East Brains, West Brains

How do you look at a face? Since 1965 it has been a tenet of psychology that people look at faces through the triangle method; that is, they scan the eyes (especially) and then the mouth, in a basic visual process assumed to be common to all humans. But guess what? This conclusion was based on studies in which only Westerners participated. Now that someone has finally thought to study non-Westerners, you can consign the universality of facial processing to the scientific dustbin.

As scientists report today in the journal PLoS ONE, Westerners tend to look at particular features on a face, such as the eyes or mouth, while East Asians focus on the center of the face, which provides a more holistic view of all the features.

“Social experience has an impact on how people look at faces,” said Roberto Caldara of the University of Glasgow, who led the study. One reason may be that in traditional East Asian cultures, direct eye contact may be considered rude. Another is that how children are brought up affects even something as basic as visual processing. Westerners’ habit of visually skipping among the eyes and mouth fits the stereotype of Westerners as more focused on components of a whole and being more individualistic, while East Asians’ homing in on the center of a face—from which it is possible to take in the whole—reflects a more collectivist bent and greater interest in the overall picture. It also supports the stereotype of Westerners thinking and perceiving in a more focused way while East Asians think and perceive more globally or holistically. Or, as the scientists write, “Westerners focus analytically on salient objects. . . . By contrast, people from China, Korea and Japan . . . focus more holistically on relationships and similarities among objects.”

Despite the decades-old assumption that human beings the world over see faces the same way, the study shows instead that “the external environment, including the society in which we develop, is very influential in basic human mechanisms,” said Caldara. As he and his colleagues write, “Psychologists and philosophers have long assumed that while culture impacts on the way we think about the world, basic perceptual mechanisms are common among humans. We provide evidence that social experience and cultural factors shape human eye movements for processing faces, which contradicts [that] view.”

People of different cultures literally see the world, and the people in it, differently.

The work jibes with the research of Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan, whose 2003 book “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why,” includes such fascinating nuggets as what Westerners and East Asians see when they look at pictures (Japanese see and remember background elements—such as plants, rock and bubbles in an aquarium—much more than Americans do). It also fits with a fascinating new theory that I wrote about last April, which seeks to explain why different cultures are more or less individualistic or collectivist (basically, societies situated in areas where disease-causing pathogens are prevalent tend to be more group-oriented, xenophobic and collectivist, while those where pathogens have historically been fewer—cold climates, for the most part—had the luxury of individualism, extraversion and openness). The new work underlines even more strongly the gaps in scientists’ understanding of how cultures become distinct.