard to find in other cultures. One big difference that psychologists have found between cultures is the difference between independence vs. interdependence as ways of thinking.
New research has shown that these mindsets can have a lot to do with how we visually see the world around us.
Cultural Differences in Independence vs. Interdependence
These two ways of thinking come down to how we think of ourselves. One way of thinking is to consider yourself as an independent entity, focused on your own needs and desires. Another way of thinking is to consider yourself as an interdependent entity, focused on how you fit within a group of people.
Overall, people from more Western cultures like the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe tend to think of themselves as independent selves whereas people from East Asian cultures like China, Japan, and Korea tend to think of themselves as interdependent selves. Of course, this is an average difference, but it can relate to cultural differences in what’s valued most.
Culture and Visual Perception
Vision is one of those things that seems so universal. When you look into the world, you’d probably guess that you’re seeing what I see. Time and again, however, psychologists find that what we see can be biased by our own motivations and beliefs. Indeed, plenty of research has shown that people from different cultures can perceive the same visual information in reliably distinct ways.
One way in which cultures differ is in their attention to context. People from Western cultures tend to pay more attention to the focal elements of a scene. Take a look at the photo below. Someone from the U.S. is relatively likely to see this is a photo of a bridge since that’s the focal element.
People from East Asian cultures, however, pay more attention to the context of the scene. Someone from this type of culture, then, would be relatively more likely to see the above photo as a picture of a forest. Sure, there’s a bridge in the forest, but that’s not what the scene is.
How can we know that this perception difference is real? One approach has been to look at something called change blindness. This is just that people generally aren’t great at noticing small changes from one image to the next. If you’ve ever done the “spot the difference” game in a Highlights magazine I should look into re-subscribing…, you’ll know how hard it can be. There are other scenarios in which change blindness can occur, but we’ll just focus on noticing differences between two images. For an example of what the activity is like, check out this example.
Research has shown that people from Western cultures are quicker to notice changes to the focal element of an image, compared to people from East Asian cultures. The opposite, however, is true for how long it takes people to notice changes to contextual elements–East Asian participants were better at that.
Putting People into “Me” vs. “We” Mindsets
So far, we’ve seen that cultures differ in their levels of independence vs. interdependence and in their perception of the visual images, but do we all have the power to look at the world in both of these ways? In other words, if you’re from a more independent, Western culture, could you be nudged to see the world more interdependently?
To answer that question, psychologists have given people activities that subtly put them into the “me” or the “we” mindset to see if it affects their perception of the world. They gave everyone short articles, and their job was to circle all of the pronouns in the article. Sometimes the article was written using more independent pronouns (e.g., “I”, “me”, “my”), but other times the article had the same content but was written using more interdependent pronouns (e.g., “us”, “we”, “our”). By getting people to focus on words like “we,” the researchers got people thinking in a more interdependent way, compared to the people who focused on words like “I.”
So in this study, people were randomly assigned to get into independent or interdependent mindsets, and then they did the change blindness activity. Once again, in this activity, people would see two versions of the same picture, one after the other, and they would have to find the small difference between them. Sometimes, the difference was about the focal object (e.g., the bridge in the above example) and sometimes the difference was about the environment (e.g., the forest in the above example).
The researchers measured how long it took before people noticed the difference. Since everyone in the study was from a Western culture, people were generally quicker to notice changes to the focal object. However, when people were put into a “we” mindset, they were quicker to notice changes to the bigger picture.
Mindsets and Perception
The real point of all of this is to say that differences between cultures reflect the default mindset that a given culture tends to adopt. It doesn’t mean, however, that there are strict cultural divides. We can all be nudged to think in slightly different ways, and it can end up coloring our perception of the world in front of us.
Even further, this research highlights the relationship between how we view ourselves (as independent or interdependent) and the way we visually perceive the world. By focusing on our interconnections with other people, we start to pay more attention to context, environment, and the “bigger picture.”
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