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Appreciating Another Perspective

August 2007 - Research from the University of Chicago published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that people from Western cultures such as the United States find it particularly difficult to understand someone else's point of view because they are part of a culture that encourages individualism. By contrast, Chinese culture encourages a collectivist approach and, as a result, its people are more attuned to alternative perspectives.

Boaz Keysar, professor in psychology and graduate student Shali Wu, co-authors of "The Effect of Culture on Perspective Taking" highlight interpersonal communication problems as a major consequence. Previous studies of children have shown that the capacity to appreciate another perspective is universal, but not all societies encourage development of this skill.

Boaz Keysar said:

"Many actions and words have multiple meanings. In order to sort out what a person really means, we need to gain some perspective on what he or she might be thinking and Americans, for example, who don't have that skill very well developed, probably tend to make more errors in understanding what another person means."

Comparing Chinese and Americans, the authors comment:

"Members of these two cultures seem to have a fundamentally different focus in social situations... Members of collectivist cultures tend to be interdependent and to have self-concepts defined in terms of relationships and social obligations. In contrast, members of individualist cultures tend to strive for independence and have self-concepts defined in terms of their own aspirations and achievements."

Researchers devised a game to test how quickly and easily people from the two cultures were able to access an alternative perspective. Participants were University of Chicago students divided into two groups; one comprising 20 Chinese whose first language was Mandarin, the other 20 non-Asian Americans who were native English speakers.

The hypothesis that interdependence would make people focus on others rather than themselves was tested by asking two people from the same cultural group to cooperate as "director" and "subject" in moving objects around a square grid. Directors instructed subjects where objects should be moved but their view of some squares was obscured. Subjects could readily identify which objects could not be seen by directors. On occasion two similar objects were used, one concealed from the director and one visible to both participants.

Chinese subjects promptly focused on objects that were visible to the director and moved them according to instructions. When Americans were asked to move one of two similar objects, they took on average twice as long to work out which was invisible to the director before moving the correct one. The researchers also noted the frequency with which many American participants ignored the fact that some objects were concealed from the director.

Boaz Keysar commented:

"Despite the obvious simplicity of the task, the majority of American subjects (65 per cent) failed to consider the director's perspective at least once during the experiment by asking the director which object he or she meant or by moving an object the director could not see. In contrast, only one Chinese subject seemed confused by the directions."

The authors conclude:

"Apparently, the interdependence that pervades Chinese culture has its effect on members of the culture over time, taking advantage of the human ability to distinguish between the mind of the self and that of the other, and developing this ability to allow Chinese to unreflectively interpret the actions of another person from his or her perspective. Americans do not lose this ability, but years of culturalization based values of independence do not promote the development of mental tools needed to take into account another person's point of view."

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