There is ample evidence that people in different cultures can exhibit dissimilar ways of thinking. For instance, Asians pay more attention to context and to the relationships between focal (foreground) objects and background in their descriptions of visual scenes, whereas Americans mention the focal items with greater frequency. Why this occurs is unclear, as is the cognitive source of the differences in behavior.
Miyamoto et al. present a set of studies that begin to identify the underlying processes and how the physical environment may serve to reinforce cultural distinctions. They presented Japanese and American study participants with photographs taken of hotels, schools, and post offices located in large, medium, and small cities in Japan and the United States. People of both nationalities rated the scenes of Japan as being more complicated (more objects, more chaotic, more obscured parts); although the U.S. scenes increased in complexity with city size, the Japanese scenes did not and were all more complex than those from the large U.S. city (New York). A similar ranking was obtained by analyzing the photos with the NIH Image program. In order to assess the influence of complexity on behavior, both nationalities were tested for their ability to detect changes in focal objects and background information in neutral vignettes after having been primed with the photos of Japan or the United States. Having first viewed a more complex scene improved the abilities of both the American and Japanese participants in reporting contextual, as opposed to focal, changes. — GJC
Psychol. Sci. 17, 113 (2006).