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Listening Broadly: Comparing Cultural Differences in Holistic and Analytic Auditory Attention


Previous research has shown that across cultures, ways of thinking can influence perception and attention (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzaya, 2001). In particular, Westerners tend to show a narrower, context-independent analytic processing style, while East Asians show a broader, context-dependent holistic style. Existing work on attention has utilized a variety of visual stimuli; however, domain general effects have not been tested. The present research focused on a new domain – namely listening – to provide compelling evidence for the deep-reaching influence of cultural thought patterns on attention. I designed a novel listening method, which required participants to either focus their attention on one of two voices, or divide their attention across two voices. We expected that the performance of analytically perceiving European Americans would be harmed by the additional challenge of listening to a second simultaneous talker, but that holistically perceiving East Asian Americans would be less harmed.

Further, we sought to examine how the speaker’s rank, in other words the speaker’s relative status in the social hierarchy, might further alter cultural patterns of basic attention. Human communities differ not only in their social orientation but in other dimensions as well, including emphasis placed on positions held in the social hierarchy. I employed a rank manipulation, altering the speaker’s status as either a fellow student or professor, to explore how cultural differences in accepting differences in social status and power would further moderate attention. Study 1 demonstrated that while grouping based on self-identified ethnicity did not predict patterns of attention, using the individual difference measure assessing analytic-holistic tendencies did predict the expected attention patterns. In Study 2, I show that the rank of the speaker affected accuracy differently across cultural groups. The work provides tentative support for the depth that culture can penetrate the mind, altering even seemingly basic processes like attention.

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