East Asian subjects process a picture differently than their North American counterparts, according to a study published this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The study used both eye tracking and conventional survey techniques to show that the Asian subjects paid attention to the background of the image while the North Americans focused on the principal character.

Psychologists led by the University of Alberta’s Takahiko Masuda assembled pictures containing a single person in the foreground and four people in the background.

When asked how the foregrounded person — their face manipulated to look happy, angry or sad — appeared to feel, nearly three-quarters of 36 Japanese test subjects said their perception was influenced by the emotions of the background figures. By contrast, nearly three-quarters of 39 North American participants said the people in the background didn’t affect them at all.

When the researchers tracked the viewers’ eye movements, they found that Japanese gazes flitted quickly to the background, while North Americans fixated on the central subject. [From WIRED – Japanese More Sensitive Than Westerners to the Big Picture by Brandon Keim.]

This study underscores the need for neuromarketing studies to take culture into account. As I reported in Cultural Brain Differences, cultural differences were also identified in fMRI studies at Stony Brook University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Stanford University.

Advertisers have long employed local talent and developed local or regional campaigns to account for language and cultural differences. As campaigns become increasingly global and a combination of travel, immigration, and media distribution expose the same advertising to a variety of cultures, though, it’s important to realize that varioius cultural groups may process the same image in fundamentally different ways. Beyond language issues and topics of cultural sensitivity, the very parts of an ad that viewers focus on may be quite different based on their cultural origin.

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