How much does our global address affect our mindset?

19 March, 2010, Lux Fatimathas

East vs West

I’m staring at my fish tank, watching my numerous, stripy little zebrafish swim around, seemingly without a care in the world. One little fellow appears to poke out from the rest of the shoal. A lone ranger, of sorts. Are the other fish following him; their brave leader corralling the troops? Is he leading the pack or is the pack chasing him? Well, that would all depend on your perception – something my innocuous, aquatic friends made me begin to question. [frax09alpha]

My perception of the world has recently undergone a rather momentous shift due to my relocation from the UK to Singapore. The perceptual differences between people of the West and East have long been a point of discussion in both the arenas of science and art – a discussion which if anything is increasing in our ever-shrinking world. I, for example, recently watched an Israeli film (Yellow Asphalt by Dan Verete) addressing the pervasive influence of Western culture into the ancient customs of the desert-dwelling Bedouins. The contrast between the individualistic lives of the Westernised characters and the communal lives of the traditionally Eastern Bedouins was clear. However, beyond customs and rituals, how deeply seated are these apparently stark differences? Do we really think all that differently from each other? The scientific community has attempted to uncover some of the answers.

A substantial body of work carried out by Robert Nisbett and colleagues has demonstrated that people of East Asian origin perceive an object within its context and define it via its relationships to its surroundings. In contrast Westerners were shown to perceive the same object in a more discrete manner and categorise it according to its individual characteristics. These trends in thought have been replicated in several different studies and point towards those from the West and the East quite literally seeing the world in rather different ways. Moreover, our brain activity appears to reflect these differences.

Image: Lukas Roth A shoal of zebrafish: full of unfolding dramas, if you stare long enough!

Using the simple images of a straight line drawn within in a box, two different cultural groups were asked to draw another line in a box of a different size (Kitayama et al, Psychol Sci, 2003). The line either had to be the same absolute length as the one they were previously shown or the same relative length in proportion to the box.  The first task, being context independent, was performed with greater accuracy by the American group and the second task, being context dependent was performed better by the Japanese group. The same regions of the brain were utilized by both groups. However, greater brain activity was required when the Americans carried out the context dependent task, compared to the context independent task. The reverse was true for the Japanese group.

The thought that my brain could be hard-wired to help or hinder me in my worldly pursuits, seemed like a rather daunting prospect. Integrating into a new society with different social norms and etiquettes seemed tricky enough, without having to consider that my brain could be against me in my attempts at blending in with the locals – what if I couldn’t draw that line in that box like everyone else?! Unsurprisingly, my irrational thoughts (culturally independent and rather more an individual eccentricity) were unwarranted. Thankfully, though our behaviour is shaped by our cultural heritage, it is also rather pliable to the social contexts to which we are exposed. To get back to the fish that started me down this road, the perception of shoal movements have been used to exemplify exactly this point.

Investigations by Benet-Martínez and colleagues (J Cross Cult Psychol, 2002) were carried out on Chinese students in Hong Kong. They were shown videos of fish shoal movements similar to that described earlier, with a fish at the head of the shoal separating out from the rest of group. When these students were exposed to images of American origin prior to the experiment, they were more inclined to describe the scenario unfolding before them as that of the break out fish leading the shoal. However when primed with traditionally Chinese images, the perception of the same fish was of an anomalous renegade not conforming to the rest of the group – less the courageous leader and more a target to be pursued. These experiments illustrated that the stereotypical holistic views exemplified in Eastern thinking can be reverted to the more individualistic tendencies of Western cultures.

The age-old dichotomy of East versus West may not be as set in stone as we previously thought. Our perceptions of the world around us are ever-changing and dependent on our social contexts. Not to mention that our social contexts are becoming increasingly similar; with the sprouting of Starbucks in every street corner from Bahrain to Bulgaria and the mass syndication of American TV having people worldwide wondering “Who will the next reality TV star be?”. Globalisation aside, cultural perceptions are based on studies of “the many” and as I make my foray into my new home country what will govern my world is the interactions I share with “the few”. So here’s hoping “the few” perceive my fish gazing antics as a quirky, but endearing character trait!

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