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Self-centered cultures narrow your viewpoint
When it comes to putting yourself in the shoes of others, cultures that emphasise interdependence over individualism may have the upper hand.
In a new psychological experiment, Chinese students outperformed their US counterparts when ask to infer another person's perspective. The researchers say the findings help explain how misunderstandings can occur in cross-cultural communication.
In the experiment, psychologists Boaz Keysar and Shali Wu at the University of Chicago, Illinois, US, recruited 40 students. Half of the volunteers were non-Asians who had grown up in the US, and the other half were native Mandarin speakers who had very recently emigrated from various parts of China.
The volunteers played a game in which they had to follow the instructions of a person sitting across the table from them, an individual known as the 'director'.
Researchers placed a grid structure between the two people consisting of small compartments, some of which contained objects such as wood blocks, toy bunnies and sunglasses. Some of the individual compartments were covered on one side with cardboard so that they were blocked from the view of the director - only the study subjects could see the objects inside.Off the charts
The volunteers had to follow the instructions of the director and move named objects from one compartment to another. But – as a sneaky trick – the researchers sometimes placed two objects of the same kind in the grid. In this case, the subjects would have to consider the director’s view to know which object she was referring to.
For example, the grid sometimes contained two wooden blocks, one of which sat in a compartment hidden to the director. The director would then ask the subject to "move the wooden block to a higher square in the grid".
Chinese students would immediately understand which wooden block to move – the one visible to both them and the director. Their US counterparts, however, did not always catch on.
"They would ask 'Which block?' or 'You mean the one on the right?", explains Keysar. "For me it was really stunning because all of the information is there. You don't need to ask," he adds.
While 65% of the American participants asked this type of question, only one of the 20 Chinese subjects did so, equating to just 5%.
"That's a huge difference – it's off the charts," says Richard Nisbett, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan, US, who studies differences between Western and Asian cultures.
The US volunteers were also slower in reacting when asked to move an object when there was a duplicate in the grid that only they could see. They generally took about 30% longer to complete such instructions from the director.
In contrast, such duplicate objects did not slow the speed at which Chinese participants responded.
Keysar believes the Chinese students had an easier time understanding the director’s perspective because they come from a more collectivist society than their US counterparts. He speculates, for example, that compared with children in China, youngsters in the US are more likely to feel that it is "all about them".
In another example, he describes how a Texas corporation "aiming to improve productivity, told its employees to look in the mirror and say 'I am beautiful' 100 times before coming to work. In contrast, a Japanese supermarket instructed its employees to begin their day by telling each other 'you are beautiful'."
Nisbett adds that in some Asian cultures people use less blunt language, making it necessary for them to read between the lines, and imagine the perspective of the individual with whom they are speaking.
He also says that the new findings could help us head off misunderstandings between people from Asian and Western societies: "We are less likely to step on each other's toes if we are aware of one another's cultural differences.”
Previous research has shown that culture can influence very basic behaviours, such as how we see objects.
Journal reference: Psychological Science (vol 18, p 600-606)
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