A quick Google search will bring up dozens of scholarly articles on the major differences in Western and East Asian cultures — democracy, individuality vs. collectivism, cooperation, etc. — but a new study of Facebook profile pictures reveals that these differences likely exist online, too.
Back in 2006, social-psychologist Richard Nisbett illustrated how differently things are viewed, literally, in these two contrasting cultures. Nisbett and his colleagues showed Western and East Asian participants images of animals in different settings, asking them to remember the animals (as they would later be tested.) Upon second viewing, they found that Western participants were unaffected by the setting — they remembered the animal regardless of the background — whereas East Asian participants were much more likely to answer incorrectly if the animal was in a new setting.
It was one of the first studies that revealed some of the cognitive differences among these two cultures — and now cognitive neuroscientists from the University of Texas at Dallas have found that, on Facebook, we tend to adhere to these standards too. They analyzed the profile pictures of 500 Western and East Asian users and found that Americans generally opt for up-close-and-personal headshots, whereas East Asians tend to focus less on the face and more on the background.
Although 500 profiles seems like a small sample size compared to Facebook's 901 million total users, Dr. Denise Park, a co-author on the paper, told me that she thinks the results still apply to the majority of users.
"We analyzed all of the profiles by hand, gathering nuances and carefully controlling for factors like age, education and location," said Park. "It’s a small sample relative to universe of Facebook, but I think the effects hold up."
Although the results seem unsurprising (and hew to rather ethnocentric standards) — that Western culture emphasizes the individual and focuses on the forefront, and that East Asian culture de-emphasizes the self and is more cognizant of context — the study is the first to confirm that these marked cultural differences apply online, too.
"We really did expect this," she said. "But no one had thought about the implications of culture on a social network in a quantitative way.”
Maybe the best finding: Americans showed greater smile intensity in their profile pictures — aka CHEESIN'.
A completely unscientific sampling of the FWD team illustrates that I am the only one to select an obnoxious, in-your-face profile picture typical of Western culture.