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Culture Influences Perception

Essay by   •  December 1, 2012  •  Essay  •  1,964 Words (8 Pages)  •  2,615 Views

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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

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