Facebook photos may reflect unconscious cultural differences

June 4, 2012
Profile photos of Americans (left) are more likely to focus on the individual’s face, researchers found. Profiles of East Asians (right) tend to de-emphasize faces and capture more background features. Credit: Images courtesy of the Center for Vital Longevity/The University of Texas at Dallas

For millions of Facebook users, choosing which photo to use for an online profile is an important decision. Should it be lighthearted or professional, personal or more abstract? According to a study by researchers at the UT Dallas Center for Vital Longevity and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the photos we select may reflect individual preferences, but they also appear to reflect more deeply rooted, unconscious cultural differences.

Previous research has shown that culture can affect not only language and custom, but also how we experience the world and process information. Western cultures, for example, condition people to think of themselves as highly independent entities, whereas East Asian cultures stress collectivism and interdependence. As such, Westerners tend to focus on central objects or faces more than on their surroundings when looking at a scene or painting portrait. East Asians, on the other hand, tend to focus on context as well as objects such as the scenery behind a person.

Dr. Denise Park, co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity and Distinguished University Chair in the School of Behavioral and at UT Dallas, and former graduate student Dr. Chih-Mao Huang of the University of Illinois, were curious about whether these patterns of cultural influence extend to cyberspace. In a paper published in the International Journal of Psychology, they examined the profile photographs of more than 500 active users from the United States and East Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan). Overall, they found that profile photos of Americans are more likely to focus on the individual's face, while the profiles of East Asians tend to de-emphasize the face and capture more background features. Americans also show greater smile intensity compared to East Asian Facebookers.

The findings demonstrate marked in the focus of attention among East Asian and American Facebook users. Moreover, they echo previous research on cultural influences on visual perception, attention, and reasoning in the offline world.

"We believe these findings relate to a cultural bias to be more individualistic and independent in the U.S. and more communal and interdependent in Asia," said Park.

The research also found that cultural influences over our self-presentation online can shift over time and from place to place. In one of the study samples, Americans studying in Taiwan and Taiwanese studying in the United States both showed a tendency to adjust their profile photos to the general preferences of their host country.

"Facebook constitutes an extended social context in which personal profiles mirror various individual characteristics, private thoughts, and social behaviors," noted Huang. "As such, the study presents a novel approach to investigate cognition and behaviors across cultures by using Facebook as a data collection platform."

Explore further: When it comes to emotions, Eastern and Western cultures see things very differently

Related Stories

Face recognition: nurture not nature

August 20, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers have discovered for the first time that our society can influence the way we recognise other people’s faces.

Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective

August 3, 2010

Where you grow up can have a big impact on the food you eat, the clothes you wear, and even how your brain works. In a report in a special section on Culture and Psychology in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal ...

Actions and personality, east and west

April 11, 2011

People in different cultures make different assumptions about the people around them, according to an upcoming study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The researchers ...

East views the world differently to West

February 6, 2012

Cultural differences between the West and East are well documented, but a study shows that concrete differences also exist in how British and Chinese people recognise people and the world around them. Easterners really do ...

Recommended for you

An inflexible diet led to the disappearance of the cave bear

August 23, 2016

Senckenberg scientists have studied the feeding habits of the extinct cave bear. Based on the isotope composition in the collagen of the bears' bones, they were able to show that the large mammals subsisted on a purely vegan ...

Paleontologists discover major T. rex fossil (Update)

August 18, 2016

Paleontologists with the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and the University of Washington have discovered a Tyrannosaurus rex, including a very complete skull. The find, which paleontologists estimate to be about ...

Was 'Iceman Otzi' a Copper Age fashionista?

August 18, 2016

The 5,300-year-old Alpine mummy known as the Tyrolean Iceman died wearing leather clothes and accessories harvested from no less than five wild or domesticated species, a DNA analysis published Thursday revealed.

5 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Terriva
1 / 5 (1) Jun 04, 2012
Westerners tend to focus on central objects or faces more than on their surroundings
I'm fighting with the schematic and deterministic approach of western society to the reality understanding all the time. The East Asia culture is much more collectivist, holistic and pluralistic and as such opened to understanding of dense aether model more than individualistic western society. It supports tradition of Chi energy and various psychic phenomena, for example. In manifests itself with the various subtleties, like the street naming. Western society is using numbers only, Central European are using names and Eastern society doesn't use street naming at all. From certain perspective we could say, the Western civilization observes the reality in transverse waves, whereas the Eastern civilization preffers the longitudinal waves instead.

IMO the optimal strategy to reality understanding would require to balance the best features of both approaches.
F Juice
5 / 5 (1) Jun 04, 2012
Well, it is called.. FACEbook.
that_guy
not rated yet Jun 04, 2012
there are cultural differences, yes, but F juice makes a good point. The word "Face" in our native language is a strong subliminal hint to show our face...

If Facebook was called Kao Hon, then it wouldn't have that same impression on us, although it might have a larger effect on the japanese...

Secondly, Western culture focuses more on ad hoc personal communities, rather than proximate or professional communities - So facebook is good for far flung friendships new and old - and having your face on your profile pic helps old friends to recognize you if they come across your profile.
Vendicar_Decarian
not rated yet Jun 04, 2012
What is this face book thing? It is an edible oil product isn't it? A sandwich spread? Some kind of pet food pate?

Whatever it is, it sounds pretty worthless to me.
jshloram
not rated yet Jun 05, 2012
Interesting article, and I'll bet the responses are going to be even more interesting!!!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.