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The culture we live in can affect the way we perceive events in many ways. There are a variety of steps in the process of perception and culture can affect each one.
The first step in the process is selection. In order to pay attention to important aspects of a situation, we have to know that we are supposed to pay attention to them. In other words, culture can have an impact on which things we select as important and worth paying attention to. For example, native speakers of English typically do not pay attention to how long a vowel is pronounced in a word. If a native English speaker tries to learn Japanese, they can have a hard time perceiving differences in vowel length that have meaning to Japanese people.
The second step in the process is organization. People tend to try to group stimuli together and the way in which they do this is affected by culture. For example, studies have shown that Americans, when shown pictures of a cow, a chicken, and grass will pair the cow and the chicken because they are both animals. Conversely, Chinese people will tend to pair the cow and the grass because cows eat grass.
The final step in the process is interpretation. In this step, we try to make sense of what we are seeing. This is, I think, where most people see culture affecting our perception. For example, in the place where I grew up, it is very rude to look another person in the eye, particularly if you are of a lower status (such as being younger) than the other person. I continue to have trouble looking people in the eye here in the United States and many people interpret this to mean that I am being evasive or that I am uninterested in the conversation. People from different cultures could look at the same stimulus (me not making eye contact) and interpret that in very different ways.
It's a large, highly diverse world out there, and the cultural distinctions that separate or distinguish people help to define the manner in which various categories of individual respond to different stimuli. That said, the types of stimuli that could be or have been tested on myriad categories of individuals from different cultures are numerous and many studies are inconclusive. One scholarly investigation that examined 13 studies into the differences among racial and ethnic groups in terms of how they responded to pain noted the following:
"There appear to be no racial/ethnic differences in the ability to discriminate painful stimuli. More difficult to assess is cultural variation in the response to laboratory-induced pain. Age, sex, experimenter ethnicity and the subjects' working conditions may affect and confound the response to painful stimuli." [D.F. Zatzick and J.E. Dimsdale, "Cultural Variations in Response to Painful Stimuli," Psychosom Med, September-October, 1990]
Another study that compared the responses of Chinese and Australian research subjects to marketing stimuli similarly identified distinctions between the two ethnicities, but also concluded that cultural values alone did not account for differences in responses. [See Anthony Chun-Tung Lowe and David Corkindale, "Differences in 'Cultural Values' and Their Effects on Responses to Marketing Stimuli: A Cross-Cultural Study Between Australians and Chinese from the People's Republic of China," European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 32, issue 9/10]
The distinctions between a study of responses to pain and to marketing could not be more different, but they do provide useful insights into the way cultural values influence responses to stimuli. Marketing is, unsurprisingly, far easier to estimate because we know with a high level of certainty that marketing directed towards one nationality may not be appropriate for another nationality. That much has been well-established by professional marketing research firms over many years. The Japanese are likely to view advertisements that ignore their unique cultural characteristics with a jaundiced eye, just as marketing oriented towards Japanese citizens will not appeal to many Americans who tend to have different notions of taste and class.
Reactions to physical pain do provide a useful example of external stimuli when different ethnicities are examined. Some cultures anticipate and accept certain levels of pain associated with ritualistic activities unique to those specific cultures. While pain is pain, how one responds can in fact differ when an individual culture includes the pain-causing activity as a part of its maturing process. What appears barbaric to a Western audience may be an accepted part of the culture of a group native to Central Africa or Southeast Asia. Just as different ethnicities with different cultures covet different delicacies, how one responds to the infliction of pain can be influenced by societal expectations.
Pain and marketing are just two forms of stimuli the responses to can differ according to ethnicity and culture. As noted, studies of marketing are prevalent and those distinctions are well-documented. Studies on pain, however, are considerably more complicated and findings less conclusive.
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