Culture and Perception

While taking a break, we are happy to republish some of our favorite 'oldies but goodies'. This one was first put online in December of last year (2008). It was the first installment of  a series of posts on Richard Nisbett's theory of culture and perception. Enjoy!

In a lively account published in Trends In Cognitive Sciences (see here), Nisbett and Miyamoto (2005) made the case for "cultural" influences on perception. The crux of the argument is this : visual perception in Americans is more analytical, while in Asians it is more holistic. Americans pay attention to details, Asians to the larger picture. Americans examine objects in isolation, Asians are more sensitive to context. In the authors' own words (p. 469):

"[...], we believe there is considerable evidence that shows that Asians are inclined to attend to, perceive and remember contexts and relationships whereas Westerners are more likely to attend to, perceive and remember the attributes of salient objects and their category memberships. It should be noted that the perceptual and attentional differences just described are in general quite large, sometimes even close to one standard deviation. Indeed, in the typical study, Asians and Westerners were found to behave in qualitatively different ways."

The evidence referred to above consists of psychological experiments that compared the behaviour of Westerners and Asians using mostly well-established paradigms. Change blindness, for example, is a popular staple of visual psychology: people often fail to detect large differences between two pictures shown in succession.

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Meaning in sounds?

Disclaimer: I'm venturing far, far, from my domain of expertise, supposing I even have such a thing. I know nothing about psycholinguistics (i.e., I need to be reminded on a regular basis about the difference between a phoneme and a morpheme). Please feel free to point out the inevitable inaccuracies in what follows.

Random chance had me dig up a really nice experiment published by Dan Slobin in 1968. Slobin went to look for evidence of cross-cultural "phonemic symbolism". Phonemic symbolism is the idea that the pairing of meanings with sounds is not completely arbitrary. In some cases that is fairly obvious, as in the case of onomatopea, where the sound of the word echoes the type of sound it designates: the words "bang" or a "boom" for example. There are also cases of near-onomatopea, such as the verbs "to grunt" or "to grumble". But what of less obvious cases? Is there anything that makes "low" and "high", or "smooth" and "sharp" good words for the concepts they designate, simply from what they sound like?


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Culture and Perception, part II: The Muller-Lyer illusion

Another post from our holiday collection of oldies but goodies.

The first post in the series dealt with Nisbett's findings on different patterns of attention in Asian and Western cultures, and I talked a bit about how certain differences are more likely a priori than others. I mentioned that we cannot expect people to differ too much in being able to perceive, e.g., orientation, because it's difficult to imagine a functional visual system with orientation sensitivity. There are no visual environments without orientation. On the other hand, there is some variation between visual environments along other lines, and it would not be completely surprising to find that it causes differences in certain aspects of people's visual perception. An obvious example is in the perception of faces: in some Western environments people relatively rarely encounter Asian faces and in some Asian environments it's the opposite. There is a well-documented handicap in Europeans in the identification of Asian faces, and vice-versa (it's called the "other race" effect, holds for other populations, and is possibly the single greatest source of racist jokes). It's an interesting topic, but I won't discuss in today's post, saving it for some other time.  Instead, I will deal with less obvious sources of variation: depth clues.

Most readers have probably seen the Müller-Lyer illusion. It's a Psych 101 staple that dates back to 1889. Michael Bach has a page devoted to it on his (fantastic) website, here. Here the illusion is in its standard version:

I'm counting on the reader perceiving the figure with the outward-pointing arrow as longer. I probably won't kill the suspense by revealing that the two segments are actually of the same length, that's what makes it an illusion.



Read more: Culture and Perception, part II: The Muller-Lyer illusion

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