“The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform.” ~ Charles Baudelaire
How quickly can a different culture effect you? Does it takes weeks of immersion in another culture before your mind begins to think similarly? Symbols strongly associated with other cultures surely don’t effect us immediately.
Or do they?
How much meaning can a little symbol carry? More than we realize.
Adam Atler, an assistant professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business and his research partner, Virginia Kwan of Arizona State set up numerous experiments to address the question: can small cultural symbols change the way we see the world?
Culture effects how we expect trends to go. Westerners tend to see change, which is a part of life, as something continuing in the direction it is already heading. At the roulette table, if the last three numbers have come up black, a Westerner will likely bet on black seeing it as a trend that will likely continue. Easterners however, would immediately drop their chips on a red square. They envision change as something inevitable and expect events to balance from one extreme to the other.
Unless the said Westerner is gambling in Chinatown.
In one experiment, Atler and Kwan approached 50 Americans of European descent (Westerners) walking through New York’s Chinatown district to predict the weather after a two day period of rain or sun. They were significantly more likely to predict a change (a la the Eastern mindset) instead of taking the Western mindset of progressing in the same pattern.
In other studies, the researchers primed some participants with a yin-yang symbol and others with a nonsense symbol like a cross-hatch before responding. Those exposed to the yin-yang were much more likely to predict change.
They suspect brief exposure to the yin-yang symbol, which communicates the Eastern cultural mindset of the inevitability of change, is enough to make someone adopt the ideas and behaviors of that culture. Simply walking around Chinatown can make a Westerner think like they were Chinese.
We imagine a foreign culture as something we can experience and learn if we immerse ourselves in it for a long period of time, similar to learning a new language. However, symbols carry more meaning in different cultures, races and religions than we realize. Our brains unconsciously process them quicker than words. As they permeate our mind, small cultural cues can change the way we view our natural world.