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Cultural Effects on Visual Perception

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Culture and Perception
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Cultural Effects on VISUAL Perception 2,968
Mainstream psychology has generally assumed that psychological processes are universal
and that the main role of psychology is to investigate these universal aspects of human beings.
Visual perception, attention, and even visual illusion have, therefore, been understood mainly in
terms of the underlying optical mechanisms and characteristics of visual information hardwired
in the human brain and shared by human beings in general.
Over the last couple of decades, however, increasing numbers of cross-cultural studies
have empirically re-examined this theoretical assumption and advocated an alternative view of
human psychology in which culture and human psychological processes are considered to
mutually influence one another. This entry reports some recent attempts to re-examine the so-
called universal systems of visual perception, and it discusses the possibility of cultural
influences on perception as evidenced by cultural variations in optical illusion, in color
perception, in visual attention, and in brain functioning that governs visual attention.
CULTURAL EFFECTS ON VISUAL ILLUSION
In the literature of psychology, optical illusion is often used as evidence of human
universals in perception. One of the most famous optical illusions is the Müller-Lyer illusion, in
which people perceive that a horizontal line segment ending in inward-pointing arrows is longer
than a horizontal line segment ending in outward-pointing arrows. This seemingly universal
phenomenon, however, has been tested cross-culturally, and the results indicate cultural
variations in the magnitude of illusion. For example, Murray Islanders in Melanesia and
members of the Toda tribe in India showed significantly smaller errors than their British
counterparts in judging the relative lengths of the lines. Similarly, extensive cross-cultural
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studies of 17 societiesincluding a variety of African agricultural and hunter-gatherer cultures,
an Australian Aboriginal foraging culture, a tribe of Philippino horticulturalists, and
Midwesterners in the United Statesshow that the degree of illusion is much stronger among
North Americans. Furthermore, children in some cultures (e.g., hunter-gatherers from the
Kalahali Desert) were completely immune to the Müller-Lyer illusion. The findings suggest that
individuals who grew up in certain visual environments are not vulnerable to the Müller-Lyer
illusion. I suggest a two-part figure. Part 1 = Muller-Lyer illusion; Part 2 the antelope picture.
Various studies have proposed hypotheses to examine the main causes of cultural
variations in susceptibility to this illusion. The carpentered environment hypothesis, for example,
suggests that people developmentally acquire perceptions of a three-dimensional world in
accordance with their experiences with the surrounding environment. In Western industrialized
societies, individuals’ depth of field is founded on the structure of rooms, houses, and furniture
consisting of vertical and horizontal lines with corners in a variety of angles. People in these
societies associate acute angles with nearby objects (such as the corner of a rug), and obtuse
angles with somewhat more distant views (such as the intersection of two walls and a floor).
Once they acquire this specific perceptual pattern in the three-dimensional world, they apply the
same rules even when they observe the visual representation in the two-dimensional field. The
Western perspective in art is a good example. In Western perspective, objects close to the viewer
are drawn larger and are characterized by acute angles, while objects farther from the viewer are
drawn smaller and feature obtuse angles. For this reason, Westerners perceive a line ending in
inward-facing arrows to be farther away (and therefore actually longer) than it appears. However,
in cultures where structures are built using less angular shapes, people have fewer opportunities
to interpret the relationships between lines and angles in their perceptual world. The carpentered
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environment hypothesis thus helps to explain why people from some cultures are less susceptible
to the Müller-Lyer illusion than Westerners.
Drawings using Western perspective have been used to study cultural variations in depth-
of-field perception. For example, one study examined how children and illiterate adult laborers
from an African Bantu tribe interpreted the image of a large hunter aiming a spear in the
direction of two animals, an elephant and an antelope. The elephant was closer to the hunter from
a non-Western two-dimensional point of view, but because it was drawn smaller than the
antelope and the hunter, it would be farther away according to Western perspective. The antelope
was farther away from the hunter in the two-dimensional view, but because of its size, it would
be considered closer to the hunter in Western perspective. Therefore, although Westerners would
be expected to perceive that the hunter was aiming at the large prey, the Bantus perceived the
same image without the depth of the field, and for this reason they reported that the hunter was
aiming at the smaller prey, which they believed to be closer to the hunter.
