I think that there is an innate (somewhat mindblind) tendency to assume that other people think, feel, react the same way we do. Americans are often egocentric. We think that our way is the best way and assume that everyone wants to be like us. While it can be quite arrogant, when we are at our idealistic best, it is perhaps somewhat a quaint utopian dream.
It can be quite humbling to realize that we are not the norm and perhaps should not be. In some ways this tendency to assume inclusiveness of values can allow us to consider outsiders as part of our collective whole, but we can and do react with hostility when faced with a rejection of our ideals. In order to truly understand the range of human thought and emotions, it is necessary to set aside these cultural blinders and attempt to openly assess how people of different cultures might perceive the world quite differently from ourselves.
Traditionally, psychology has been a westernized and American/European affair. According to Sternberg (Laureate Education, 2007), there are many things Western psychologists have assumed are universal psychological attributes. We are guilty of seeing our culture as representative of innate, preferred values and norms. Instead, modern researchers are learning that there are often significant cultural differences in how people perceive, in the attributes they consider to form intelligence, in how they problem solve, and more. Failing to recognize that these things operate on the macro level is a mistake. It’s just as big a mistake to not realize it works within a culture, as well, that people are not homogeneous.
We are indeed different from one another, and when we stop and recognize that others are coming at a situation with different attitudes, perceptions, and goals, we have a chance at being able to understand others and to grow and learn, and as importantly, to build something of lasting importance.
For example, Nisbett, Peng, Choi, and Norenzayan (2001) found that Asians and Westerners perceive differently. Asians, according to Nisbett et al. see the bigger picture and act in concert towards and because of that bigger picture. Americans are individualistic and perceive the world differently. Nisbett et al. contend that Asians are “holistic” and Americans are “analytic” (p. 291).
Matsumoto and Juang (2004) also note that visual perception differs depending on cultural background. According to Matsumoto and Jaung, our past experience alters our current perceptions. In essence, we are able to attend to and perceive specific things in our environment in large part because of our previous experience with those items. We are primed for them. Our art forms and our culture prime us to see certain optical illusions; Matsumoto and Juang point out that not all optical illusions are perceived in the same way cross-culturally.
Visual perceptions are just one area in which different cultures can mold their citizens. Language also plays a role in shaping people and how they perceive the world and others. We need to realize that cultural differences, at the macro and micro-levels, play a large role in shaping people’s development. In fact, one could even argue that mindblindness can be culturally constructed and favored.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer). (2007). Cognitive psychology. Baltimore: Author.
Matsumoto, D.,&Juang, L. (2004). Culture and psychology (3rd. ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth.
Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2001). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition. Psychological Review, 108, 291–310. Retrieved from the PsycARTICLES database.