A study of Chinese and American students has found that the two groups looked at scenes in photographs in distinct ways. The findings indicate that previously observed cultural differences in judgment and memory between East Asians and North Americans derive from differences in what they actually see.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that whereas North Americans tend to be more analytic when evaluating a scenario, fixating on the focal object, East Asians are generally more holistic, giving more consideration to the context. Researchers have not known, however, whether these differences originate during the encoding, retrieval, or mental comparison stages of perceptual-cognitive processing, or whether they might even be the result of reporting bias.

To try to pinpoint when these differences emerge, Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments in which Chinese and American students were shown a number of images, each depicting a single subject against a realistic and complex background. The participants--who wore an eye-movement tracker during the tests--were then shown pictures containing the same subjects on either old or new backgrounds and asked to judge whether they had seen the subjects before.

As the team predicted, the American students homed in on the focal subject sooner and longer than did the Chinese students, who paid more attention to the background imagery. (In the image above, eye gaze patterns of an American individual appear on top; those of a Chinese individual on the bottom.) This suggests that the Americans encoded more visual details for the focal objects than did the Chinese, which would explain why the Americans fared better when it came to determining whether they had seen a given subject before, even when it was presented against a new backdrop.

Nisbett and his collaborators posit that these differences in attention to object and context arise through socialization practices. "East Asians live in relatively complex social networks with prescribed role relations. Attention to context is, therefore, important for effective functioning," the scientists observe. "In contrast, Westerners live in less constraining social worlds that stress independence and allow them to pay less attention to context." The findings are being published online this week by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.