Monday, December 26, 2016

Do cultural factors influence how we look at faces?

According to experimental findings reported on LiveScience, the way we look at faces is not entirely hard-wired, and may be influenced by cultural factors, which vary between the east and west.

One study suggests that when reading an expression of a person in a group photo, Westerners zero in on the individual, while East Asians pay more attention to reactions of the other members of the group. Lead researcher Takahiko Masuda, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta, says "East Asians seem to have a more holistic pattern of attention, perceiving people in terms of the relationships to others," while "People raised in the North American tradition often find it easy to isolate a person from [their] surroundings."

In another study, illustrated above, cognitive neuroscientists compared the eye tracking data of Western and East Asian observers who looked at faces on a computer screen. The results suggest that "Westerners tend to look at specific features on an individual's face such as the eyes and mouth whereas East Asian observers tend to focus on the nose or the centre of the face which allows a more general view of all the features."

The author of the article, Charles Q. Choi, suggested the conclusion that "Westerners often concentrate on individual details, while East Asians tend to focus on how details relate to each other."

I'm a little skeptical about these findings, partly because there may be factors other than cultural ones that greatly affect how we look at faces, such as professional training and media exposure. For example, the way artists look at things, based on our training and inclinations, may supercede East/West cultural predispositions (see previous blog post on that topic). Also, I don't think eye tracking data alone can be used accurately to assess the degree to which people look at things holistically, since eye tracking can only record the path of the fovea, or center of vision. We need experimental data that can indicate to what degree the attention is focused on one spot versus a wider view.

Source articles: 
Culture Affects How We Read Faces
Face Recognition Varies by Culture

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