Perceptions of Asian Perception

A recent AP news story (discovered thanks to claims that “Asians and North Americans really do see the world differently.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time science has attempted to prove the uniqueness of the Asian mind. There was Swarthmore President Alfred Bloom’s 1981 book, The Linguistic Shaping of Thought which claimed:

that the lack of a subjunctive tense in Chinese made it extremely difficult for native speakers to explore “counterfactual” conceits (for example: if Gisele were fat, she wouldn’t be a supermodel).

When Mr. Bloom tested Chinese and American students on a series of counterfactuals, he found that the Chinese students were typically unable to distinguish between events that really happened and false hypotheticals. The implication, Mr. Bloom argued, is that Chinese is more concrete than English, and, as a consequence, Chinese speakers have more trouble with abstract thought than Americans.

However, his research methodology was seriously flawed. In fact, poor translation may have been the problem:

Terry Kit-Fong Au, a native Chinese speaker and psychologist at Harvard, did not take kindly to this linguistic slight of his presumed powers of reasoning. He repeated Bloom’s experiment with one crucial change: he asked Chinese bilinguals to translate an idiomatic Chinese version of the story into English. With this translation his results were in the reverse direction from Bloom’s. Only 60% of American high school students who read the nonidiomatic versions understood the counterfactual, whereas 97% of Au’s monolingual Chinese subjects who were given an idiomatic Chinese version grasped the significance of the counterfactual.

More recently, there have been claims that Japanese have unique brains as a result of their language.

A lot of these discussions invoke the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Unfortunately, they rarely have anything to do with what Sapir or Whorf actually said.

I can’t get online access to the original scientific article cited by the Associated Press story for another six months, so I can’t tell if what we have here is poor science or (more likely) simply poor reporting. But I have a big problem with the conceptual leap taken between the following two statements:

The researchers, led by Hannah-Faye Chua and Richard Nisbett, tracked the eye movements of the students — 25 European Americans and 27 native Chinese — to determine where they were looking in a picture and how long they focused on a particular area.

“They literally are seeing the world differently,” said Nisbett, who believes the differences are cultural.

There is a big difference between how we see pictures and how we see the world. I am ready to accept that there are cultural differences (perhaps dependent upon our various traditions of visual representation) that affect how we “read” a picture, but I’m not sure that these translate into differences in how we see the world – or even what that might mean.

Paul Messaris’ 1994 book, Visual “Literacy”: Image, Mind, and Reality has a fairly good discussion of the state of scientific research on reading images at that time. He is primarily concerned with debunking the myth that people who have never seen a picture need to be taught how to understand visual representations. Accordingly, he recounts several studies which suggest that understanding two dimensional, black-and-white representations of the world, even abstract ones, is fairly intuitive. He highlights how such issues as the materials used and the nature of the images being portrayed can have a huge impact on reader’s ability to interpret an image.

A 1960 by William Hudson study found South African miners having difficulty interpreting smaller animals in the background as being further away; however, his study turned out to suffer from many of the same problems as Bloom’s study of Chinese counterfactuals:

The Africa depicted in these pictures — a loincloth-wearing, spear-carrying hunter in a landscape populated by big game — might still have been a reality in some parts of the continent when the research of Hudson and his successors was taking place, but it seems doubtful that the kinds of people who were actually studied in this research — South African mine laborers, Ugandan farmers — would have much direct contact at all with such situations. On the contrary, it is possible that, for many Africans, familiarity with that particular version of Africa may actually be more likely to occur secondhand – for example, through pictorial media.

Consequently, those subjects who were more experienced with pictures might also have had greater previous experience with the kind of hunting scene depicted in Hudson’s pictures, and this familiarity, rather than knowledge of pictorial codes, might account for their superior ability to form an integrated, three-dimensional percept. Data supportive of this possibility occurred in the Kilbride and Robbins study (1969), in which 10 percent of the rural residents accurately identified the picture of the elephant as that of a large animal but were apparently uncertain as to the exact nature of the animal, calling it a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros, and so on. This uncertainty is consistent with the fact that the only large animal likely to be found in their own immediate environment would be a cow.

So, when Japanese and American’s are asked to look at underwater scenes and Japanese spend more time describing the background, it may not be because of “differences in perception go back at least 2,000 years,” it may just be something simple – like the fact that Americans eat a lot less seafood and aren’t used to seeing pictures of fish. It may also be that differences which have been observed in eye movement when reading Chinese and English may account for different habits of visually scanning a printed page – whether text or image; but these differences might not necessarily reflect how we visually scan the real world around us.

12 thoughts on “Perceptions of Asian Perception

  1. My take on this is somewhat different, although I agree with the dnagers of essentializing “Asian culture” and “Western culture” so drastically, as well as with the researcher’s assertion of a thousands-of-years time-depth for these differences. Western individualism is a fairly modern development — restricted to a privileged few for several centuries, only within the past couple hundred years becoming anything like the mainstream in the West.

