Cultural background reflected in seemingly innocuous actions

ResearchBlogging.orgYou might expect someone's cultural background to influence their speech, their appearance, their musical tastes, and the foods they like. You'd probably also expect culture to have an impact on values and beliefs, on stories and traditions. But what about their bodies -- not just physical features like skin color or hair texture, but attitude towards the self? If culture touches on so many aspects of an individual, perhaps it can also impact the subtle ways people think about of their own bodies.

Consider this fairly well-established difference between Euro-Americans and Asian Americans: Euro-Americans tend to believe that they should be concerned primarily with their own self-interest: they should consider their own needs before those of others. Asian Americans tend to believe that they should adapt their actions to the needs of others: they should "harmonize" with those around them. While in some ways this distinction is a stereotype, it has been supported by research -- even if it doesn't apply to every member of each culture.

It's not hard to see how this difference between two cultures might be expressed in Euro-Americans' and Asian Americans' attitudes about their bodies: Euro-Americans might take their own perspective, while Asian Americans might be more likely to take the perspective of others. In English (and many other languages), different language is used depending whose perspective you're taking: From my perspective, you come to my house, but from your perspective, you go to my house.

Angela Leung and Dov Cohen had 131 Euro- and Asian Americans read eight stories sentence by sentence on a computer screen. Half the stories took the perspective of the reader, and half took the perspective of a friend chosen by the reader. Each story had two key sentences involving the "coming/going" (or a similar "taking/bringing") distinction -- an object or person was either depicted as "coming" or "going" towards the protagonist in the story. The researchers measured how long it took readers to read these sentences, and here's what they found:


The graph shows the difference in reading time for "go" and "come" sentences. A longer reading time suggests more difficulty in processing that sentence. If you take a shorter time to read a "come" sentence than a "go" sentence, that suggests you're taking the perspective of the protagonist in the story, since normally you'd say another person "comes" toward you. In these graphs, the relationship is reversed because the authors want to show how much their participants took the perspective of the protagonist -- a taller bar suggests they take the protagonists' perspective.

As you can see, Asian Americans were significantly more likely to take their friend's perspective than their own, while the opposite pattern held for Euro-Americans.

Interestingly, the pattern was different when stories were not social -- instead of playing basketball with a friend, for example, the protagonist practiced alone. Instead of another person coming or going towards the protagonist, an object (like the ball) did. Here are those results:


Now the pattern is reversed, with Asian Americans more likely to take the perspective of the themselves as protagonist.

In a second experiment, Leung and Cohen asked a new group of 114 Asian and Euro-Americans to produce sentences instead of reading them. They were given concepts expressed as series of words and asked to write down a complete sentence with the same meaning. For example, they might be given the following prompt:

restaurant -- I -- waved at -- my friend -- to my table

Then respondents would write a response, something like:

I was at the restaurant and waved at my friend to come to my table.


I was at the restaurant and waved at my friend to go to my table.

As before, some of the prompts were non-social and some were social. Here are the results:


Once again, we see the same pattern: in social situations, Asian Americans are more likely than Euro-Americans to take the perspective of a friend (by using "come" instead of "go" when someone is approaching them), while in non-social situations the pattern is almost reversed.

Leung and Dov say that these demonstrate that cultural values are not only displayed in overt behaviors and actions, but are also embodied in the way view our physical selves. These values, because they are so subtle, may be more difficult for members of a cultural group to address directly. Even if a member of a cultural group believes that some aspect of that culture is undesirable, because of the subtle ways culture can be expressed, challenging that culture can be difficult.

Leung, A.K., Cohen, D. (2007). The Soft Embodiment of Culture: Camera Angles and Motion Through Time and Space. Psychological Science, 18(9), 824-830. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01986.x

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Is the y-axis label on the last graph a mistake? It seems like it should go from 0%-100% like the one before it, instead of 0%-1%

Americans are less likely to make bring/take and go/come distinctions than people from other English speaking countries, I think. For example, they might say "are you going to bring that with you?" when you are going somewhere but they are not going to be coming also- I would always say take if I am not going, and bring if I am. Maybe there is just a different distinction that I haven't figured out, but as a non-American speaker of English, these terms are definitely used differently by American-English speakers. I wonder if these language differences affect the kind of perspective taking studied here.

By TasmanSea (not verified) on 03 Mar 2008 #permalink

I agree with TasmanSea that perhaps it's an American language quirk rather than a case of European and Asian attitudes. I don't have access to the paper, since I seem to need a subscription, but does it mention details such as where the test subjects learned English, whether they were first/second/third generation, and what other languages they spoke?

I wonder how do American Americans would perform on this test. Just out of curiosity, I asked my some of friends today to form a sentence with "restaurant -- I -- waved at -- my friend -- to my table" and they all used "come" instead of "go". These were people whom I would think of as just American, no prefix-attached - their families (or at least parts of their families, since they're generally somewhat mixed in race) have been in the US for at least three or four generations. Granted I only asked about 6-8 people this one question, so my sample is pretty tiny.

This study is consistent with the literature on cross-cultural differences between individualistic (emphasizing the individual) vs. collectivistic (emphasizing the group) cultures; so I suspect cultural values are at the root of this study rather than linguistic peculiarities. In fact the study results closely reflect noted differences in attributional biases between Western (e.g., Australia/US) and Eastern (e.g., Japanese/Chinese) cultures and individuals.

Compared to Asian students, American students tend to show a self-serving bias when it comes to explaining their failures and successes--failures are attributed to society (e.g., "I failed the test because the teacher was bad"); successes are attributed to personal factors (e.g., "I passed the test because I'm intelligent"). The self-serving bias generally reflects Western cultures emphasis on self over society, consistent with the Euro-American data for the study presented here.

Compared to American students, Asian students tend to show a self-effacing bias when it comes to explaining failures and successes--failures are attributed to self (e.g., "I failed the test because I did not study hard enough"); successes are attributed to society (e.g., "I failed the test because the teacher was good"). The self-effacing bias generally reflects an emphasis on society and de-emphasis on the individual, consistent with the data for Asian-Americans in this study when responding to social situations.

The data for Asian Americans for non-social situations seems to add a new twist to this literature. Although, it would make sense that the default cultural mode can be deactivated in certain circumstances.

Another interesting study would be one identifying in what contexts is the larger cultural mode (i.e., individualistic thinking) deactivated for Westerners.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 04 Mar 2008 #permalink

I'm very suspicious about this study. COuld it be that Americans speak better English than Asian Americans and thus they prefer to say: "I was at the restaurant and waved at my friend to come to my table." rather than "I was at the restaurant and waved at my friend to go to my table." The latter construction is rather weird.

"I was at the restaurant and waved at my friend to come to my table." feels a lot more "correct" than the other sentence, which sounded a little awkward, despite the fact that I'm Asian.

Agreeing with the comments above--this is a linguistic difference rather than a psychological one.
It would be hard to overcome this language difference because it could be simply in the way Oriental languages are written (preferring to use third-person like Japanese versus first person).
Maybe a different experiment could be counting the frequency of first-person pronouns. It's more grammatical preferences rather than psychological to use 'go' or 'come' in certain situations.

By Steve Alva (not verified) on 11 Mar 2008 #permalink

Its not clear from this summary how the authors define Asian-American and European-American. Are they talking about 1st-generation Americans? Or people whose ancestors have been in the US even longer? Did they control for languages spoken in the home?