July 12, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 19

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    America’s individualist culture influences the ability to view others’ perspectives

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Americans are particularly challenged in their ability to understand someone else’s point of view because they are part of a culture that encourages individualism, new research in psychology shows.

    In contrast, Chinese, who live in a society that encourages a collectivist attitude among its members, are much more adept at determining another person’s perspective, according to a new study.

    One of the consequences of Americans’ problems of seeing things from another person’s point of view is faltering communication, said Boaz Keysar, Professor in Psychology and the College.

    “Many actions and words have multiple meanings. In order to sort out what a person really means, we need to gain some perspective on what he or she might be thinking and, Americans, who don’t have that skill very well-developed, probably tend to make more errors in understanding what another person means,” Keysar said.

    Keysar is co-author with University graduate student Shali Wu of “The Effect of Culture on Perspective Taking,” which discusses their research and is published in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.

    Although studies of children have shown that a person’s ability to appreciate another person’s perspective is universal, not all societies encourage their members to develop the skill as they grow up. “Members of these two cultures seem to have a fundamentally different focus in social situations,” the authors wrote of Chinese and Americans.

    “Members of collectivist cultures tend to be interdependent and to have self-concepts defined in terms of relationships and social obligations,” they said. “In contrast, members of individualist cultures tend to strive for independence and have self-concepts defined in terms of their own aspirations and achievements.”

    In order to study this cultural difference in interpersonal communications, the team devised a game that tested how quickly and naturally people from the two groups were able to access another person’s perspective.

    They chose two groups of Chicago students: one consisting of 20 people from China, who grew up speaking Mandarin, and another group, including 20 non-Asian Americans, who were all native English speakers.

    The researchers tested a hypothesis that suggested interdependence would make people focus on others and away from themselves. They did that by having people from the same cultural group pair up and work together to move objects around in a grid of squares placed between them.

    In the game, one person, the “director,” would tell the other person, the “subject,” where the objects should be moved. Over some of the squares, a piece of cardboard blocked the view of the director, so the subject could clearly tell what objects the director could not see. In some cases there were two similar objects, one blocked from the director’s view and one visible to both people playing the game.

    The Chinese subjects almost immediately focused on the objects the director could see and moved those objects. When Americans were asked to move an object and there were two similar objects on the grid, they paused and often had to work to figure out which object the director could not see before moving the correct object. Taking into account the other person’s perspective was more work for the Americans, who spent on average about twice as much time completing the moves than did the Chinese.

    Even more startling for the researchers was the frequency with which many of the Americans ignored the fact that the director could not see all the objects.

    “Despite the obvious simplicity of the task, the majority of American subjects (65 percent) failed to consider the director’s perspective at least once during the experiment,” for instance, when the subject asked the director which object he or she was considering or when the subject moved an object the director could not see, Keysar said. In contrast, only one Chinese subject seemed confused by the directions.

    “Apparently, the interdependence that pervades Chinese culture has its effect on members of the culture over time, taking advantage of the human ability to distinguish between the mind of the self and that of another, and developing this ability to allow Chinese to unreflectively interpret the actions of another person from his or her perspective,” the authors wrote.

    Americans do not lose this ability, but years of cultural-based values of independence do not promote the development of mental tools needed to take into account another person’s point of view, they concluded.