It's Official: Easterners and Westerners See the World Differently

Photo credit: iStockphoto/master1305

Good leaders read and assess the emotional reactions of their employees quickly and accurately. Known as an emotional aperture, it is an essential leadership trait that allows one to interpret group reactions of organizational events.

"The emotional aperture ability provides a leader with a wealth of information about how a group is responding emotionally to a situation and allows her to behave appropriately and strategically," says Prof. Ying-yi Hong, Choh-Ming Li Professor of Marketing from the Department of Marketing at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School.

Her recent research study, done in collaboration with researchers at Australian Catholic University in New South Wales and the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, showed that culture plays a significant part in determining this emotional aperture.

"Accurately reading collective emotions is particularly necessary as individuals are regularly more dependent on accurate inferences regarding the collective's beliefs, goals, and action tendencies, to harmoniously navigate social life," she says.

An individual's ability to decode the collective affect can facilitate their success in liaising, leading, and navigating group dynamics. In a previous study, she and other researchers found that the Chinese had a lower level of collective empathy toward the 2011 Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami as compared with Americans.

However, when it comes to interpreting collective emotional reactions, it is never crystal clear.

"Unlike perceiving individual emotions, where attention rests on a single focal target, perceiving collective emotions requires focusing on a broader view of targets. Given the inherent subtle, variant, and fleeting nature of emotional cues, the task of understanding the overall affective composition of a group can be challenging," Prof. Hong says.

Cultural plays a part in collective emotion recognition

We process the information on either the holistic view of the specific information (global) or details of that information (local). Studies showed that people with high global processing ability are more successful at recognizing collective emotions. Given its interdependent culture, Easterners are known to be more affected by the emotions displayed by the surrounding people than Westerners.

In other words, Easterners' global processing is more prevalent than their Western counterparts. However, does it mean that Easterners are really better at recognizing collective emotions than Westerners?

Prof. Hong and her collaborators tested two hypotheses. The first theorized that the Chinese will show a higher level of accuracy in recognizing patterns of group emotional reactions than will North Americans. The second believed that the cross-cultural variability predicted in the first hypothesis will be mediated by higher global processing exhibited among Chinese compared to North Americans.

The study showed that Chinese participants demonstrated a higher level of accuracy in recognizing group emotions than their North American counterparts. However, the Chinese participants showed a lower level of accuracy in identifying individual emotions. Also, Chinese participants were more global cognitive-oriented than their Western counterparts.

Further research showed that the indirect effect of global cognition on collective emotion recognition was significant. In other words, the Chinese participants’ higher performance in recognizing collective emotions was, in fact, influenced by their higher level of global processing.

"Growing up where the emphasis is on attending to the forest rather than the tree, it appears to shape fundamental ways individuals see emotional reactions," says Prof. Hong. "Our results show that among individuals from cultural contexts known to foster interdependence as compared with independence, there exists a greater ability to recognize subtle shifts in the emotional reactions of the collective."

More study needed

Going forward, Prof. Hong says more research on how culture interplay with psychological processes is needed for human beings to have a more comprehensive understanding of how we make sense of our world.

"This research represents the first and initial exploration at examining evidence for cross-cultural variability in decoding collective emotions. As such, it opens a new line of investigation within the growing literature on collective emotion recognition and complements the traditional focus on individual emotion recognition processes," says Prof. Hong.

"Moreover, based on our findings on reading collective affect, we expect that other domains of people perception, such as group hierarchy, group diversity and group competence, also operate differently across different cultures," she adds.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/master1305