Cultural differences in the visual processing of meaning: Detecting incongruities between background and foreground objects using the N400


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Abstract

East Asians have been found to allocate relatively greater attention to background objects, whereas European Americans have been found to allocate relatively greater attention to foreground objects. This is well documented across a variety of cognitive measures. We used a modification of the Ganis and Kutas (2003) N400 event-related potential design to measure the degree to which Asian Americans and European Americans responded to semantic incongruity between target objects and background scenes. As predicted, Asian Americans showed a greater negativity to incongruent trials than to congruent trials. In contrast, European Americans showed no difference in amplitude across the two conditions. Furthermore, smaller magnitude N400 incongruity effects were associated with higher independent self-construal scores. These data suggest that Asian Americans are processing the relationship between foreground and background objects to a greater degree than European Americans, which is consistent with hypothesized greater holistic processing among East Asians. Implications for using neural measures, the role of semantic processing to understand cultural differences in cognition, and the relationship between self construal and neural measures of cognition are discussed.

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