Chinese students would immediately understand which wooden block to move – the one visible to both them and the director. Their US counterparts, however, did not always catch on.
“They would ask ‘Which block?’ or ‘You mean the one on the right?”, explains Keysar. “For me it was really stunning because all of the information is there. You don’t need to ask,” he adds.
While 65% of the American participants asked this type of question, only one of the 20 Chinese subjects did so, equating to just 5%.
This comes close to the classic “they did a study on that?” criticism of psychology. Of course we know that East Asians cultures emphasize a contextual perception of self and collectivist values vis-a-vis Western ones. But, it is nice to get a quantitative sense of the extent of this difference. You can read the full paper on the author’s website. Here is an important point:
In fact, language can trigger a culture – bound representation of self…bicultural Chinese-born individuals tended to describe themselves in terms of their own attributes when writing in English, but to describe themselves in relation to other people when writing in Chinese.
This shouldn’t surprise you if you read Geography of Thought. It seems people can be easily “trained” to change their vantage points (casting some light on the grand claims made by the author in the aforementioned book). The facultative nature of these extreme differences seems pretty obvious; especially given that extreme individualism manifest in English speaking peoples in particular, while continental Europeans tend to lay between the East Asian collectivism and Anglo-Saxon collectivism despite their far closer genetic affinity to the latter. Nevertheless, though the extremity of the differences in operation of Theory of Mind here is likely cultural, I can not be suspect that there might small, but significant, initial differences between populations. After all, Jerome Kagan has shown that personality differences exist between Asian and European infants at very young ages, as well as between blue-eyed and brown-eyed children (in both cases the former tend to be more withdrawn and inhibited than the latter). The question that comes to my mind is whether the cultural differences selected for different personality profiles, or whether there were initially difference personality profiles which resulted in different cultural outcomes. My own suspicion in the East Asian case is the former.