Cognition and Culture Research Paper

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Culture refers to shared values, beliefs, and norms among a group of people who most often speak the same language and live in proximity. Cognition is defined as the process and products of human perception, learning, memory, and reasoning. Culture affects many aspects of cognition, and cognitive tendencies also guide the propagation of culture. This research paper provides an introduction to understanding how culture interacts with cognitive processes at basic and social levels from the perspective of cultural psychology. We discuss how culture affects the way that people perceive themselves, categorize information, and make social inferences. Moreover, we address how decision making, memories, and communication and reasoning styles may be influenced by our cultural backgrounds.

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  1. Self
  2. Attention and Perception
  3. Reasoning Styles
  4. Categorization
  5. Interpersonal Perception and Memory
  6. Social Inference
  7. Decision Making
  8. Language and Communication Style
  9. Intelligence
  10. Conclusions

1. Self

In 1991, Markus and Kitayama outlined two types of self-concepts or self-construals: independent and interdependent. An independent self is perceived as a distinct entity who has a unique combination of traits, abilities, and other inner attributes. Moreover, the independent self-acts in accordance with his or her private thoughts and emotions rather than in a manner that is motivated by the thoughts and emotions of others. It is worth noting that the study of the self has largely taken a ‘‘monocultural approach’’ that has originated in the West. Because North Americans predominantly have independent self-construals, it is not surprising that North American psychologists have adopted an approach that treats the self as an independent entity. When researchers, however, examined how the self is construed in other cultures, they discovered that independent self-construals were not as prevalent as in North America. Indeed, interdependent selves are found to be quite common among some other cultural groups, such as Asians. People with interdependent selves see themselves in relation to others and are motivated to create and maintain harmonious interpersonal relationships with these relevant others. Although people with interdependent selves hold internal attributes, they also understand the importance of context in shaping these inner attributes. Consequently, they are less likely to act in accordance with their thoughts, emotions, and other attributes, especially when such behavior affects relevant others. Thus, interdependent selves are guided by the way the self is related to others. According to Markus and Kitayama, interdependent selves are predominant in Chinese, Japanese, Hispanic, Filipino, African, and Hindu populations, and independent selves are predominant in Western populations.

The distinction between independent and interdependent selves followed Triandis’s work on individualism and collectivism, which has received tremendous attention in the cross-cultural psychology literature. Individualist selves place their own personal goals above their groups’ goals, whereas collectivists give priority to their groups’ goals over their own. It is worth noting that research suggests that individualism and collectivism are not opposite dimensions. In 2002, Oyserman and colleagues conducted a meta-analysis

examining individualism and collectivism across numerous cultures and found that people who are high in one dimension (e.g., collectivism) are not necessarily low in the other dimension (e.g., individualism). For example, European North Americans tended to be high in individualism yet were not less collectivistic than Japanese or Korean samples.

2. Attention And Perception

Culture affects how we perceive the world and where we focus our attention. Particularly, it shapes the extent to which we attend to the central object or to the field. In addition, differential attention may affect people’s subsequent cognitive performances. To test cross-cultural differences in perception, researchers have used the rod-and-frame test (RFT) among other tests. RFT is made of a box (also called a frame) and a black line (also called a rod) at the end of the box; the frame and the rod can be turned independently of each other. When European American and Asian participants were asked to make perceptual judgments about the position of the rod, Li-Jun Ji and colleagues found that the position of the frame affected Asians’ perceptions of the rod more than Americans’ perceptions. In other words, European Americans were better than Asians at disassociating the object from the background and hence were more field independent. Conversely, Asians tended to make perceptual judgments based on the relationship between the object and the background and hence were more field dependent. In 1976, Berry argued that cognitive styles (such as field dependence and independence) are related to one’s lifestyle. In particular, he found that sedentary agriculturalists were inclined to have a field-dependent cognitive style, and nomadic hunters and gatherers were more likely to have a field-independent cognitive style.