Of course, the causes of cultural variations in the effects of optical illusions need to be
studied further. Current findings, however, suggest that humans susceptibility to optical illusion
may depend heavily on their visual experiences in the environment and on culturally shared
interpretations of visual information.
CULTURAL EFFECTS ON COLOR PERCEPTION
Colors accentuate our daily life. But do all people perceive color in exactly the same
way? Color is an excellent stimulus for use in scientific investigation, because although the
spectrum is physically defined, color perception entails psychological processes. One line of
research provides evidence that supports the universality of color perception. A cross-cultural
study of 98 societies suggests that 11 colors (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink,
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brown, gray, black, and white) are universally recognized, even in the absence of color terms
corresponding to these colors. For example, although the Dani people of Irian Jaya on the island
of New Guinea had only two color terms (dark and light), they were able to quickly distinguish
among the basic colors.
Moreover, researchers who investigate the relationships between colors and color terms
advocate an evolutionary account of the development of color terms. That is, the appearance of
color terms is predictable according to the number of color terms in a language. If the language
has only two color terms, these always turn out to be black (dark) and white (light). However, if
the language has three color terms, the third term will corresponds to the red end of the spectrum.
The fourth and fifth color terms will be green and yellow (or yellow and then green), the sixth
color will be blue, and the seventh color will be brown. The last color terms to appear will be
purple, pink, orange, and gray, not necessarily in that order.
However, new findings challenge the idea that color perception is universal among
humans. For example, the Dani performed relatively poorly in tasks requiring them to remember
the basic colors; their retention rate was much lower compared to that of the English speaker.
Another study investigated color perceptions of Berinmo speakers in East Sepik, Papua New
Guinea, whose language contains five basic color terms. The Berinmo’s language distinguishes
between nol (a kind of bluish green) and wor (a kind of yellowish green) but not between blue
and green. In this study, English and Berinmo speakers were asked to view and remember color
chips representing colors spanning either the blue-green boundary or the nol-wor boundary. The
Berinmo speakers performance of the color retention task was better with regard to colors on the
nol-wor boundary. The English speakers did better at remembering colors on the blue-green
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boundary. These findings suggest that linguistic color terms do affect the ability to remember
specific colors.
Does language play a role in facilitating or inhibiting our perceptual processes? A study
of Russian and English speakers examined whether the existence of a language category
influences color perception. Russian has two independent color terms to represent blue: light
blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy), whereas English speakers usually distinguish these colors
by adding adjectives (light or dark) to the base term blue. English and Russian speakers were
presented with a variety of blue color chips that were slightly different from each other in hue
and saturation, and the task was to discriminate which one corresponded to the target chip. For
example, a blue chip was presented as a target stimulus; subsequently, two alternative blue chips
were presented, and the participants were asked to select which of the alternatives was identical
to the target chip. Russian speakers were quicker to discriminate between two colors when they
fell into different categories (goluboy and siniy) than when they were from the same color
category. However, these differences did not provide the same advantages for English speakers.
This experiment demonstrated that categories in a language affect participants performance in
simple perceptual color tasks. This line of research suggests that culturally shared ways of
naming colors may influence speed of color perception.
The issue of universality versus cultural variability in color perception is still
controversial. One position holds that language and cultural conventions do not affect color
perception; the other maintains that color perception is subject to arbitrary, culturally defined
color terms. It has recently been suggested that both positions are partially true. The color terms
used in a given culture do influence retention, learning, and ongoing processes of color
discrimination. But there is still about 75% overlap in how cultures draw boundaries around
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color terms. For example, the boundaries of the color terms used by the Berinmo speakers
mentioned earlier are similar to those of the five color terms used by Himba speakers in Namibia,
although the ecologies and economies of the two groups diverge significantly. Thus there seem
to be universal constraints regarding categorization of colors.
CULTURAL EFFECTS ON VISUAL ATTENTION
Another line of research has examined whether culture can affect attentional processes.
Research on perception and cognition indicates that there are systematic cultural variations in
attention between people in East Asian societies (e.g., China, Korea, and Japan) and Western
societies (e.g., Canada and the United States). East Asians, who holistically attend to the entire
field and relationships between objects, are more context sensitive than Westerners, who
analytically focus on salient objects and can easily separate target objects from the context.
