Seeing the Self: Exploring the Link Between Eye-Movement and Identity in East Asia

A comparison of two letters, one from Shanghai to Hong Kong the other from New York to Austin, implicitly reveals profound differences between Western and East Asian cultural psyches.  In contrast to the Western address format which first lists personal information and broader geographical information follows (Name of recipient, Street address, Town, State, Postal Code, Country), the standard Chinese format displays the reverse, beginning with the general and successively narrowing to the specific (Country, Province, City, Postal code, Street name, Name of recipient).  The sequence of information is reflective, however simply, of China’s complex social structure in which the individual’s status and function is a derivative of the greater collective.

This framework, which is pervasive throughout professional, academic, and familial spheres, calls for a standard of behavior that sees beyond personal gain and values the perpetuation of a harmonized social structure from the top down, necessitating an awareness and appreciation of context – of the overarching network in which the individual exists in relation to the others around her.  A behavioral archetype in which the self is secondary may seem inauthentic to the uninformed outsider.  Even the Western notion of Social Contract Theory, which values a similar model of social order, resembles this East Asian social structure only superficially.  Although the goal is a harmonious and controlled society, the inherent motivation lies in one’s self-interest (one agrees to adhere to a moral code because it’s to one’s benefit to live in a society that condemns stealing, killing, etc.).  Still, China’s social code and the mass exhibition of selfless behavior is indeed no performance.  In fact, studies have shown that this inherent concern for the whole is apparent not only through actions, but also through the physical act seeing.

A study performed by Hanna Faye Chue, Julie Boland, and Richard E. Nisbett compared the cognitive and perceptual differences between Americans and Chinese.  Each group was shown a fixed set of images which featured prominent foreground objects placed against more complex backgrounds.  Equipment tracked their respective eye movements, revealing distinct viewing styles:

The eye-movement patterns of American and Chinese participants differed in several ways. The American participants looked at the foregrounded object sooner and longer than the Chinese, whereas the Chinese looked more at the background than did the Americans.  The Chinese made more fixations [on the background] during each picture presentation than the Americans.  The Americans looked at foregrounded objects 118 ms sooner than did the Chinese.

The Chinese approached looking at the images holistically, their pattern of eye-movements allowing for a comprehensive understanding of the whole.  The “focal” point demanded little more attention than did the context in which it was placed.  In fact, when looking at images which showed the originally viewed foreground objects juxtaposed against new backgrounds, the Chinese participants experienced greater difficulty than did the Americans in recalling that the object had been previously viewed.  The explanation is rooted again in the Chinese’s pattern of eye movements, which darted from foreground to background with more frequency than the Americans’.  This style of absorbing the entire image essentially bound the focal point to its context, rendering it less recognizable when its original defining environment was replaced by another.

For those immersed in the culture of China the way one sees a scene’s foreground object parallels the way one sees the self.  What appears to be most independent and accessible is in fact inextricably linked to and defined by its context.  That the understanding of the self is ultimately achieved through an understanding of relationships perhaps rings true for those belonging to many cultures outside of the East Asian tradition (no one – or at least very few of us – live in a vacuum after all).  But perhaps unique to East Asians is the vast cultural awareness of this concept, as well as its internalization and its ability reach into one’s very physicality and shape, quite literally, the way one sees the world.

To read more about the study described in this post, go to http://www.pnas.org/content/102/35/12629.full.

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