Similarly, Masuda and Nisbett presented European American and Japanese participants with an ocean scene on a computer screen. They found that Japanese participants paid attention to the background objects more than European Americans did (although Japanese participants did not necessarily pay less attention to the central object than did European Americans). As a result, Japanese participants were able to recall more details about the background than were European Americans. Such differential sensitivity to the background or the context has been found to facilitate performance on certain tasks but debilitate performance on other tasks. When the context remains constant, it provides a helpful cue for Japanese participants to recognize the central object. When the context changes, however, it becomes difficult for Japanese participants to correctly identify the central object because of a possible cognitive binding between the central object and the background. On the other hand, changes in context do not have as much impact on European American participants, who generally pay little attention to the context anyway. Similarly, when a cognitive task requires disassociation between the object and the background, the task is easier for European North Americans than for East Asians. European North Americans are more likely to focus their attention on the central object and are better at ignoring the context in comparison to many Asians.

3. Reasoning Styles

For the past decade, Nisbett and colleagues have conducted a series of empirical studies on reasoning across cultures, which demonstrate that culture shapes people’s thinking and reasoning styles in general. Specifically, many Westerners, particularly European North Americans, adopt an analytic system of thought. That is, they focus on the object (instead of context) and the categories to which the object belongs, and they rely on rules and formal logic in understanding the world. In contrast, East Asians tend to think holistically such that they emphasize context and relationships between objects. Moreover, they rely more on intuition and experience and make relatively little use of categories and formal logic compared to Westerners.

In a study conducted by Norenzayan and colleagues, Korean and European American participants were asked to rate the extent to which various arguments were convincing. Participants were presented with either typical arguments, (e.g., ‘‘All birds have ulnar arteries. Therefore, all eagles have ulnar arteries.’’) or atypical arguments (e.g., ‘‘All birds have ulnar arteries. Therefore, all penguins have ulnar arteries.’’). Koreans were more inclined to rely on their experiences and to indicate that typical arguments were more convincing than atypical arguments. On the other hand, European Americans, who tend to rely on formal logic and think analytically, saw both arguments as equally convincing. Similarly, when Korean and European American participants were asked to rate the logical validity of valid and invalid arguments that lead to either plausible or implausible conclusions, cultural differences emerged. In particular, Koreans were more likely than European Americans to report that arguments that had plausible conclusions were more logically valid than arguments that had implausible conclusions. According to Peng and Nisbett, differences in the reasoning styles between the East and the West also affect the way people think about contradictions. Chinese are much more likely than Westerners to seek compromising solutions when presented with opposing views. For example, European Americans who are told that (i) felines eat fish or (ii) felines do not eat fish often favor one argument at the expense of the other. That is, Westerners often report that one of the options is correct and the other is incorrect. Chinese respondents, however, tend to seek a solution that reconciles the two options. In this manner, Chinese tolerate apparent contradiction in an effort to find the ‘‘Middle Way.’’ Similar cultural differences emerge when people attempt to resolve social conflicts. American and Chinese participants were presented with two scenarios that describe everyday conflicts (i.e., a conflict between a mother and daughter and a conflict that pitted focusing on school versus having fun). Peng and Nisbett found that, in general, Americans tended to favor one side of the conflict at the expensive of the other (e.g., mothers need to respect their daughters’ autonomy more), and Chinese generally favored a compromising solution (e.g., both parties need to better understand each other).

4. Categorization

In order to make sense of the world that is full of infinite information, we classify and categorize information in a way that can be culturally bound. For instance, Lopez, Atran, Coley, Medin, and Smith found that European Americans and Itzaj categorize mammals in ways that are similar in some situations yet different in others. The Itzaj are Mayans who live in the Peten rain forest region in Guatemala. They spend considerable time interacting with their environment, such as engaging in hunting activities or agriculture. In some regards, both European Americans and Itzaj have developed similar classification systems for mammals. For example, both cultural groups classify opossums in the same category as porcupines, even though opossums are marsupials and are in a class that is completely distinct from porcupines. In other respects, Itzaj are more likely than European Americans to classify mammals on the basis of ecological properties, such as behavior and habitat. For example, Itzaj classify animals that dwell in trees together, whereas European Americans do not.