A research group used the rod and frame test to compare the levels of context sensitivity
of American and Chinese participants. This task used a device consisting of a square frame box
of a certain depth, with a rod situated at one end of the box. The participant sat at the other end
of the device with his or her chin on a chin-rest, observing the rod through the box. The
participants were asked to manipulate the position of the rod until they subjectively thought the
rod was perfectly vertical. The experimenter then manipulated the angle of the frame box, and
the participant tried again to position the rod vertically. When the angle of the frame was vertical,
the frame could serve as a reference point for the position of the rod. When the frame was tilted,
however, the judgment of participants who could not ignore the frame would be hindered. The
Chinese participants made more errors than the Americans, suggesting that the Chinese were
more sensitive to contextual information and therefore more influenced by the angle of the frame.
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Americans were able to detach the task from the influence of the angled frame, which suggests
that they were relatively immune to the contextual cue.
Are there cultural differences in how attention affects memory for objects in scenes? In
an object recognition task, Americans and Japanese were presented with pictures of wild animals
in natural settings. The same participants were then shown pictures of the original animals, as
well as new animals, and asked to identify which animals they had seen previously. In this part
of the study, the combination of animals and backgrounds was manipulated: Half of the original
animals were presented with their original backgrounds, and the rest with completely new
backgrounds. Although the task was to identify the animals, the results indicated that, compared
to Americans, Japanese participants were less able to recognize previously seen animals
especially when they saw them against the novel backgrounds. These results suggest that the
Japanese encoded the background information in the images they saw in first part of the study
and had more difficulty detaching the target animal from the context.
What are the underlying mechanisms of cultural variation in patterns of attention? And to
what extent do sociocultural factors influence our patterns of attention? Recent findings in
psychophysiology and neuroscience provide evidence that culture has a very deep influence on
attention. Results of an eye-tracking study indicated that East Asians were more likely than
Westerners to allocate their attention to the surrounding information. When given the
aforementioned animal recognition task, Chinese participants made more saccadic (rapid
nonfocused) eye movements to the background scenes than Americans, even though the task was
to evaluate the target objects. These results suggest that context-oriented attention is deeply
internalized among East Asians, and for this reason, they cannot help referring to contextual
information even when they do not have to. These findings are further supported by a study that
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measured brain activations during a similar object vs. background task. In this study, Magnetic
Resonance Imaging revealed that when identifying objects and their locations, American
participants activated more brain regions relating to object information processing than Chinese
participants. Another cross-cultural study measured activity in the brain area that processes
object recognition. There were no identifiable differences between Singaporean college students
and their American counterparts; however, Singaporeans 60 years of age and older showed less
activity in that brain area than did Americans in the same age group. These results suggest that
even the neural circuitry for attending visual scenes is affected by culturally influenced
information processing over the long term.
What are the causes of this systematic cultural variation? Researchers in general maintain
that people internalize a specific pattern of attention through their experiences of living in a
given cultural environment. Some researchers maintain that exposure to culturally biased visual
representations such as paintings, drawings, and even photographs facilitate the internalization of
a specific pattern of attention. For example, East Asian painting masterpieces were found to be
more context rich than their Western counterparts. Furthermore, when asked to draw scenic
images, contemporary members of East Asian cultures were more likely than Westerners to draw
context-rich images. Other studies suggest that East Asian cultures emphasize a sense of
interdependence, whereas Westerner cultures emphasize a sense of independence regarding
interpersonal relationships and reasoning styles. Such cultural values may encourage culturally
adaptive patterns of attentionfor example, making Westerners more likely to see independent
objects in the scenes and Easterners more apt to see relationships and contexts that surround the
objects. In sum, these findings support the notion that cognitive experiences in the real world
influence the processes of our visual systems.
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IMPLICATIONS OF RESEARCH ON CULTURE AND PERCEPTION
Current research provides evidence of cultural influences on perception. These effects
have a variety of implications, not only for cognitive psychology, but also for social, cultural,
and personality psychology. The reasons are threefold. First, the cross-cultural examination of
human perception allows us to examine in what ways, and to what extent, our perception is
flexibly structured and influenced by systems associated with sociocultural experiences. Some
researchers maintain that basic visual processing exists independent of socio-culturally shared
beliefs. Their findings suggest that the physical and structural systems of visual perception are
sufficient for understanding human perception. Under the rubric of “newlook psychology,
Describe briefly however, other research indicates that our perceptions, even perceptions of so-
called neutral stimuli, are fully influenced by our knowledge structures, which in turn are based
on our experiences. However, the underlying processes have not been fully investigated, and
further research is necessary.
