Monday, July 22, 2013

Understanding Cultural Differences: The Michigan Fish Test

Check out this image. What do you see?   

Source:  Richard Nisbett via

In this article for CNN, Columbia Professor Sheena Iyengar describes how people of different cultures view this picture quite differently, and she explains what that tells about important cross-cultural distinctions.   Iyengar is an expert on cross-cultural differences in decision-making processes.  Here is an excerpt:

The image here, known in psychology as the Michigan Fish Test, was presented to American and Japanese participants in a study conducted by Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda.  In their five-second viewing, Americans paid more attention to the large fish, the "main characters" of the scene, while Japanese described the scene more holistically. For Americans, the large fish were the powerful agents, influencing everything around them. For Japanese, the environment dominated, interacting with and influencing all the characters.  After the initial test, the researchers offered participants different versions of the fish picture, with some elements changed and some not. With the altered pictures, the Japanese were more likely to notice changes in the scenery or context. The Americans, on the other hand, proved adept at recognizing the large fish wherever they appeared, while the Japanese had more trouble recognizing the fish in new contexts, outside the original environment.  So members of two different cultures--the more individualist Americans and the more collectivist Japanese--"saw" the pictures with differing emphasis on individuals, the environment, and how these elements interacted. The divergent accounts point to differing narratives of what controls what in the world, and how individual people fit into it.

For more on Iyengar's own research comparing how Japanese and American children approach choice, see this earlier blog post

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