Can Cultural Differences explain Variations in Visual Perception?
A new UCLA study challenges long-standing research claims that people of East Asian and European origins perform differently on a well-known visual perception test. The rod-and-frame task asks viewers to assess if a line is vertically aligned when the frame around it is tilted at various angles. It is used to measure the influence of surrounding contextual visual information on perception. The study, published in PLoS One, found that object orientation is mostly unaffected by cultural variation.
The participants included a diverse group of 342 UCLA students. They performed the rod-and-frame task using virtual reality goggles and answered a questionnaire about their ethnicity and country of citizenship. The first experiment involved participants rotating the center line using a computer mouse to make it vertical. The first experiment’s results indicated that a participant’s cultural background had little impact on how they judged the line’s vertical orientation inside both tilted and non-tilted frames. The second experiment involved 216 of the total 342 students evaluating whether the line was rotating clockwise or counterclockwise in relation to the vertical line. This experiment also revealed no significant difference between ethnicity or generation.
The UCLA researchers did, however, observe a notable gender difference: frame tilt affects the visual perception of women more than men. UCLA psychology professor and study author Dr. Zili Liu elaborated on the significance of this finding, “The gender finding replicates what has been found in many other studies, indicating that our data are of reasonable quality. Our failure to replicate the cultural effect therefore suggests that culture might not influence orientation perception that much.”
Almost 50% of the 84 East Asian participants who completed both experiments were second-generation Americans (born in the U.S. with at least one immigrant parent) or beyond, and 44 were first-generation or non-citizens. 51 out of 57 white dual-experiment participants were second-generation Americans or beyond, while six were first-generation or non-citizens.
The similar performance of white, Asian American, and recent Asian immigrant college students on the rod and frame task highlights the need for future research on universal mechanisms of visual perception.