1.1. Cross-cultural differences in object/context perception
Research on cross-cultural differences in perception and processing of (mostly visual) stimuli and their relation to attitudes and cognition dates back to seminal works by William Rivers (e.g., Rivers, 1905) in the first years of the 20th century and by Alexandr Luria (e.g., Luria, 1979) in the 1930s. Since the second half of the 1960s, much of this research has been focused on how representatives of different cultures differ in the degree to which they attend to focal objects in their perceptual field as opposed to attending to the context within which the objects reside. The first studies of this topic were undertaken by Herman Witkin and his colleagues (particularly John Berry) as part of their research into psychological differentiation, a theoretical concept that was initially developed to account for differences between persons in their educational success (Witkin, Dyk, Paterson, Goodenough, & Karp, 1962), but later applied also for explaining cross-cultural differences in perception and thinking (e.g., Witkin, 1967; Witkin & Goodenough, 1981). The researchers asserted that “in the perceptual domain greater differentiation shows itself in the tendency for parts of the field to be experienced as discrete from the field as a whole rather than as fused with the field, or experienced as global, which is indicative of lesser differentiation” (Witkin & Berry, 1975: 6; see also Witkin et al., 1962; Witkin & Goodenough, 1981). They initially suggested that progress toward greater differentiation (including a shift from field dependency toward field independency) was related to individual psychological development (Witkin & Goodenough, 1981; Witkin et al., 1962).
Witkin and his colleagues developed two basic research tools, the Frame-and-Rod (FRT) test and the Embedded Figure Test (EFT), that measured the subject's ability to abstract a part of the perceptual field from its context and so could be used to assess his or her progress toward field independency (Witkin, 1967; Witkin & Berry, 1975; Witkin et al., 1962). Although the connection between differentiation and psychological development was reformulated in comparative non-evaluative perspective in the context of cross-cultural research (Berry, 1976; Witkin & Berry, 1975), the same tests were used to assess the differences in field dependency/independency across cultural groups. A number of comparative studies of field dependency/independency of perception among representatives of aboriginal and non-aboriginal cultural groups living in North and South Americas, Africa, and Australia confirmed the existence of these differences (see Berry, 1976; Witkin & Berry, 1975 for review and discussion).
Generalizing from their results, John Berry (1976) suggested that the degree of field dependence/independence of perception among representatives of any given culture—as well as their level of psychological differentiation in general—is determined by aspects of socialization practice, most notably socialization toward assertion as opposed to socialization toward conformity, that vary greatly across cultures (e.g., Barry, Child, & Bacon, 1959). The relevant aspects of socialization practices were thought to be determined, in their turn, by a set of closely interwoven eco-cultural and societal factors. The former included the type of subsistence economy and the way of life (nomadic vs. sedentary), while the later included such parameters as the degree of social role differentiation and “tight” versus “loose” social authority and pressure. In particular, mobile hunters and nomadic reindeer herders, who could not be expected to have significant role differentiation or tight social authority, were predicted to be more field independent in comparison to sedentary societies (Berry, 1976).
After a brief lull in the 1980s and early 1990s, research interest in cross-cultural differences in object/context perception has increased again during the last decade and half. The main inspiration of these new studies has been the recently proposed theory of independent and interdependent cognitive styles (Markus & Kitayama, 1991, 2003; Nisbett, 2003; Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001), which, in contrast to the psychological differentiation theory, was developed specifically to address cross-cultural differences in perception and cognition. According to this theory, the underlying cause of these differences should be sought in cultural models of the relationship between Self and Other—and in particular the degree to which this relationship is understood in terms of independence or of interdependence. Each of these cultural options is thought to have its own cognitive and perceptual implications.
