Seeing the Whole Picture

Richard Nisbett, University of Michigan, has a fascinating study in which he took a group of American college students and a group of native Chinese and Japanese students who had just arrived in the United States and asked both groups to take photograph portraits of each other. A typical portrait taken by an American student is shown on the left, and a typical portrait taken by a Japanese student is shown below:
Whereas the American students’ portraits were close, the Japanese portraits showed much more context, landscape and environment. In fact, not one of the portraits the Japanese students took were as closely framed and the left-hand image here.

In another portion of the study Nisbett tracked eye movement of the students as they examined photographs which included a focal object, and discovered that the Chinese and Japanese students spent 80% of their time looking at environment and context, while their American counterparts spent 80% of the their eye movement focused on the primary focal point in the picture. In this picture the Japanese students spent most of their time scanning the background of this image while the American students spent 80% of their time looking at the tiger.

Nisbett and his colleagues don’t draw conclusions about cognitive performance or competitive ability associated with contextual thinking, but Dan Goleman did in a study he evaluated which included assessing the performance skills of executives from Fortune 100 companies, and concluded, “Just one cognitive ability distinguished star performers from average; pattern recognition: the big picture thinking that allows leaders to pick out the meaningful trends from a welter of information around them and to think strategically far into the future.” And Dan Pink certainly has popularized the importance of “symphonic” thinking as competitive advantage.

If Goleman and Pink argue that symphonic thinkers perform better, what’s the economic value of these high performers? John Hunter, Michigan State, and Frank Schmidt, University of Iowa, conducted another study in which they evaluated the economic value of the top 1% contributors and found that in moderately complex jobs (retail sales, home remodeling) the top performers contributed 14x more productivity and value.  And in highly complex professions (professional sales, lawyers, doctors, engineers), top performers contributed over 100x more productivity and value.