Culture shaping our perception

yml's picture

Culture shaping our perception

 

 

            Culture can shape our view of the world. It sounds way to obvious to even be an argument. Many studies have shown that people from different cultures see and perceive things differently and that is probably due to how their culture shaped the way they view the world. While I agree with this idea, I think people often overlook how culture can be different for each individual and therefore affected by it differently. From these previous studies, people have over-generalized the findings to large sum of population under such broadly labeled culture and based on my personal experience, I would like to argue how we should not just label people into culture in terms we often do.

            I would like to begin this idea of culture shaping thoughts and perception with findings from previous studies. Majority of the studies in this field focused on the difference between the Western cultures vs. East Asian cultures. The Western culture, mostly US, is known as individualistic or analytic, which they show attention to object and its attributes, and detach the objects from its field when perceiving them. Also, they prefer predicting and explaining, and they rely on the use of formal logic and the law of non-contradiction. In addition, since the culture encourages individualism, people in these cultures are said to be challenged in their ability to understand someone else’s point of view. In contrast, East Asian cultures, mostly Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, are known to be holistic or interpersonal and therefore, much more adept at determining another persons’ perspective. They also rely more on experiential knowledge rather than formal rules of logic and are more dialectical, which means that they embraces change, contradiction, and multiple perspectives more the people from Western cultures [1].

            There have been series of studies to support this fundamental difference in these two cultures. In one study, Japanese and US students were shown an animated underwater scene with one large fish swimming among smaller fishes and other aquatic life. When asked to describe the scene, Americans tended to report the large fish and ignored other small objects. On the other hand, Japanese people described about aspects of the background environment and relationships between animate and inanimate objects much more than Americans did. This showed the visual focuses of the two cultures are very different. Another study found that the Chinese participants were less eager to resolve contradictions in a variety of situations, whereas American participants were quick to come down in favor of one side when asked to analyze a conflict. Similarly, when participants were presented with strong arguments in support of a project and weaker arguments opposing it, Asian subjects responded to the weaker opposing arguments by decreasing their support, while American subjects actually increased their endorsement of the project in response to the opposing arguments. There have been more studies which looked at different views of these two cultures, including classification and categorization, relative vs. absolute judgment, and eye movements during scene perception. The results of all these studies all come down to one idea. They “do not just think about different things: they think differently,” according to Dr. Nisbett [2]. Based on all these studies, members from these two cultures seem to have a fundamentally different focus in social situations.

            This ideas is further supported by how language shape the way we think. Eskimos are reported to have various words for snow, which affect how they perceive frozen precipitation [3]. The Kuuk Thaayorre, a small Aboriginal community in northern Australia define space relative to an observer, using cardinal-direction terms, like north, south, east, and west, where Americans would say, right, left, forward, or back [4]. This means that the Kuuk Thaayorre have different spatial knowledge and navigational ability than Americans do, therefore perceive space differently. Lastly, in Piraha, a language spoken by a small Amazonian community, there are no number words that refer to absolute number. They only have handful of number words which could be translated as “around one,” “some,” and “many.” This lack of number words made them use different number words for same amount, when counting backward versus counting forward. Also, they failed to give the same number of objects when they had to rely on memory rather than matching one-by-one to the sample objects.

            As observed, many studies and examples show that culture does seem to affect individuals’ thoughts or/and perception. But this is not to say that we were born with different brains from the beginning. Dr. Nisbett said that cognitive processes are far more malleable than we have assumed [2]. This actually supports the idea that culture “shapes” our thought even more. This shaping happens after birth and apparently, happens over time can be changed more easily than we would think. A study found that the brains of older East Asian people respond less strongly to changes in the foreground of images than those of their Western counterparts. This is another indication of Asian people emphasizing more on the background or context of images than Americans do. But what is more interesting here is that this difference was only found in older people and not the young people between two cultures. This result showed how prolonged exposure to a culture influences the way we think and process information [5]. In addition, a study which looked at the relative vs. absolute judgment made by American students in Japan, and vice versa, showed how this cultural effect on thought and perception can be malleable. So in this particular study, American participants were worse at relative task and Japanese participants were better at absolute task. However, when they looked at American students, who spent a junior year abroad in Japan and Japanese students in America for a year, their performance on the task they were bad at before improved and performance in each task resembled more of how the people in the opposite culture from their ethnicity performed [6]. These show how important the surroundings each individual experiences as they grow up should be taken into consideration and not the ethnicity when we say that culture affect our thoughts. Because when we talk about the culture, we generally assume the focus is on the ethnicity and not as much on the culture one is exposed to the most. Here is where I have the problem with the idea of culture shaping our thought and how this idea is generally used in society.

