Grow up in a collective society and 'know' others better
By Wu Chong
Updated: 2007-07-17 07:04

Chinese are more adept at putting themselves in other people's shoes than Americans.

The reason: Chinese grow up in a culture that emphasizes collectivism as opposed to their Western counterparts' individualism.

Living in a culture that encourages interdependence may strengthen a person's ability to appreciate the viewpoint of others.

These are the results of a recent experiment with a group of Americans and Chinese, which was published in US journal Psychological Science last week.

"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," University of Chicago's Professor of Psychology Boaz Keysar and his student and co-author Wu Shali have written in the paper.

A previous research had shown that by the age of five, children of both the cultures could appreciate other person's knowledge. Extending that finding, the new study once again implies that different cultures can shape people in different ways, Keysar told China Daily.

But, he cautioned, the study applies to general types of culture, not a specific country. On the sub-cultural scale, there could be different tendencies.

"For example, in Europe and some southern US states, strong communications among people can also be seen," he said.

The researchers recruited 40 students, half non-Asian Americans and half Chinese born and raised on the mainland. They paired them with the same cultural group to play a game of moving objects in a grid of squares.

One person, the "director", would tell the other person, the "subject", where the objects should be moved. Over some of the squares, a piece of cardboard blocked the director's view. So the subject could clearly tell what objects the director could not see.

The Chinese subjects almost immediately focused on the objects that the director could see and moved the correct ones, while the Americans spent about twice as much time to complete the correct moves.

More startlingly, 65 percent of the American subjects failed to get the director's perspective once during the game, in contrast to only one Chinese, the researchers said.

Another interesting finding for Keysar was the strong influence of the culture in which a person is brought up.

The Chinese subjects in the experiment had been staying in the US for two to nine months. As young students between 20 and 30, they belong to a generation that grew up in an era of frequent cultural exchanges. But "despite their most exposure to Western culture, they still show a resistance to it in the experiment", Keysar said.

The researchers will continue looking at the effect of aging on this tendency. "But I infer the result could be even more extreme, because older people tend to yield more to their culture," Keysar said.

(China Daily 07/17/2007 page1)