Deeper cultural differences emerge when people are asked to classify a variety of information. For example, European American participants tend to category things based on their category memberships, such as grouping ‘‘banana’’ and ‘‘orange’’ together because they are both fruits. Chinese children and Chinese University students tend to group things based on their functional relationships with each other, such as grouping ‘‘banana’’ and ‘‘monkey’’ together because monkeys eat bananas. According to Mishra, this latter type of grouping is also present in other cultures, such as the Birhor, Asur, and Oraon of India. Among European North Americans, however, this latter form of categorization is only found among children and is considered less sophisticated.

When categorizing information, East Asians rely more on intuitive experience, whereas European Americans rely more on formal rules. Generally, European Americans tend to assign objects to categories based on properties that fit the rule. For them, understanding, describing, and explaining objects involve classifying and seeking fundamental physical causes. Conversely, East Asians see an object as it relates to its context and the relationships among various objects. Because Asians historically did not generally perceive and classify objects as being distinct entities, they sought practical knowledge rather than developed formal rules or models.

5. Interpersonal Perception And Memory

Given that other people are a significant part of Asians’ self-definitions, Asians also tend to pay more attention to other people’s behaviors and emotions. They are expected to remember other people’s preferences, read other people’s minds, and anticipate the needs of others. This finding is related to the fact that Asians tend to be less direct than North Americans in expressing themselves.

Accordingly, European North Americans and Asians also differ in the way they remember information. Indeed, East Asians pay more attention to and remember more behaviors of their friends than do North Americans. When asked to recall and describe situations where they provided support to a friend, Japanese spend more time discussing the situations of their friends than their own actions. Conversely, European Americans describe their own actions more than their friends’ situations. Furthermore, Japanese accounts of helping behavior tend to correspond more closely to their friends account compared to European Americans. Interestingly, there was little or no consensus between American participants and their friends regarding the nature of support that is exchanged in their relationship.

A special case of interpersonal perception is perspective taking. Perspective taking refers to the ability to take the point of view of another person. In a conversation, East Asians (such as Japanese and Chinese) sometimes identify themselves from another person’s perspective. For example, a Japanese mother might call herself ‘‘Oka-san’’ (mother) in conversation with her child. The self is experienced through the other’s perspective and his or her role in that relationship (e.g., mother–child). In other words, Asians tend to experience their own actions from the points of view of others. Similar differences have also been found in memory research. Research by Qi Wang has found that East Asians’ memories tend to focus on other people or groups, whereas European North Americans’ autobiographical memories tend to be self-focused and vivid. In one study, Asian North Americans were more likely to remember past episodes from a third-person’s point of view, in which their memories included themselves. In contrast, European North Americans remembered the past episodes as they originally saw them; thus, the episodes they remembered tended not to include themselves. In addition to focusing on differential information when reporting autobiographical memories, European Americans tend to recount more emotional memories than do Chinese.

6. Social Inference

Cultural differences are also found in social inference. Research suggests that Asians emphasize the context more than Westerners when explaining social events. For example, Asians tend to attribute the cause of behaviors to situational factors, whereas North Americans tend to attribute the same behaviors to personal factors. A well-known finding in North American culture is that people often fail to take contextual information into account when they judge the causes of others’ behaviors. This phenomenon is called the correspondence bias, which is also known as the fundamental attribution error. In the classic paradigm, participants are shown one of two types of essays: One essay expresses a favorable attitude toward a particular issue (e.g., capital punishment), and the other essay expresses an unfavorable attitude toward the issue. Participants are informed that the person who wrote the essay was able to choose which side of the issue he or she would like to discuss (i.e., choice condition) or was instructed to endorse a particular point of view (i.e., no choice condition). Next, the experimenter asks the participants to indicate the true attitude of the person who wrote the essay. Surprisingly, European Americans tend to judge the target person’s attitude as corresponding to the view expressed in the essay, even when they know the target person did not have a choice. Consistent with an analytic thinking style, European Americans pay attention to the focal object (i.e., the essay writer) and erroneously believe that the person is independent from the situation. In contrast, Asians are more likely to recognize the situational constraints on the person’s behavior when such constraints are made salient.

7. Decision Making

Historically, there has been a dearth of research on how culture influences decision making. Recently, however, researchers have begun to give this area more attention. Much of this burgeoning research has focused on differences between East Asians and European Americans.

