Why it's hard for Americans to seek the common good

We've learned on our journey that issues of food and consumption are caught up in webs of meaning and relationships. We've recognized in ourselves and others a desire for more connection in community and more intentional shared commitments, but we've also recognized the powerful forces at work thwarting our ability to connect and share commitments. There's a new study out that explains part of what we are dealing with as North Americans.

The study compares the way Japanese and Americans perceive the emotions of others in a set of pictures, and tracks the eye motions of each.


When asked to interpret the emotion of the personin the center, the Japanese looked at the person for about one second before moving on to the people in the background. They needed to know how the group was feeling before understanding the emotion of the individual. The Americans (and Canadians in subsequent studies) focused 95% of their attention on the person in the center. Only 5% of their attention was focused on the background, and this, Dr. Masuda points out, didn’t influence their interpretation of the central figure’s emotion. For North Americans the foreground is all-important.

Dr. Masuda is quick to point out that Americans and Japanese are physiologically the same. The difference in eye movement is tied to the roots of our respective cultures. When trying to explain the natural world, the Ancient Greeks – the founders of Western civilization – tended to focus on central objects and sought to explain their rules of behavior. Funnily enough, Aristotle thought a rock had the property of “gravity.” It didn’t occur to him that a system was working its powers on the rock. The Chinese on the other hand took a more holistic approach. They believed that everything occurred within a context, or a field of forces, and thus they unraveled the relationship between the moon and the tides.

I think having an awareness of these issues is important for us to sort through as we seek the common good of our communities. We have great strengths to draw on in our western ways of seeing things but with that also come some challenges.

I was talking to a friend last week who spoke with great respect about the Hutterites who live a very different kind of life among us. They live in North America but their commitment to community is the priority. My friend and I agreed that we'd probably never go as far as the Hutterites but it's worth experimenting with shared commitments. It looks like we're going to go in with a bunch of folks to raise some pigs this summer as one of those experiments.