Thinking Unselfishly

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Science  15 Jun 2007:
Vol. 316, Issue 5831, pp. 1542
DOI: 10.1126/science.316.5831.1542a

Problems that appear fiendishly challenging at first glance can seem childishly simple if viewed from the perspective of another. The capacity to infer the mental states of others—theory of mind—is known to develop at approximately the same age in children raised in different cultures, but the ease with which adults access these mind-reading abilities has been suggested to vary across countries, from the collectivism of East Asia to the individualism of the United States.

Wu and Keysar use a two-player game based on a 4-by-4 array of pigeonholes containing mundane objects, some of which are visible to both players and some only to the second. Directions (to move an object) that are completely unambiguous from the vantage point of the first player can, in fact, cause the second player to hesitate in choosing between two identical objects (only one of which is visible to the first player). They find, by tracking visual gaze and reaching movements, that Chinese reacted more quickly than Americans (non-Asians) and were almost never distracted by the second object that they could see but that their playing partner could not. These results favor the proposal that cultures with greater emphasis on interdependence induce a greater readiness to adopt or acknowledge the perspective of the other. — GJC

Psychol. Sci. 18, 600 (2007).

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