East Asians and European Americans tend to make decisions using different information. In one study, Incheol Choi and colleagues provided Korean and European American respondents with vignettes describing a target’s prosocial and deviant behaviors. Participants were also given a list indicating possible reasons that might or might not explain the causes of the target’s behaviors. Koreans considered generally more information than Westerners when asked to explain the target’s behaviors. Likewise, other researchers have found that East Asians are more inclined to use historical information when making judgments about the present compared to Westerners. These cultural differences have been attributed to the different underlying theories people hold, in which East Asians have more complex and holistic theories than Westerners. In this manner, East Asians believe that many factors can interact to cause a particular outcome, whereas Westerners tend to believe that fewer factors can lead to a given outcome.

Culture can also affect the extent to which decision makers are willing to take risks. For example, Chinese are more likely to take financial risks than European Americans, although Chinese are more risk averse when they make medical or academic decisions. One possible explanation for these domain-specific patterns of risk taking is that Chinese have greater social ties (including family and friends) than European Americans, which can provide a ‘‘cushion’’ for any negative consequences associated with risk taking in financial domains.

Culture can also influence how confident an individual feels about his or her decisions or judgments. Typically, North Americans tend to make overly confident judgments. For example, after a general knowledge test, Americans are likely to judge that they are correct more often than they actually are correct. Yates and colleagues also found such overconfidence among Chinese, even though they did not find that Japanese made overly confident judgments. There are also different values associated with decision styles in different cultures. For example, decisiveness is not valued in Japan as much as it is in the United States or in China. These findings suggest that there are differences even between East Asian cultures, which call for further research.

8. Language And Communication Style

Language is deeply interconnected with culture. On the one hand, language carries cultural meanings and values. On the other hand, language also transforms culture. Language functions as a tool that enables an individual to focus on certain aspects of the world. Research has found that Japanese pay greater attention to contextual factors during communication compared to European North Americans. For example, Japanese and Chinese do not use the first-person pronoun in some situations. When a teacher is talking to her students, she calls herself ‘‘teacher,’’ and when she is talking to her child she refers to herself as ‘‘mother.’’ In many English-speaking Western countries, however, the language focuses on the self, which promotes the idea that people are separate entities that are independent from their context. For example, in English people refer to themselves as ‘‘I’’ in almost every context. Moreover, English speakers usually do not drop personal pronouns when they are speaking.

Researchers have examined how language activates cultural identity. For example, Mike Ross and colleagues found that Chinese students in Canada reported interdependent self-perceptions when responding in the Chinese language. Interestingly, when asked to report their self-perceptions in English, they responded in a more westernized way. That is, they tended to see themselves as being more independent than interdependent. Likewise, Li-Jun Ji and colleagues found that Chinese bilinguals who learned English at a relatively late age categorized objects in a more relational (and Chinese) way when tested in Chinese than when tested in English. Thus, it appears that bilinguals’ self-perceptions and cognition are closely related to language.

What is the role of language cross-culturally? According to Kim, talking is connected to thinking more in Western culture than in East Asian culture. When Asian Americans and Westerners were asked to think-aloud while solving reasoning problems, talking impaired Asian Americans’ performances but enhanced the performances of European Americans. In the West, articulating one’s thoughts and conveying such information to others enables the speaker to organize his or her thoughts. In contrast, verbal self-presentation is not encouraged among many Asians; thus, articulation of one’s ideas does not occur naturally and actually hinders the reasoning process.

9. Intelligence

Jean Piaget had a considerable impact on the field of cognitive psychology and on intelligence research. He was the first psychologist to empirically measure the cognitive development of children over time. In this manner, he examined how the experiences of children are qualitatively different than adults. He advocated that the cognitive development takes place in four main stages that are universal regardless of culture (i.e., sensorimotor intelligence, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations). For instance, in the sensorimotor intelligence stage, children acquire mental representations, learn to imitate, and discover that objects continue to exist even when they are not in perceptual view. Much of Piaget’s research has been criticized for a number of reasons. First, many sociocultural researchers do not support Piaget’s universalist approach to cognition and maintain that development can take many routes rather than a single direction. Second, researchers contend that Piaget’s notion of stages overlooks contextual factors that shape an individual’s development. Third, some researchers have argued that Piaget’s stages are ethnocentric, in which people from cultures that do not develop in accordance with Piaget’s stages are perceived as lacking in intelligence. Thus, these researchers see the theory as lacking generalizability. Although Piaget’s research has played an important role in intelligence and cognitive development research, it appears that his theory is limited.

