Eye of the Beholder

In our CIL workshops we often begin with a short discussion of what we mean by “culture.” People are often surprised to find out how deeply culture affects our moment-to-moment existence. In fact, it turns out, culture affects even how we see the world.

A study was published in 2000 by Li-Jun Ji, Kaiping Peng (of our own UC Berkeley) and Richard E. Nisbett (Culture, Control and Perception of Relationships in the Environment, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, vol. 78, No. 5, 943-955). Two groups of subjects — European Americans and Chinese (from Taiwan), all undergraduates at the University of Michigan — took the “rod and frame” test. The apparatus looks like this:

Rod and frame apparatus

What subjects see when they peer into the device looks roughly like one of these configurations:

A common use of the test is to detect “field dependence”: to what extent is perception of the rod’s orientation affected by the orientation of the frame? That is, how able are people to “factor out” the frame and make accurate judgments about the orientation of the rod?

If we take a common metaphorical understanding of how “East” and “West” differ, we might think that “Easterners” would be more field-dependent than “Westerners,” since “context” is said to matter so much more in the East. Relationships matter more than individuals.

At the same time it’s an absurd claim. Vision is vision, right? Let’s not be fooled by the metaphor. There’s no way actual perception could differ culturally.

Except that’s exactly what the researchers found: the European Americans were less field-dependent than the Chinese. Not only were their judgments of rod verticality more accurate irrespective of the frame, but they got even more accurate when given control of the rod. The Chinese tended to see “rod and frame” together, and gave less accurate judgments when given control over the rod.

To me this finding is absolutely astonishing. I love telling people about it because it makes the point so profoundly that culture goes to the very root of who we are as human beings: if how I literally see the world is partly a product of my cultural background, then how could any part of my life not be touched by culture?

It also serves as a stark reminder to anyone operating in an unfamiliar culture that we’d best be on guard against assuming our own perceptions are right and others’ are wrong. Chinese and Westerners actually see the world differently. Knowing that brute-force fact can help us immensely if we’re willing to question the 100% truth our own perceptions.

Puts a new spin on “seeing is believing,” doesn’t it?

About Jason D. Patent

Jason is the inaugural director of the Center for Intercultural Leadership at International House Berkeley. His career spans the education, business, and non-profit sectors. He has spent over ten years living and working in China and is passionate about helping China and the U.S. to understand each other better. Jason holds a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC Berkeley.
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