As with the earlier research, these recent studies have focused on the distinction between context sensitivity and context independence, now re-christened as a contrast between “holistic” and “analytic” perception. Many of them, however, employ a new research instrument, the Framed Line Test (FLT, discussed in detail in section 'Prediction 1' of this article), developed by Kitayama and colleagues in 2003. In contrast to the FRT and EFT used in the previous studies, which tested entirely for abilities related to context independence, the FLT measures the subjects' performance both in a task that demands abstraction of an object from its context (the absolute task) and in a task that involves judging an object in relation to its context (the relative task). Empirically, the research fields have also changed, with a tendency for work in the new theoretical framework to concentrate on the contrast between Western society (particularly the United States) and East Asian societies (Japan, Korea, and China). It is argued that perceptual holism—and the cognitive style of interdependency in general—is more likely to be found in Asian communitarian cultures. Conversely, perceptual analytism—and the cognitive style of independency—is thought to be typical for American society, in which recognition of individual aspirations and self-agency prevail (Kitayama, Duffy, & Uchida, 2007; Markus & Kitayama, 1991, 2003; Nisbett, 2003).
Three kinds of empirical evidence have been presented to support this view. First of all, several studies employing the FLT have demonstrated that Americans perform more accurately in the absolute task and less accurately in the relative task in comparison to Eastern Asians (Duffy, Toriyama, Itakura, & Kitayama, 2009; Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000; Kitayama, Duffy, Kawamura, & Larsen, 2003; Vasilyeva, Duffy, & Huttenlocher, 2007). It has also been demonstrated that Americans have greater activation of attention-related brain regions while performing the relative task, while East Asians have greater activation of these regions in the absolute task (Hedden, Ketay, Aron, Rose Markus, & Gabrieli, 2008; Ketay, Aron, & Hedden, 2009). This suggests that the relative task demanded greater attention (due to its perceived difficulty) than the absolute task in the case of Americans, while for East Asians the opposite was the case. However, at least one extensive study that employed the same test (Zhou, Gotch, Zhou, & Liu, 2008) demonstrated that both Americans and East Asians (Chinese) performed better in the relative task than in the absolute task, although the mean error made by the East Asians in the relative task was smaller than that of Americans. One explanation for this, which is consistent with the theory of independent/interdependent cognitive styles, is that although an intercultural difference in holism/analytism will manifest itself in differences in the absolute errors that are made in each kind of task, these differences may not always be great enough to change the rank order of the tasks themselves.
Second, several studies demonstrated that East Asians both notice and remember changes in contextual relations of objects in the visual field better than Americans (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001, 2006). They also have more difficulties then Westerners in recalling a previously seen object embedded in a novel context (Chua, Boland, & Nisbett, 2005; Masuda & Nisbett, 2001).
Finally, one study (Chua et al., 2005) demonstrated a difference in eye movements between Americans and Chinese while attending to a visual scene: During initial presentation of a scene, Chinese made more fixations on the background and looked longer before making the first fixation on the focal object than Americans, who, on the other hand, fixated on the focal object for a longer time than Chinese. However, at least two later studies (Evans, Rotello, Li, & Rayner, 2009; Rayner, Li, Williams, Cave, & Well, 2007) have failed to replicate these results, while one of them (Evans et al., 2009) also failed to replicate the difference between East Asians and Americans in recalling previously seen objects embedded in novel contexts. More research seems to be needed in order to clarify the possible effects of perceptual holism/analytism on visual memory and ocular locomotion.
The cross-cultural differences in the cultural models of self and the corresponding cognitive styles are usually explained by referring to social practices that prevail in a given society, among which the design of social institutions, religion, and ideology have been particularly mentioned (Kitayama et al., 2007; Nisbett, 2003; Nisbett et al., 2001). However, as in the earlier theoretical tradition, there has also been some interest in the impact of eco-cultural factors. One recent study identified differences in perceptual holism/analytism among nomadic pastoralists, fishermen, and sedentary agricultural groups in the Eastern Black Sea region of Turkey—explaining them on similar lines to those proposed by Berry (Uskul, Kitayama, & Nisbett, 2008). A third view is that differences in perception might be linked to differences in the perceptual affordances provided by the physical environments in which the corresponding cultures exist. Thus, one recent study (Miyamoto, Nisbett, & Masuda, 2006) demonstrated that both Americans and Japanese noticed more changes in the background of a culturally neutral visual scene if, before the experiment, they had been asked to examine a set of photographs of street scenes taken in Japanese cities. Conversely, both Americans and Japanese noticed fewer background changes if they had been primed by comparable photographs taken in American cities.