    But I don’t want to automatically dismiss the assertion of difference, either. My first thought when I read the Wired article is that this is an excellent example of Peter Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” in action. My knowledge of Berger comes mainly through Michael Baxandall’s study of Renaissance art, where Baxandall makes a very convincing (to me, anyway) case that the shifts in pictorial style the occurred during the Renaissance — the rise of perspective, the focus on realistic portrayal of depth, heft, and texture, the shift in subject matter from Christian scenes to portraiture and vanities — reflected the rise of a mercantile class and the embodiment of new ways of seeing value. For instance, merchants of the era had trained themselves to reflexively measure volume — e.g. a pile of grain is a cone with radius x and height y, therefore is about z bushels — to the point where the ability to instantly perceive value became second-nature. Painters who produced artworks for the rising merchant class were rewarded by appealing to the merchants’ increasingly “natural” sense of value by portraying objects and events in ways that gave their merchants’ eyes something to “stick to” — while at the same time flattering an increasingly powerful segment of society that had the ability to appreciate artworks that others could not.

    Thus, material reality and perception of material reality are intertwined, and I would be surprised if Asian and Western folk — or subsets within either — didn’t see the world differently. That said, I think your own hypotheses about the roots of these differences are more compelling than the “2000 years” hypothesis advanced in the article.

  2. I think we are in agreement. To clarify:

    I don’t wish to argue against the possibility of differences in perception. An excellent critique of Berlin and Kay’s work on basic color terms argues that they impose an ethnocentric definition of color, ignoring that people living in the rainforest might distinguish colors by other attributes, such as texture, rather than just using the spectrum as people exposed to modern printing technologies might do.

    However, there is a big difference between attributing this to the material conditions of existence (as Berger does)as opposed to the kind of cultural (or linguistic) essentialism we see in this argicle. More to the point, I think it is relatively trivial for people to learn to identify new colors, once they are taught the difference.

  3. I found the quote: “the lack of a subjunctive tense in Chinese made it extremely difficult for native speakers to explore “counterfactual” conceits…” a bit bizarre.

    There’s barely a subjunctive in English anymore. Few speakers of American English form present counterfactual statements with the subjunctive—instead of using the subjunctive “were”—“If Gisele were fat, she wouldn’t be a supermodel,” they’re more likely to use the indicative “was”—“If Gisele was fat, she wouldn’t be a supermodel.” In sportscasting, announcers often make counterfactual statements such as: “Now, if you’re Phil Jackson, you want to preserve your final time-out …” where the subjunctive version would be “Now, if you were Phil Jackson, you would want to preserve your final time-out…”

    Following the logic of the quote, then, we must conclude that since Americans by and large don’t use the subjunctive, they can’t understand counterfactual statements—just like the Chinese.

    [somewhat pedantic point: the subjunctive is a mood, not a tense. This may seem like nitpicking, but mood and tense are independent characteristics. In many languages there are different tenses of the subjunctive, e.g. present subjunctive vs. imperfect subjunctive, and these tenses have different implications in a variety of contexts, including, say, counterfactual statements. It’s a bit ridiculous that the writer faults Chinese for lacking a grammatical category that she misidentifies, but this also seems characteristic of this sort of “Whorfian” argument: the writer’s understanding of the language they’re working with, or of linguistics in general, is not strong. The quote is from a New York Times article, though, so let’s hope it’s the reporter’s error, not Prof. Bloom’s.]

  4. Chris,

    Thanks. I was actually going to link to this language log post about “mood” vs. “tense” in the subjunctive, but I figured I was best off sticking to the theme of “translation” which is a methodological problem in both the visual and linguistic studies.

    There is a more thorough attack on Bloom in Pinker’s book The Language Instinct. Its been a while since I looked at all this, but I dont’ remember Bloom being much more nuanced than the reporter makes him out to be. Unfortunately, Pinker thinks that Bloom is a good foil for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but I would argue that both Bloom and Pinker misunderstand Sapir-Whorf.

  5. Thanks Bill. It is all in there: some reasonable stuff about the effects of lived environment and aesthetic traditions, as well as crazy essentialist nonsense about Greek vs. Chinese culture. As John Hawks says:

    Americans are not Greeks. Chinese are not Japanese. American graduate students are not typical of Americans in many ways, nor are Chinese graduate students in America necessarily typical of Chinese graduate students in China, much less Chinese non-graduate students. And neither Aristotle nor Archimedes were typical of the Greeks in the first few centuries B.C. To go from an empirical difference in eye movement between 25 American graduate students and 27 Chinese graduate students to inferences about Aristotle and Sun Tsu is more than a bridge too far.

  6. I’m sympathetic to the idea that members of different societies “see” the world differently, but that article’s just silly. Hawks’ response says all that’s necessary, but I want to point out that Chua et al misrepresent ancient Greek philosophy.

