Eye movements may betray your culture
July 2, 2005
Courtesy University of Michigan Health System
and World Science staff
Your eye movements may reveal something about your cultural background, researchers have found, in a study comparing the way Easterners and Westerners look at photos.
The scientists not only analyzed the participants’ eye movements, but mapped them onto the photos themselves using lines. The study found that Chinese and American individuals tend to move their eyes in distinctly different patterns when looking at the photographs.
Previous studies have revealed differences in thought processes between cultures: North Americans tend to be analytical and pay more attention to focal objects, while East Asians tend to be more holistic and rely on contextual information.
In the new study, Richard Nisbett and colleagues at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., studied the differences in how these groups actually look at the world.
The researchers measured eye movements of 45 American and Chinese students looking at photographs that had a single foreground object and a complex background; for example, a tiger by a stream.
Cultural differences emerged within the first second of viewing, the researchers reported: the American students looked at the focal object more quickly and fixated on it longer than did Chinese students, while the Chinese students made more quick, darting glances to the background compared with American students.
These results suggest that previously reported cultural differences in thought processes may be related to variations in what people focused on as they view a scene, the researchers said. They speculated that these variations may reflect greater importance of context and social interrelationships in East Asian culture compared with Western culture.
The paper appears in this week’s early online edition of the research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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