Second, social and cultural psychologists who have identified cultural variation in social
cognitionsuch as causal attribution, self-perception, judgment, inference, and categorization
have long awaited more objective measurements than previously existing quasiexperimental and
quasisurvey data collection, which was based mainly on participants self-reports. Current
technological advances allow cross-cultural researchers to scrutinize underlying processes of
these variations in human behaviors.
Finally, the theoretical frameworks of perception research do not sufficiently take into
account the functions of emotions, motivation, and psychological states. Since the emergence of
newlook psychology, however, substantial numbers of studies have suggested that such factors
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play an important role in perceptual processes. Again, the findings of cultural influence on
perception mutually accelerate further investigation into the complexity of human perception.
Takahiko Masuda
University of Alberta
See also: Art and neuroscience, Aesthetics, Attention and Emotion, Color Perception, Eye
Movements During Cognition and Conversation, Eye Movements and Action in Everyday Life,
Illusory (Non-Veridical) Perception, Social Perception, Visual Illusions, Visual Scene Perception
SUGGESTED FURTHER READINGS
Berlin, B., & Kay, P. (1969). Basic color terms: Their universality and evolution. Berkeley and
Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Chua, H. F., Boland, J., & Nisbett, R. E. (2005). Cultural variation in eye movements during
scene perception. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
of America, 102, 12629-12633.
Park. D., & Gutchess, A. (2006). The cognitive neuroscience of aging and culture. Current
Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 105-108.
Kay, P., & Regier, T. (2007). Color naming universals: The case of Berinmo. Cognition, 102,
289-298.
McCauler, R. N., & Henrich, J. (2006). Susceptibility to the Muller-Lyer Illusion, theory- neutral
observation, and the diachronic penetrability of the visual input system. Philosophical
Psychology, 19, 1-23.
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Nisbett, R. E., & Masuda, T. (2003). Culture and point of view. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100, 11163-11175.
Roberson, D., Davis, I., & Davidoff, J. (2000). Color categories are not universal: Replications
and new evidence from a stone-age culture. Journal of Experimental Psychology:
General, 129, 369-398.
Witkin, H. A. (1967). A cognitive-style approach to cross-cultural research. International
Journal of Psychology, 2, 233-250.
Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A. R., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). Russian
blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 104, 7780-7785.
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... Whereas, members of Asian societies (collectivist) process most of the visual information in a more holistic manner, attending to the relationship between an object (foreground) and the background context [31,[34][35][36][37]. For example, members of individualist culture are more likely to fixate sooner and longer on a foreground object in the visual field, whilst collectivists fixate more on background information [34,38,39]. Viewers from collectivist societies are more effective than their individualist counterparts in detecting changes to background information, whereas, individualist viewers are more inclined to notice changes to the object [39,40]. ...
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... Viewers from collectivist societies are better at recalling a previous object when presented against the original background than when presented with a novel background. In contrast, viewers from individualist societies are likely to be less affected by contextual (background) manipulation [38][39][40]. The selection of background information has been reported as important to predict collectivists' responses. ...
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English and Russian color terms divide the color spectrum differently. Unlike English, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (“goluboy”) and darker blues (“siniy”). We investigated whether this linguistic difference leads to differences in color discrimination. We tested English and Russian speakers in a speeded color discrimination task using blue stimuli that spanned the siniy/goluboy border. We found that Russian speakers were faster to discriminate two colors when they fell into different linguistic categories in Russian (one siniy and the other goluboy) than when they were from the same linguistic category (both siniy or both goluboy). Moreover, this category advantage was eliminated by a verbal, but not a spatial, dual task. These effects were stronger for difficult discriminations (i.e., when the colors were perceptually close) than for easy discriminations (i.e., when the colors were further apart). English speakers tested on the identical stimuli did not show a category advantage in any of the conditions. These results demonstrate that (i) categories in language affect performance on simple perceptual color tasks and (ii) the effect of language is online (and can be disrupted by verbal interference). • categorization • cross-linguistic • Whorf
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