    Any scholar who thinks that Plato’s theory of Forms is evidence that “the Greeks tended to see stability in the world, whereas the Chinese saw the world as constantly changing,” should be prevented from referring to any Greek philosophy until s/he re-reads the Phaedo, with an eye toward the following exchange (Socrates is speaking with Cebes):

    “The latter,” replied Cebes, “they are always in a state of change.”

    “And these you can touch and see and perceive with the senses, but the unchanging things you can only perceive with the mind – they are invisible and are not seen?”

    “That is very true,” Cebes replied.

    “Well, then,” he added, “let us suppose that there are two sorts of existences, one seen, the other unseen. Let us suppose them. The seen is the changing, and the unseen is the unchanging.”

    “That may be also supposed,” Cebes said.

    One should also contemplate two sayings of the 6th-century BCE philosopher Heraclitus:

    No man can cross the same river twice, because neither the man nor the river are the same.

    Everything flows, nothing stands still.

    Perhaps Heraclitus was actually Chinese?

  7. It’s a difficult business steering safe intellectual passage between the Schylla and Charybdis of essentialism and relativism. How can one talk about meaningful difference without essentializing the terms of the difference? How can cultures be meaningfully different if they are not essentially so?

    I’ve had this problem when writing about black music and white music in America. The standard way of doing such writing is as I’ve just done, to talk of Black and white music (or African-American and Euro-American). Yet no one who is serious and well-informed about this believes in a culturally homogenous Black American and a culturally homogenous White America. There are internal differences — along class lines, urban-rural lines, ethnic lines — within those groups and they too are important in this dynamic. But over it all there does seem to be a global binary dynamic. It is extraordinarily difficult to frame a discourse that deals with all of this. If you end up qualifying every statement the result is an unintelligible meshwork of equivocal conceptual mush.

    Biologists have this problem when they talk about species — for which, I have been told, there are no less than 22 current usages. I believe the way out, more or less, is to talk of populations and the distribution of traits within populations. And still, it’s a difficult business.

  8. How can one talk about meaningful difference without essentializing the terms of the difference? How can cultures be meaningfully different if they are not essentially so?

    This is, of course, one of the big problems in the ongoing “anthropological crisis” (which is pushing 40 years old!). I believe this is a problem not so much of recognizing differences but, as Bill says, how we talk about difference — our vocabulary is really not up to the task. Still, I think that ideas like Appadurai’s “the cultural” (vs. “a culture”) and his various “-scapes”, Abu-Lughod’s “Writing Against Culture”, Gilroy’s “hybridity”, and the various work on “transnationalism” are pushing us in the right direction.

    One of the issues is the point raised by Hawks in JKerim’s post above: is there such a thing as a “typical” member of a society. When I see somone describing “Western individualism”, as in the Wired article that started this thread, I wonder who these “rugged individuals” were. Certainly not the medieval peasant, the early American farming colonists, the East European Jewish town-dwellers, and so on. Agricultural economies in general militate against the kind of individualism this researcher describes. WHat we do have, though, is a literary individualism that probably describes a reality that did exist among the elites who wrote and read such literature — as well as a post-Industrial Revolution Western/frontier literature that lionizes the highly mobile, have-tools-will-travel, hand-for-hire, squinty-eyed loner who looks awfully like a modern industrial worker for whom giving up strong community ties is the necessary trade-off for the benefits of being free labor (benefits like earning a living).

    At the same time, there are, as a result of state power, educational regimes, shared histories and heritages, cultural threads that run through populations — although the importance attached to them and the way they affect behavior may well differ among and between the various strata and divisions within the population. For instance, Jewish culture is shaped at least in part by the myths and commandmanets of the Old Testament, such as the kosher rules — but different Jews may follow those rules to the letter, may arrive at a compromise interpretation (like avoiding shellfish and pork but not worrying about mixing meat and dairy), may ignore those rules, or may (as early 20th c. anarchists did) openly flaunt such rules by feasting on shrimp and bacon (on Yom Kippur, no less!). It may still be meaningful to speak of kosher rules as part of “Jewish culture”, but generalizations about behavior based on this conception of “Jewish culture” are bound to partiality — are those Jews who don’t practice this aspect of “Jewish culture” less Jewish than those who do?

  9. It always seems to me that these issues of where ‘cultural boundaries’ are was fairly well worked out in the 1930s, forgotten about, and the ignorned in 1960s and 70s (I think Wolf’s anthropology textbook was key here) and then reinvented, where ‘diffusion’ becomes ‘flow,’ culture (which has transformed into ‘distinct cultures’) becomes ‘the cultural’ and so forth. Robert Brightman’s article “Forget Culture?” and Ira Bashkow’s “Neoboasian Concept of Culture Boundaries” trace this out pretty clearly, as does Silverstein’s excellent essay “Language/Cultures are Dead, Long Live The Linguistic-Cultural”.

    Obviously, anarchists who eat shrimp and bacon on Yom Kippur are Jewish — if they weren’t why would that be a significant thing to do at all? The whole point of the idea of cultural patterning or cultural structure is that the same pattern or structure can produce a wide variety of different practices.

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