            I do not disagree with the basic idea of culture shaping our thought. I do not think, “that the same basic process underlie all human thought, whether in the mountains of Tibet or the grasslands of the Serengeti” as comically put in words by Goode [2]. My problem is how we divide and assign people into one broad culture that they “fit” into the best and assume that it is true for the entire population. We often categorize individuals into certain culture that they best fit into, for example, American, Korean, Korean American, Christian, etc. However, when we think about each individual’s background, everyone has unique cultural settings that surround them and most likely have affected them. Therefore, I feel that culture and its influences are way over-generalized. As from my own experience, I often find myself being caught in between different cultures and cannot identify with any one major culture.

            I came to America when I was 13 years old. I went to middle school, high school, and currently attending college in the states. I have friends who immigrated to America around same age and look/sound like and also identify them as Korean-American. However, this is not so simple to me. My family has stayed in Korea and I was only attending schools in America. My home has always been Korea and I would go back “home” at least twice, if not more, a year for all the major breaks and holidays. Therefore, I have never adapted American culture like Korean-Americans who moved to the states when they were pre-teens. Considering how many years I have stayed in America, people often find that very interesting. After 10 years, I still experience cultural shocks, gaps in how we view things, and unable to understand some jokes. Also, I never gained back the confidence in speaking out loud that I had when I was speaking in Korean. But this does not mean that I fit well as Korean when I go back home. When I meet Korean people who grew up in Korea for their whole life, I once again find myself being a stranger in their culture. I best identify myself as “Korean students studying abroad since young age,” which we have a word in Korean, but not in English, therefore makes it so much harder to explain who I am. I often experience and realize how I perceive world (political, sexuality, gender, education, etc) is different from many people around me. I think this is because I am currently not surrounded by many people who share similar cultural experiences and I have somewhat unique background.

            What I want to say here is, “so where do I fit in terms of series of studies I listed in the paragraphs above?” I believe that many of studies on cultures over generalize cultural influence in individuals, because of individuals like myself. I am pretty sure that generalizations made for bilinguals, based on bilingual studies, do not apply to me much. Also, I think I would have been an obvious outlier in the studieds of how different Eastern and Western people perceive visual scenes, relative vs. absolute judgment, etc, because as I was reading those studies, I could not tell which way I would have answered. Honestly, I am not sure how I base my decision making. Would I present patterns that most Koreans do or most Americans do? Or most Korean-Americans do? I think this is why cultural study is very difficult to be generalized and could raise lots of doubts, because everyone has different cultural backgrounds and we cannot assume one aspect of those many background would have affected individuals the most.

            I really like the idea, “culture is sculpting the brain,” by Dr. Park [5]. It makes me to think that everyone everyone’s brain started as this cube of ice at birth. Basic cognitive processes are universal. However as time goes, each ice cube gets sculpted by different people, different tools, and left in different climates and environment. As more time passes, they all start to look different, but we try to group them into different “culture” based on some similarities in shape. However, in this process, we overlook the uniqueness and the major differences in each ice cube. Culture shapes our thought, but they shape our thought in unique way for each individual and therefore we should be careful not to over-generalize the findings from the experiments. There are many more ways we can define the cultures. We cannot just divide people into Western vs. East Asian cultures and expect them to have similar thoughts and perception style, because they are from same “culture.” There are much more to consider in defining the culture of each individual. Culture shapes us, but in unique way to each one of us.

 

 



 

 

 

References

 

 

[1] http://psychcentral.com/news/2007/07/13/culture-influences-perception/1011.html

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/library/national/science/health/080800hth-behavior-culture.html

[3] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=does-language-shape-what

[4] http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/archives/language_shapes_thought/

[5] http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11785-can-culture-dictate-the-way-we-see.html

[6] http://pss.sagepub.com/content/14/3/201.full.pdf+html

 

Comments

Paul Grobstein's picture

cultural influences on the brain and uniqueness

"we overlook the uniqueness"

The point is an important one in studies of the impact of culture on cognition, and you're in a uniquely appropriate position to make it.  Thanks.  If the brain is, as it seems to be, responsive to cultural influences, and people are exposed to different cultures, then particular individuals may well not fit the "ethnic" generalizations.  I wonder though if there is still more uniqueness to be appreciated?  Variations among individuals even when exposed only to a single culture?  Persistance of characteristics despite cultural exposure?  Do we all actually the same "cube of ice at birth"?  Is it certain that basic cognitive processes are universal, ie independent both of genes and of cultural experience? 

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