One but Not the Same: Cultural Contexts, Cognition, and Identity

Michelle’s recent reflections on Questions of Culture and Globalization got me thinking about cultural identity and the age-old nature versus nurture debate. What is the relationship between our cultural identity and our common identity? Why does it matter? And what do our ideas out this relationship reveal about our own cognitive and emotional plasticity or lack thereof?

Take the concept of the East-West dichotomy, for instance: an admittedly useful but grossly oversimplified distinction between Eastern and Western cultures. How much of this distinction is legitimate and how much of it is arbitrary? It’s certainly as productive and interesting to reflect on the similarities as it is the differences.

The good news is that we don’t have to just speculate here. Check out some of the research on cultural context and cognitive development, for example. Scientists from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University published an article in 2012 exploring cultural differences in the cognitive development of preschoolers. The prevailing assumption had been that early childhood development progresses more or less universally across cultures, but there’s now growing evidence that cultural context has much more to do with it than we might have thought.


The team tested a group of both American and Japanese preschoolers and found that the latter were better at relational matching tasks–i.e., matching sets of objects with each other based on the relationships between the objects. The American children, however, were better at individual object-focused tasks, like locating a target object in a scene. The differences between what the researchers call individual object focused attention and relational attention in Western and Eastern cultures has been well documented. They cited another study in which adults from the United States and Japan were asked to describe the same aquarium. The Americans focused their attention on the large fish in the centre of the display, while the Japanese described the large fish in relation to the other fish and objects surrounding it. These perceptual biases are rooted in the participants’ respective cultural contexts: “Western cultures (and languages) are characterized as emphasizing individuals and objects, whereas Eastern cultures and languages are characterized as emphasizing relations within a larger whole” (29).

One of designer Yang Liu’s East vs. West cultural pictograms.

Another example of the differences in perceptual processing between collectivist and individualist cultures has come up in recent psychiatric research. Last year, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann and her team published their research on schizophrenia and cultural context in the British Journal of Psychiatry. One of the hallmarks of the disorder is auditory hallucinations: hearing voices in one’s head. The team asked a group of sixty schizophrenic adults across the United States, Ghana, and India about the number, frequency, and nature of the voices they heard. There were “good” and “bad” voices among all groups, but researchers found that the participants from the U.S. were far more likely to describe the voices as malevolent or threatening and “seemed to have less personal relationships” with them. The participants in India and Ghana, on the other hand, generally had more personal and positive experiences with their voices. The Indians often attributed them to ancestors or kin and “heard the voices as playful, as manifesting spirits or magic, and even as entertaining.” The reports from Ghana were similarly positive, often attributing the voices to spirits or to God himself. Luhrmann and her team concluded that “Europeans and Americans tend to see themselves as individuals motivated by a sense of self identity, whereas outside the West, people imagine the mind and self interwoven with others and defined through relationships.”

Graphic courtesy of WebMD.

The implications of these kinds of observations surely extend far beyond the realms of developmental psychology and mental health. What can we learn from each other in light of them, and how can we apply an understanding of our common and culturally specific identities to our own lives and relationships?


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