The history of defining and measuring intelligence has largely taken place in the West. When researchers began examining whether intelligence as defined by Western science could be applied to other cultures, they realized that other cultural groups often had different notions of what constituted intelligence. For example, the Trobriand Islanders may regard superior navigational skills as a key characteristic of an intelligent man. The !Kung of the Kalahari desert may define intelligence as the ability to spot sources of water. In China, intelligence may be viewed as knowing when and how to use language properly, such as knowing when (and when not) to speak. For Hindus, transcendental knowledge may be viewed as highly as practical knowledge. It appears that cultures define intelligence differently and that these differences stem from contrasting ecological and social experiences.

Not only can culture lead to diverse definitions of intelligence but also culture can influence the way individuals develop and maintain implicit theories concerning the malleability of intelligence. Dweck, Hong, Chiu, and colleagues argue that people hold either an ‘‘incremental theory’’ of intelligence or an ‘‘entity theory’’ of intelligence. Entity theorists believe that intelligence is fixed and unchangeable. For instance, European Americans tend to hold an entity theory. Consequently, they do not generally try to improve their performance on intelligence tasks when they have performed poorly because they generally believe that increased effort will have little effect on improving future performance. On the other hand, incremental theorists believe that intelligence is mutable and can be changed. East Asians tend to hold an incremental theory toward intelligence. Accordingly, they try to improve their performance on intelligence tests because they believe that increased effort leads to better performance.

Different definitions of intelligence make it difficult to develop a test of intelligence that can be used in all cultures. In addition, experience with Western cultures can sometimes have a considerable impact on test performance because most available intelligence tests are developed in the West. For example, Australian Aboriginals who have more interactions with people from European backgrounds tend to perform better on standardized intelligence tests than Aboriginals from more isolated communities. In addition, some research suggests that performance on cognitive tasks is related to familiarity with testing materials. Children in Zambia often build intricate cars from wire, whereas children from England often draw pictures using pencils and crayons. Thus, Zambian children are more familiar with the medium of wire and English children are more familiar with paper-and-pencil mediums. Serpell found that Zambian children performed better than English children on a task that involved assembling a pattern using wire. Conversely, English children performed better than Zambian children on tasks that involved paper and pencils.

10. Conclusions

Research on culture and cognition has enriched our understanding of human behavior and has improved the quality of psychological theories by including people from non-Western cultures. This flourishing area of research has many great implications. Culture fosters people to think in different ways, and these differences may lead to misunderstandings and hostilities, from the long-lasting clashes between Jews and Arabs to the recent conflict between the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq. A world that appreciates and understands people from diverse backgrounds may help resolve existing and future conflicts.

Knowledge of culture and cognition may also help to smooth interactions at interpersonal levels. With increased globalization, the world becomes smaller and cross-cultural interactions become more frequent. Understanding how your colleagues from other cultures may view the world and reason differently than you do will help you to enhance your multicultural partnerships and collaborations. Examples of failing to recognize cultural differences in cognition can be found in business. For example, in a joint-venture company, making internal attributions for success by a European American could be perceived as arrogant by a Chinese, whereas making external attributions for failure by a Chinese might be perceived as irresponsible by the European American. Ignorance of each other’s thinking styles is likely to lead to negative interpersonal experiences and could even have negative consequences on the business outcome.

Understanding cultural differences in cognition can also play an important role in education. For example, teachers who deal with students from different cultural backgrounds would benefit from knowing more about how culture influences cognition. Some teachers may encourage students to verbalize their thoughts as a means of helping them develop their ideas. Although this approach to teaching may benefit Western students, students from other cultural backgrounds may actually be hindered by such an approach.

Understanding the relationship between culture and cognition enhances our understanding of the world, and we can benefit from such knowledge in different aspects of our lives.


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