It is important to note that the recent studies on holism/analytism have paid relatively little attention to differences in holism/analytism between individuals as opposed to groups, and they have been criticized for this (Berry, Poortinga, Breugelmans, Chasiotis, & Sam, 2011;; van de Vijver, Chasiotis, & Breugelmans, 2011;). However, the existence of individual differences within cultural groups has been acknowledged by the recent researchers, and several of their theoretical works have stressed the need to study them (e.g., Kitayama et al., 2007; Markus & Kitayama, 2003).
1.2. Perceptual holism/analytism and artistic visualization
As can be seen from this short review, although researchers differ in their views concerning the factors and mechanisms that cause cross-cultural differences in object/context perception, the existence of these differences in perceptual style is established beyond any reasonable doubt. As emphasized both by Witkin and Berry (Berry, 1976; Witkin & Berry, 1975) and by Kitayama and Nisbett (Kitayama et al., 2007; Nisbett, 2003), these perceptual findings are likely to correlate with wider cognitive and behavioral differences between the cultures concerned. One important sphere in which a link between society and culture, on the one hand, and perceptual stimuli processing, on the other, may be observed, is the production of visual images. Masuda, Gonzalez, Kwan, and Nisbett (2008) have recently suggested that cultural differences in artistic styles might reflect the same tendencies toward greater or lesser context sensitivity as are measured by psychological tests of visual perception. This is a fascinating idea because, if correct, it would provide psychological backing for art-historical ideas about the connections between visual styles and other aspects of sociocultural development.
To test this idea Masuda and colleagues made certain assumptions about the connection between picture contents and perceptual style. They predicted that the distance between the bottom of the picture and the horizon line (which marks the upper border of the background space in a landscape drawing) would be greater in images produced by holistic (context-sensitive) individuals because they would need more space for background contextualization. Conversely, they predicted that analytic (context-independent) individuals would produce or prefer images in which the focus of attention—whether a person, a face, or an object—was comparatively large, allowing it to be represented in greater detail. In order to test these conjectures, they compared masterpieces of East Asian and Western art created between the 15th and the end of the 19th centuries, photographs and non-professional landscape drawings produced by contemporary Japanese and Americans, and their preferences for different photographic images. The test results confirmed that the Asian artists, and test participants, were more likely to produce or prefer the kinds of image predicted for holistic individuals, while the Western artists and participants gravitated toward the kinds of image predicted for analytic individuals.
Stimulating though it is, Masuda et al.'s argument is open to criticism. While previous research has indeed shown that East Asians (including Japanese) and Westerners (including Americans) do differ in perceptual processing, the differences in artistic styles observed by Masuda et al. might well be related to some yet unspecified aspects of the two societies and their cultures rather than to the differences in perceptual holism/individualism of their members. Some relevant aspects might be the different conventions of drawing learned during formal school education, early exposure to different visual styles, differences in the roles which visual images normally play (or played in the past) in the societies in question (e.g., a utilitarian role as interior decoration vs. a more esthetic role as works of art), different esthetic norms, etc. Differences in physical environments may also have an effect (as suggested by Miyamoto et al., 2006). Miyamoto and colleagues demonstrated an effect on perceptual processes, but it also seems possible that environmental factors might affect visual representations directly, without affecting perception along the way. For example, differences in landscape (flat vs. mountainous) can regularly expose members of two cultures to qualitatively different types of vista, characterized, among other things, by different perceived heights of the horizon. These differences might get reflected in the images they produce even if perceptual processing is the same in both groups.
One obvious way of showing that there really is a direct connection between perceptual processing and artistic style would be to demonstrate that the link between the parameters of drawing and the level of perceptual holism/analytism also holds at individual level and that the individual-level associations are strong enough to account for the existence of parallel intercultural differences. It should be possible to demonstrate a correlation between the level of perceptual holism/analytism and the position of the horizon/size of objects in drawings across individuals as well as across groups, and to prove that this correlation across individuals remains even after controlling for their group membership. This would provide strong evidence that the differences in drawing are due to individual characteristics (the stimuli processing style) that are unevenly distributed between the groups rather than due to group-level factors such as peculiarities of school education.
