An American and a Chinese look at an object differently, says a study that tracked the eye movements of two groups of students while they looked at photographs.

Richard Nisbett and other psychologists at the University of Michigan tracked eye movement of two groups — one comprising American-born graduates of European descent and the other Chinese-born graduate students who came to the US after their undergraduate degrees, reports the online edition of New Scientist.

Each picture showed a striking central image placed in a realistic background, such as a tiger in a jungle. They found that the Americans spent longer looking at the central object, while the Chinese students’ eyes tended to dart around, taking in the context.

Nisbett and his colleagues believe that this distinctive pattern has developed because of the philosophies of these two cultures.

“Harmony is a central idea in East Asian philosophy, and so there is more emphasis on how things relate to the whole,” says Nisbett. “In the West, by contrast, life is about achieving goals.”

Psychologists watching American and Japanese families playing with toys have also noted this difference. “An American mother will say: ‘Look Billy, a truck. It’s shiny and has wheels.’ The focus is on the object,” explains Nisbett. In contrast, Japanese mothers stress context, saying things like, “I push the truck to you and you push it to me. When you throw it at the wall, the wall says ‘ouch’.”

Nisbett hopes that his work will change the way the cultures view each other. “Understanding that there is a real difference in the way people think should form the basis of respect.”

More here.