East views the world differently to West

February 6, 2012, Economic & Social Research Council

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 look at the world differently to Westerners, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

"British and Chinese people process visual information in very different ways," explains researcher Dr David Kelly from Royal Holloway, University of London. "This is important not simply from a research viewpoint, but because it helps us understand much better some of the cultural differences between East and West which people can sometimes find disconcerting."

For example, while most British people look at a person's eyes when they are talking to them, Chinese people are much less likely to make eye contact. "This can leave the British person feeling uncomfortable and distrustful," Dr Kelly points out. "On the other hand, the Chinese person would consider eye contact to be potentially disrespectful and impolite."

Research now suggests that this particular cultural contrast is underpinned by the different ways (British) and Easterners (Chinese) 'process' visual information. While adults from Western cultures process information analytically by focusing on key features, adults from the East process information in a more holistic style, which also takes context and situation into account.

In terms of eye contact for example, this means that when a Westerner processes a person's face they will typically fixate on the key feature of the face, usually the eyes. An Easterner, in contrast, will largely avoid the eyes (hence the lack of ) and take in information from a wider area below the eyes and around the nose. Interestingly, the studies also show that when asked to recognise other unfamiliar stimuli, such as sheep faces, Westerners and Easterners continue to employ their different face processing strategies in animals.

The researchers also explored when the learning of socio-cultural processing strategies took place by carrying out a series of visual processing studies with British and Chinese children, aged five to 12.

"If culture is responsible for shaping the way visual information is extracted and processed, then it is reasonable to assume that the strategies observed in Eastern adults emerge during childhood," Dr Kelly points out. "And our research showed this to be the case. Both British and Chinese children showed only minimal or no differences in processing strategies at the youngest age groups of five and six years year olds, but the different ways of processing had emerged by the age of 12."

While the mechanisms by which these different strategies emerge between age five and 12 is at present unknown, researchers believe these findings make an important contribution to smoothing cross-cultural relations. "While the Chinese are extremely keen to act appropriately and not offend anyone, can make interactions uncomfortable and frustrating," Dr Kelly explains. "Greater awareness of how these differences arise can only help improve communication between East and West."

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3 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2012
A close look at the research will reveal that English and Chinese are rather similar and overlap considerably but because a few Chinese tend to look differently to a few English a group difference emerges that has statistical "significance". This statistic gets overinterpreted in simplified headline terms as a big cultural East West "difference".
3.5 / 5 (2) Feb 06, 2012
A close look at the research will reveal that English and Chinese are rather similar and overlap considerably but because a few Chinese tend to look differently to a few English a group difference emerges that has statistical "significance". This statistic gets overinterpreted in simplified headline terms as a big cultural East West "difference".

I agree completely that more research is indicated here. There are lots of issues with the whole idea of statistical significance, and most scientists are aware of it.

But scientific laziness, inertia in modifying long standing common practice, and the pressure to publish, all work against changes. I think the best we can hope for is more studies to determine if the effect examined here is real.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2012
The social stigma of not looking into ones eyes dates back to the earliest man and is very much related to the whole alpha male acknowledgement. In western society, this is carried on in the military and/or governmental ranks, but has otherwise been overcome in average social inter reactions. Considering the higher levels of military and governmental ranks in the composition of social activities with eastern cultures, perhaps such a change could never have been achieved?
2 / 5 (1) Feb 06, 2012
anecdotal response of course, but I would question this research having seen my Chinese wife insist that our son look her in the eyes when she's talking to him...
not rated yet Feb 06, 2012
Hmm. Writing is a skill that is acquired at those ages. Isn't it interesting that character-based western written languages require relatively little eye movement and use a small number of well-defined features compared to logogram-based languages?

I guess the next question is: Does a culture's eye movement patterns drive the style of its written language, or does learning to read determine eye movement in non-reading contexts? (Or are both social and written language eye movement patterns consequences of something else, maybe something genetic?)

Btw, how many exceptions are there in each population? Did this study include "Easterners" from, say, Korea which has a written language with a phonetic alphabet?
5 / 5 (1) Feb 07, 2012
"Does a culture's eye movement patterns drive the style of its written language" - Yogaman

As far as I know, the Daleks have lots of one eye movement but no written language.

Davros on the other hand has no eye movement in his third eye but probably knows at least one written language.

One wonders how the Daleks manage to record mathematical concepts without a linearized stream of symbols.

Perhaps their spoken language is really 2d.
3 / 5 (3) Feb 07, 2012
sigh ... more research from the department of 'duh'. Its been well known that Westerners make more eye contact than Easterners, and the idea that it was ever anything more than inculturation seems ridiculous! People need to separate the idea that some of our personality is in the genes from the idea that some of our personality is in the same genes as melanin production and other 'racial' characteristics. Race is an illusion, culture is a prison, i thought everybody knew that by now?
not rated yet Feb 07, 2012
StarGazer, one of the roles of science is to quantify phenomena that are assumed to be true. This is achieved by testing different hypotheses. You state that it is well known that Westerners look more to the eyes than Easterners, but without offering any evidence to support this claim. It seems to me that the data reported in this article simply support what you (and others, including the authors too presumably) already suspected.

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