A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.

- James Allen, As a Man Thinketh -



If you were asked which three items of these five best belong together, which ones would you choose, and why?

The impact of cultural differences on visual perception


If you chose three items that share similar features (e.g., “products in liquid form”, or “products sold in plastic bottles/containers”), chances are that your thinking style is analytical: you’ve focused on precise characteristics, and then assigned the items to a category. On the other hand, if you grouped them together according to a certain context and to the relationship among them (e.g., items needed to take a shower), you’re likely to be a holistic thinker.

The concepts of analytical and holistic thinking (previously mentioned in a post about the influence of culture on purchasing behavior), are believed to be rooted in the teachings and values of two ancient societies: the Ancient Greek civilization, that set the foundations for Western civilizations, and the Chinese civilization, that shaped and influenced the civilizations of East and Southeast Asia (Nisbett et al.).

The ancient Greeks believed in the power of the individual and in personal freedom (“The idea of the Athenian state was a union of individuals free to develop their own powers and live in their own way, obedient only to the laws they passed themselves and could criticize and change at will” - Hamilton), and mastered the art of debate; the ancient Chinese, on the other hand, were guided by the Confucian principles of hierarchy/authority and mutuality and prioritized in-group harmony over free thought (“as when the occupants of a social group…perform their functions and do not transgress the boundaries of duty or expectations that accompany those functions” - Munro).

Nisbett et al. argue that from an Eastern perspective the whole and its components are inseparable, while in Western cultures the focus is on logic and systems of classification: “The cognitive differences between ancient Chinese and Greeks can be loosely grouped under the heading of holistic versus analytic thought. We define holistic thought as involving an orientation to the context or field as a whole, including attention to relationships between a focal object and the field, and a preference for explaining and predicting events on the basis of such relationships. Holistic approaches rely on experience-based knowledge rather than on abstract logic and are dialectical, meaning that there is an emphasis on change, a recognition of contradiction and of the need for multiple perspectives, and a search for the ‘middle way’ between opposing propositions. We define analytic thought as involving detachment of the object from its context, a tendency to focus on attributes of the object to assign it to categories, and a preference for using rules about the categories to explain and predict the object's behavior. Inferences rest in part on the practice of decontextualizing structure from content, the use of formal logic, and avoidance of contradiction. Holistic thought is associative, and its computations reflect similarity and contiguity. Analytic thought recruits symbolic representational systems, and its computations reflect rule structure.”

East Asians are therefore holistic thinkers who pay attention to the entire field/scene and to the relationships between its elements, while Westerners are traditionally analytic thinkers who focus primarily on the objects and their classification: these two cognitive styles have been defined by psychologists Witkin and Goodenough as “field-dependence” (holistic thinking) and “field-independence” (analytical thinking). To put these definitions in context, let’s look at the findings of a study comparing the responses of North American and Japanese participants required to watch animated videos of underwater scenes and describe what they had seen: while the North American participants described the large fish in the center of the aquarium, the Japanese participants described the fish in relation to the background elements (water plants, the small fish, etc.).

Furthermore, a study on Cultural Differences in Visual Contents in Picture Books found that “picture books from the U.S. would be less visually crowded than Japanese picture books”, that “the U.S. street scenes are visually simpler (e.g., less crowded, a smaller number of objects) than Japanese street scenes (e.g., more crowded, a greater number of objects)”, and concluded that “having less crowded visual environment which is commonly seen in the U.S. might encourage analytic attention because it might be easier to focus on focal objects in scenes whereas having more crowded visual environment which is commonly seen in Japan might encourage holistic attention, which might benefit the processing of the environment where objects are scattered around”.

From a cross cultural perspective, it must be noted that both East- and South-Asian cultures are high-context (people must pay attention to the context to understand meaning), collectivist (an indirect communication style is necessary to maintain group harmony), and polychronic (they have a cyclical perception of time. According to Choi et al, “Because East Asians believe that elements are interconnected with one another, they tend to view a phenomenon as nonstatic and expect that a state of constant change exists because of the complex pattern of interactions among the elements. In contrast, Westerners perceive most objects as independent; thus, the essence of an object does not dramatically change over time, nor is it affected by other factors”).

Some of the challenges concerned with the impact of cultural differences on the visual environment have been highlighted in the article “Cross Cultural Challenges in Web Design” available at this link: among other things, research on Australian, Chinese, and Saudi Arabian design preferences confirmed that “Chinese and Saudi Arabian websites use more images, cartoons, and animated objects than Australian websites. Chinese and Saudi Arabian cultures are considered high-context cultures, in which additional information beyond a written format is preferred. The heavy use of images, cartoons, and animated objects in a high-context culture aids their understanding of a web page [note: holistic thinking]. However, the aesthetics of high-context culture websites may appear overwhelming for members of low-context cultures”.


Further recommended readings:

Cultural variations in global and local attention and eye-movement patterns during the perception of complex visual scenes: Comparison of Czech and Taiwanese university students.

Čeněk J, Tsai J-L, Šašinka Č (2020) Cultural variations in global and local attention and eye-movement patterns during the perception of complex visual scenes: Comparison of Czech and Taiwanese university students. PLoS ONE 15(11): e0242501. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0242501

Perceiving an Object and Its Context in Different Cultures: A Cultural Look at New Look.

Kitayama, S., Duffy, S., Kawamura, T., & Larsen, J. T. (2003). Perceiving an Object and Its Context in Different Cultures: A Cultural Look at New Look. Psychological Science, 14(3), 201–206. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.02432


- Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2001). “Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition”. Psychological Review, 108(2), 291–310. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.108.2.291

- Hamilton, E. (1973). “The Greek way”. New York: Avon

- Munro, D. J. (1985). “Individualism and holism: Studies in Confucian and Taoist values”. Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan

- Witkin, H. A., & Goodenough, D. R. (1981). “Cognitive styles: Essence and origin”. New York: International University Press

- Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. E. (2001). “Attending holistically versus analytically: comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans”. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81(5), 922–934. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.81.5.922

- Kuwabara, M., Alonso, J., & Ayala, D. (2020). Cultural Differences in Visual Contents in Picture Books. Frontiers in psychology, 11, 304. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00304


Disclosure: This section contains affiliate links. If you were to buy any of the books listed here, I would earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

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