Culture Shapes How We Look at Faces

Constructivism. Determinism. It is all a bunch of hooey.

ResearchBlogging.orgA recent paper published by PLoS (Culture Shapes How We Look at Faces) throws a sopping wet blanket on widely held deterministic models of human behavior. In addition, the work underscores the sometimes spooky cultural differences that can emerge in how people see things, even how people think.


A Repost

The following is from a PLoS press release:

Because face recognition is effortlessly achieved by people from all different cultures it was considered to be a basic mechanism universal among humans. However, by using analyses inspired by novel brain imaging technology, researchers at the University of Glasgow have discovered that cultural differences cause us to look at faces differently.

Lead researcher Dr Roberto Caldara said: “In a series of eye-movement studies, we showed that social experience has an impact on how people look at faces. Specifically we noticed a striking difference in eye movements in Westerners and East Asian observers. We found that Westerners tend to look at specific features on an individual’s face such as the eyes and mouth whereas East Asian observers tend to focus on the nose or the centre of the face which allows a more general view of all the features. One possible cause of this could be that direct or excessive eye contact may be considered rude in East Asian cultures.”

The results of the study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Medical Research Council, provide novel insights into why non verbal communication between people from different cultures is sometimes problematic, in an age where globalisation has dramatically increased interdependence, integration and interaction among people and corporations from all over the world. Western societies are generally more individualistic, whereas East Asian societies are collectivistic; Westerners appear to think and perceive focally and Easterners globally.

Dr Caldara continued: “By disproving the long-held assumption that face processing is universally achieved we have highlighted that the external environment, including the society in which we develop, is very influential in basic human mechanisms and caution should be taken when generalising findings to the entire human population.”

There is a general perception that behavioral variation emerges from a genetic substrate in a kind of inverted pyramid … at the genetic level there is not much variation, but at the “surface” (or beyond) there is potentially quite a bit of variation. It is more or less true that everyone believes this, and that people argue over the amount of variation that is determined way down at the genetic level vs. constructed at the surface. Even the most extreme construtivists will acknowledge that genes determine the basic neural circuits that give us, say, the ability to speak, even if the same constructivists will then argue that genes have nothing to do with what we say or how we make or interpret meaning.

So you have genes, then you have basic primitive neural mechanisms and neural-hormonal circuits, and these building blocks are put together to make more complex behaviors which are increasingly shaped by context (culture, etc.) at increasingly derived levels.

But this is a naive and inaccurate view. To the extent that genetic information is involved in human behavior, there is no strong evidence that genetic determination is manifest mainly in one vs. another developmental stage, behavioral substrate, or context. Yes, yes, you will see positivist statements asserting a link between developmental depth and genetic determination, but these are almost never based on conclusions from evidence, but rather, these statements are almost always assumptions used to interpret observations. Indeed, in the paper at hand, we see this:

Face processing,… is thought to be invariant across all humans. …Here we monitored the eye movements of Western Caucasian and East Asian observers … Contrary to intuition, East Asian observers focused more on the central region of the face.

I’ve added emphasis to the phrase “Contrary to intuition.” The “intuition” here is ‘what everybody assumed to be true.’

The constructivist I mention above who admits that the basic neural circuitry is genetic but that the nature of our thoughts is cultural has it backwards and upside down! The neural circuitry that determines our ability to speak is present in all primates, even those that don’t speak. The preservation of this circuitry in humans occurs because we grow up as babies in a linguistic environment. Culture determines that we have the ability to speak (with word, sign language, whatever). On the other hand, the nature of our thoughts may in some cases be determined by hormone levels. If you don’t think that is true than you hav never met, or been, a teenager.

Constructivism. Determinism. It is all a bunch of hooey.

Caroline Blais, Rachael E. Jack, Christoph Scheepers, Daniel Fiset, Roberto Caldara, Alex O. Holcombe (2008). Culture Shapes How We Look at Faces PLoS ONE, 3 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003022


Get the paper HERE.

Comments

  1. #1 sailor
    October 15, 2009

    “The neural circuitry that determines our ability to speak is present in all primates, even those that don’t speak. The preservation of this circuitry in humans occurs because we grow up as babies in a linguistic environment.”
    Are you sure about that Greg? Seems people have tried to raise chimps like kids and teach them to speak with very little success. They did better with sign language.
    Isn’t Broca’s area, thought to be associated with speech, much more developed in humans?

  2. #2 edivimo
    October 15, 2009

    I think the raised chimps can’t talk because their pharingeal anatomy, they can’t make the same sounds we do, I see it in NatGeo! Is the same reason the chimps can’t laugh too.

  3. #3 Katharine
    October 15, 2009

    Well, strictly, biology determines that we have the ability to speak. Other primates just don’t have the vocal cords.

  4. #4 D. C. Sessions
    October 15, 2009

    In light of twin studies I’m disinclined to rule out a much stronger role for genetics in matters such as temperament and position on the social/individual scale.

    Thus, leaping from “east asians do X, europeans do Y” to “cultural influence” is premature. Might be true, but the evidence is a long way from conclusive.

    Instant example: some breeds of cats are much more social than others. Not a matter of socialization; it’s clearly inherited and in fact bred for.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    October 15, 2009

    Sailor, yes, I’m quite sure. The conditions that produce a human certainly don’t include only raising a chimp to talk (and smoke cigars and drive little cars)!!

    DC Why is the model that cultural behavior is genetic rather than learned the more correct assumption that extra effort needs to be made to disprove instead of the other way around.

  6. #6 D. C. Sessions
    October 15, 2009

    Why is the model that cultural behavior is genetic rather than learned the more correct assumption that extra effort needs to be made to disprove instead of the other way around.

    If I parsed that correctly, you misread me. I merely point out that the assumption that culture is the determining factor is premature. It may well be, but there are other possibilities which have at least some science supporting them.

    IIRC some time ago there was a study which found a genetic influence on phoneme biases, and the genes in question are fairly population-specific. Unsurprisingly, the languages in those regions showed the same phoneme biases. Then again, this was a while ago and it isn’t my field.

    Nature. Nurture. Subject far from closed.

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