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
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 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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