The Situationist

Cultural Thinking

Posted by The Situationist Staff on September 13, 2007

aps-poster.jpgIn May, the American Psychological Society (APS) held their annual conference at which numerous prominent social psychologists gave presentations. The latest issue of Observer, the APS magazine, contains articles summarizing a few of those presentations. This is the fourht in a series of posts (to link to the first three, click here, here, and here) by the Situationist excerpting and supplementing those articles. Below you will find excerpts of Catherine West’s fascinating summary of various presentations on “How Culture Influences the Way We Think.”

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“Culture is like water for fish,” . . . Shinobu Kitayama . . . explained during the special Culture and Cognition themed program . . . . But defining our own culture is difficult, “because it is the only thing we know,” Kitayama said in his talk, “Voluntary Settlement and the Spirit of Independence: Some More Evidence from Japan’s ‘Northern Frontier.'”

Speaking to a packed room, Kitayama noted that researchers investigating cultural differences often contrast Western and Eastern cultures. Kitayama, however, utilized two separate samples from Japan — one from the mainland and the other from the island of Hokkaido — to examine differences in individualism that may exist in Japanese culture.

Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost territory, is unique due to its history as a frontier in Japan. For several reasons, including the collapse of the feudal government in Japan, which resulted in fewer job for Japan’s samurai soldiers, and a need to protect Hokkaido from increasing Russian aggression, many samurai were initially deployed to the island in the mid-1800’s. Subsequently, a large number of farmers and peasants followed suit in search of land, wealth, and freedom. According to the voluntary settlement hypothesis, the immigration to the frontier, while economically motivated, may have fostered psychological orientations toward independence.

Kitayama examined this notion by assessing Hokkaido-born and non-Hokkaido-born college students’ implicit theory of independence, and found that, like Americans, Hokkaido Japanese show a strong cognitive bias called the fundamental attribution error. They tend to explain another person’s behavior in terms of internal traits while ignoring situational forces. In contrast, mainland Japanese showed no such bias. The pattern suggests that the voluntary settlement hypothesis may indeed apply to individuals from Hokkaido.

This finding is particularly interesting in the context of the differences between Japanese and American values, beliefs, and traditions. As APS Fellow Richard Nisbett, University of Michigan, pointed out, modern Asian cultures are relatively collectivist or interdependent, whereas Western cultures thrive on independence and individualism, and it follows that these societal values sculpt one’s point of view.

Nisbett cited a study in which researchers used an eye-tracking device to pinpoint exactly where participants look when given a photo with a salient object (e.g., a train) set against a busy background. Americans looked outside the object an average of one time but had eight or nine fixations on the actual object. On the other hand, Chinese participants had one sharp initial fixation on the object followed by five or six fixations on the background context. “If people are seeing different things, it may be because they are looking differently at the world,” Nisbett added.

Doug Medin, Northwestern University, agreed. During his talk, Medin . . . presented research on the effect of our “cultural framework” (i.e., how we make sense of the world) on inter-group conflict. He said that the way we organize our knowledge varies by culture, and that this knowledge plays a large role in the ways we view others. Thus, limited observation of other groups and immersion solely in our own culture leads to overgeneralization of other cultures and the perpetuation of stereotypes.

. . .

Other participants in the APS program included Denise Park, and Qi Wang. To listen to an excellent NPR, Morning Edition report on Richard Nisbett’s pathbreaking scholarship on the role of culture on cognitions (or, “The Geography of Thought“), click here.

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