We can also conjecture that differing levels of perceptual holism/analytism will have implications for the very process of image production—that is, for the ways in which pictures are drawn. Thus, individuals with more holistic perception can be expected to prefer drawing focal objects embedded in a previously depicted context, while individuals with more analytic perception can be expected to start their drawings with detailed representation of the focal objects and add context later if at all. This prediction follows directly from Masuda's theory of the connection between perceptual holism/analytism and artistic style, and it can be tested empirically.
1.3. Aims and tasks of this study
This study aims to explore the relations between culture, perceptual holism/individualism and artistic visualization taking into account the theoretical and methodological suggestions discussed above. In particular, our aim is to test the theoretical claim (derived from Masuda et al., 2008) that certain differences in freely drawn landscape pictures—namely those in the position of the horizon and the size of objects—as well as in drawing strategies—namely the order in which foreground and background elements are drawn—a) can be observed between cultural groups and b) can be related to the differences in perceptual processing—namely the relative levels of perceptual holism/analytism—that exist between the members of these groups. We also wish to make a new test of the theoretical claims by Berry (Berry, 1976; Witkin & Berry, 1975) and Uskul et al. (2008) that the differences in perceptual processing that exist between cultural groups can be related to ecocultural characteristics of these groups, particularly to their economy and way of life.
To test these claims, we compare the individual levels of holism/individualism and the landscape drawings of teenagers originating from two separate regions and three cultural groups:
- The indigenous and predominantly nomadic Nenets living in the Tazovsky district, Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Province of the Russian Federation (northwestern Siberia).
- The incomer population (composed of ethnic Russians and others) in the same district.
- The indigenous, predominantly settled sea hunting and reindeer herding population (Chukchis and Yup'ik Eskimos) in several settlements in Chukotski Autonomous Province of the Russian Federation (northeastern Siberia).
These groups differ in their mother tongue, economic activities, and the way of life (nomadic, sedentary, or semi-sedentary—see the next section). However, their members share the same national identity (Russian Federation), are subjected to the same political and administrative system and attend the same system of formal school education. Besides that, the non-indigenous and the Nenets children in our study were born and have grown up in similar ecological conditions. Therefore, in contrast to many previous studies, the present inquiry fits better to the “just a minimal difference” approach (Cohen, 2007) and allows more precise testing of the causal role of eco-cultural (e.g., economic activity and way of life) and purely ecological factors in the formation of cross-cultural differences in perceptual holism/analytism. If the predictions are fulfilled, our experimental design would also demonstrate that the cultural association between picture characteristics and psychological measures is not limited to the familiar North American/East Asian comparison but applies to other intercultural comparisons as well.
We use our comparison to test the following four predictions that, as the discussion above suggests, should be true if theoretical claims under question are to be rigorously supported:
- The amount of contextual information in the drawings, as reflected in the position of the horizon and the size of objects, correlates with individual levels of children's perceptual holism/analytism: the higher the level of perceptual holism, the smaller the size of objects and the higher the horizon.
- The group-level differences in drawing scores follow the same pattern as those for the visual-processing scores, and this fact can be explained by the individual-level relationship between the two sets of scores.
- The members of more sedentary groups have higher levels of perceptual holism in comparison to the nomadic pastoralists. They are also expected to include more contextual information in their drawings.
- Individuals from groups with higher mean levels of perceptual holism (lower mean levels of perceptual analytism) are more likely to draw the background elements first and add the foreground elements later. In contrast, individuals from the groups with lower mean levels of perceptual holism (higher mean levels of perceptual analytism) are more likely to draw foreground elements first and add background later.
In the following sections, we first provide details of our study regions and groups—focusing on ecological and cultural features (e.g., ecological conditions, type of economy, type of authority, differentiation of social roles) that previous studies have used to explain cross-cultural differences in object/context sensitivity. Next, we describe our study, which collected drawings from all three groups and correlated their characteristics with the results of a test of visual perception, completed by the same individuals. Finally, we discuss our findings in order to show how far group differences—in both test results and drawing styles—can be explained by differences in the economic and ecological circumstances of the three study populations.