Study: Americans Don’t Understand Others

Study: Americans Don’t Understand Others

Corey Binns, Special to LiveScience
Wed Jul 18, 10:05 AM ET

Rugged American individualism could hinder our ability to understand other peoples’ point of view, a new study suggests.

And in contrast, the researchers found that Chinese are more skilled
at understanding other people’s perspectives, possibly because they
live in a more "collectivist" society.

"This cultural difference affects the way we communicate," said
study co-author and cognitive psychologist Boaz Keysar of the
University of Chicago.

Simple study:

The study, though oversimplified compared to real life, was
instructive. Keysar and his colleagues arranged two blocks on a table
so participants could see both. However, a piece of cardboard
obstructed the view of one block so a "director," sitting across from
the participant, could only see one block.

When the director asked 20 American participants (none of Asian
descent) to move a block, most were confused as to which block to move
and did not take into account the director’s perspective. Even though
they could have deduced that, from the director’s seat, only one block
was on the table.

Most of the 20 Chinese participants, however, were not confused by
the hidden block and knew exactly which block the director was
referring to. While following directions was relatively simple for the
Chinese, it took Americans twice as long to move a block.

"That strong, egocentric communication of Westerners was nonexistent
when we looked at Chinese," Keysar said. "The Chinese were very much
able to put themselves in the shoes of another when they were

The results are detailed in the July issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Collectivist societies, such as the Chinese, place more value on the
needs of the group and less on the autonomy of the individual. In these
societies, understanding other peoples’ experiences is a more critical
social skill than it is among typically more individualist Americans.

Gross oversimplification

"Of course, these are very gross oversimplifications," said Keysar.
"Even in America, you can find collectivist societies. For example,
working class people tend to be much more collective."

Culture appears to direct our eyes to read others’ emotions, too.

Psychologists at Hokkaido University in Japan have found that
Japanese gaze at the shape of a person’s eyes, while Americans focus on
the mouth. When people from the two cultures interact, these
crisscrossed sightlines can lead to miscommunication.

"We all know people from different cultures are different. This is
not new. But what research is now showing is how they’re different and
what are the implications," Keysar told LiveScience. "If we are aware
of how we think differently, this can go a long way toward not allowing
these differences to get in the way of reaching mutual understanding."

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