Culture and the Physical Environment: Holistic Versus Analytic Perceptual Affor - Miyamoto - 2006 - Article

Generally, patterns of attention are different for different cultures. Westerns, for instance, tend to focus on salient foreground objects, whereas Asians tend to focus on contexts. In other words, Westerns tend to engage in context-independent cognitive processes and to perceive and think about the environment in an analytic way. On the other hand, Asians tend to engage in context-dependent cognitive processes and to perceive and think about the environment in a holistic way. Although there is plenty of evidence about these attentional differences, a mechanism underlying cultural differences has not yet been fully examined. In this study, it is examined whether these cultural differences in attentional patterns can de directly afforded by cultural differences in the physical environment. More specifically, the hypothesis is tested that these specific patterns of attention are provided by the perceptual environment of a culture. This hypothesis is tested with two studies.

To enable equivalent perceptual environments across the two cultures (American and Japanese), the authors of this study randomly sampled three types of institutions: hotels, public elementary schools, and post offices. These three types of institutions were chosen, because they constitute everyday scenery in both the United States and Japan. Next, in both countries each type of institution was sampled in small, medium, and large cities. Digital pictures were taken at each selected location. For the United States, the selected cities were (ordered from small to large): Chelsea, Ann Arbor, New York. For Japan, the selected cities were (ordered from small to large): Torahime, Hikone, Tokyo.

In the first study, 35 American undergraduate students and 33 East Asian International students at the University of Michigan participated in order to fulfil their requirement for a psychology course. The participants were shown randomly selected pictures of scenes from small, medium, and large cities in Japan and the United States. In total, the pictures could be evenly divided into six groups with 41 Japanese scenes and 41 American scenes in each group. Both subjective and objective measures were used. The subjective measures were all measured on a five-point rating scale. The items were:

  • How ambiguous is the boundary of each object? (1 = distinct, clear boundary; 5 = ambiguous, unclear boundary)
  • How many different objects do there seem to be? (1 = relatively few; 5 = enormous number)
  • To what degree do there seem to be parts of the scene that are invisible? (1 = few invisible parts; 5 = many invisible parts)
  • To what degree is the scene either chaotic or organized? (1 = organized; 5 = chaotic)

The objective measure was the number of bounded particles in each picture. This was assessed using the public-domain NIH Image program. The outcomes indicated that Japanese scenes were more ambiguous and consisted of more elements than the American scenes. Therefore, one may expect that Japanese scenes encourage perception of the context more than American scenes do.

In the second study, participants were 30 American undergraduate students at the University of Michigan and 32 Japanese undergraduate students at Kyoto University, Japan. The participants were shown pictures of locations in cities. These were presented as primes. Subsequently, the patterns of attention of the participants were measured using the change-blindness task. The participants were told that this was a study focused on visual image processing and that they would participate in two studies: one focused on still pictures and one focused on animated pictures. The first part of this study was used as a pretest to determine which pictures would be used in the main experiment. Next, participants were asked to imagine that they were placed in the shown scenery and to assess how much they liked the scenery using a five-point rating scale (1 = not at all; 5 = very much). Results show that both Japanese and American participants that were primed with Japanese scenes, attended more to contextual information compared to those that were primed with American scenes.

To conclude, the results of these two studies provide evidence that culturally characteristic environments may lead to distinctive patterns of perception.

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