Compared with Chinese people especially, Americans have trouble seeing ourselves as others see us. This may be because we are a culture that values individualism rather than cooperation.

New research shows that people from Western cultures such as the United States are particularly challenged in their ability to understand someone else?s point of view because they are part of a culture that encourages individualism. In contrast, Chinese, who live in a society that encourages a collectivist attitude among its members, are much more adept at determining another person’s perspective.

Psychologist Boaz Keysar says, “Many actions and words have multiple meanings. In order to sort out what a person really means, we need to gain some perspective on what he or she might be thinking and, Americans for example, who don?t have that skill very well developed, probably tend to make more errors in understanding what another person means.”

Although studies of children have shown that the ability a person to appreciate another person?s perspective is universal, not all societies encourage their members to develop the skill as they grow up. Keysar, who did his research with Chinese colleague Shali Wu, says, “Members of these two cultures seem to have a fundamentally different focus in social situations. Members of collectivist cultures tend to be interdependent and to have self-concepts defined in terms of relationships and social obligations. In contrast, members of individualist cultures tend to strive for independence and have self-concepts defined in terms of their own aspirations and achievements.

“Apparently, the interdependence that pervades Chinese culture has its effect on members of the culture over time, taking advantage of the human ability to distinguish between the mind of the self and that of the other, and developing this ability to allow Chinese to unreflectively interpret the actions of another person from his or her perspective,” the authors wrote. Americans do not lose this ability, but years of culturalization based values of independence do not promote the development of mental tools needed to take into account another person’s point of view.

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