The research, conducted by scientists from Canada and Japan, was based on two studies in which participants viewed images, each of which consisted of one centre model and four background models in each image. The researchers manipulated the facial emotion, happy, angry, sad, in the centre or background models and asked the participants to determine the dominant emotion of the centre figure. 72 percent of the Japanese participants reported that their judgments of the centre person's emotions were influenced by the emotions of the background figures, while most North Americans, also 72, reported that they were not influenced by the background figures at all. "What we found is quite interesting. Our results demonstrate that when North Americans are trying to figure out how a person is feeling, they selectively focus on that particular person's facial expression, whereas Japanese consider the emotions of the other people in the situation," said Takahiko Masuda, a Psychology professor from the University of Alberta.
This may be because Japanese attention is not concentrated on the individual, but includes everyone in the group, said Masuda. For the second part of the study, researchers monitored the eye movements of the participants and again the results indicated that the Japanese looked at the surrounding people more than the westerners when judging the situation.
While both the Japanese and westerners looked to the central figure during the first second of viewing the photo, the Japanese looked to the background figures at the very next second, while westerners continued to focus on the central figure.
"East Asians seem to have a more holistic pattern of attention, perceiving people in terms of the relationships to others. People raised in the North American tradition often find it easy to isolate a person from its surroundings, while East Asians are accustom to read the air 'kuuki wo yomu' of the situation through their cultural practices, and as a result, they think that even surrounding people's facial expressions are an informative source to understand the particular person's emotion," said Masuda.