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Culture, cognition and intellect: thinking through cultures

What this chapter will teach you

  • • How is perception different from sensation?
  • • How is perceptual ability related to cultural background?
  • • Are some cultural groups more susceptible to visual illusions?
  • • Do different cultural groups perceive visual art differently?
  • • Is intelligence defined differently in different parts of the world?
  • • Do intelligence tests measure different abilities worldwide?
  • • Can there be culture-fair intelligence tests?
  • • Is intelligence learned from cultural experience?
  • • Are there indigenous intelligences?
  • • Is there a link between culture and cognitive style?


Perception. How we

make sense of sensory information.



Stimulation of sensory receptors.

Does culture change the way we think?

If so, where we are from should influence our cognitive habits. The development of intellectual abilities, such as perception (how we make sense of sensory information) and problem-solving, should owe a great deal to the places, people and values that form our cultural backgrounds. While culture may affect how we think, it is equally likely that there are certain cognitive characteristics that are common to us all. In this chapter we will see that some authors emphasise cultural universals in cognition, while others stress cognitive cultural relativism. We will also learn that the knotty question of quantitative differences in intellect across cultures remains a contemporary concern. Questions about culture and cognition will be explored in the light of three cognitive domains that have attracted the attention of global psychologists: visual perception, intelligence and cognitive style. Research on these topics tells us much about culture’s influence on thought - and about how our thought processes express themselves in the development of cultures.

Culture and visual perception

What is perception?

The hot-cold paradox (Figure 6.1) goes back 300 years (Berkeley, 1713/1927). It neatly demonstrates the distinction between sensation and perception. Sensing involves the stimulation of sensory receptors. Perceiving involves making sense of sensory information. In other words, when we perceive the world around us, we interpret information from our five senses, making it coherent. Unlike sensation, perception is an interpretive process requiring active cognition. Thus, identical sensory information can be perceived (interpreted) differently by different people (even different fingers belonging to the same person), depending on previous experiences. By extension, we might legitimately expect perceptual habits across cultures to differ due to diverse cultural experiences (Hawaiians and Finns might perceive the same visual information differently because of their cultural backgrounds). And, of course, regarding the nature-nurture debate, global psychologists who highlight cultural relativity would align themselves with what is known as the empiricist (empiricism is the idea that all knowledge comes from our experiences) approach when trying to explain habits of visual perception.

Culture, visual illusions and the Torres Straits expedition

Cultural differences in perception have long been on psychology’s radar. Ever since W.Fi.R. Rivers conducted pioneering field research on the 1889 Torres Straits expedition (see Chapter 1), the influence of culture on perceptual habits has been a cornerstone of cross-cultural psychology. The debate about culture’s influence on perception is also relevant for the nature versus nurture debate (see Figure 6.2). Rivers’ assertion that island ‘primitives’ somehow possessed advanced visual acuity, yet lagged behind Europeans in higher cognitive abilities, went largely unsupported on the expedition. Nevertheless, he did uncover some other counter-intuitive cultural differences in susceptibility to (likelihood of being misled by) optical illusions. He compared islanders’ and Europeans’ reactions to selected pictures or objects that create false visual impressions, including the Muller-Lyer (Figure 6.3) and horizontal- vertical (Figure 6.4) illusions. Rivers (1901) found that susceptibility to the


Optical illusions.

Pictures or objects that create false visual impressions.

An ancient recipe for hot and cold coffee

Figure 6.1 An ancient recipe for hot and cold coffee

Nature, nurture, culture and visual perception

Figure 6.2 Nature, nurture, culture and visual perception


  • 1. What is the difference between sensation and perception?
  • 2. Which of these two phenomena is most likely to be culturally relative?
Miiller-Lyer illusion

Figure 6.3 Miiller-Lyer illusion

Which line is longer, A or B?

Horizontal-vertical illusion

Figure 6.4 Horizontal-vertical illusion

illusions varied with cultural background, but in unexpected ways. Torres Straits Islanders were on average more susceptible to the horizontal-vertical illusion, yet less susceptible to Muller-Lyer, than were Europeans. These two-way differences between cultural groups (no group being more susceptible to both illusions) rendered implausible any idea that one group was somehow intellectually better equipped to deal with illusions. They railroaded any attempts to link illusion-susceptibility to schooling (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017), since Europeans were overwhelmingly more ‘schooled’ than their Pacific counterparts. Differences in susceptibility thus demanded an alternative explanation.

Optical illusions and carpentered worlds

A fruitful early method for investigating culture’s influence on visual perception comes from research into susceptibility to visual illusions (Berry et al., 2011). Brunswik (1956) initially suggested that people living in visually distinct environments (forests, cities, open plains) perceive the world (and therefore visual illusions) in different ways because the ecology and architecture (or lack of it) in their surroundings prime them differently for dealing with incoming sensory information. As in the hotcold paradox, experience paves the way for diverse perceptions. For Brunswik the development of diverse perceptual habits in response to diverse physical surroundings is a matter of environmental adaptation. Developing differing ways of seeing the world in response to experience has considerable survival value. A drawback of such adaptations is that incoming information can sometimes be misinterpreted due to the inference habits we develop in response to our surroundings. Visual illusions are cunning devices for provoking such misinterpretations. Segall et al. articulate this ecology-based view of the development of culturally relative perceptual habits:

If human groups differ in their visual inference systems, it is

because their environments differ.

(Segall et al., 1990, p. 73)

They tested this maxim using the carpentered world hypothesis (Figure 6.5) and the front-horizontal foreshortening hypothesis (Figure 6.6). They also compared illusion-susceptibility in samples from different cultural groups by using the Sander parallelogram (see Figure 6.5), horizontal-vertical (see Figure 6.4) and MQIIer-Lyer illusions (see Figure 6.3). They wanted to know whether groups from different ecologies would vary in their susceptibility. Over 1800 participants were tested, predominantly from Africa, though North Americans and the Filipinos also participated. There were three westernised or European groups, including South Africans of European descent and North American undergraduates. Among the non-westernised Africans were Bayankole open country dwellers and Bete forest dwellers. Findings generally supported the link between perceptual habits and cultural-ecological differences.

The carpentered world hypothesis states that people who grow up in carpentered environments (with rectangular walls, floors, ceilings) perceive the world differently from those whose environments have alternative ecologies. Being surrounded by walls, floors and ceilings produces distinct perceptual habits. For example, it may lead to the habitual perception of the obtuse and acute angles in (2D) drawings of parallelograms as though they belonged to (3D, wall-like) rectangles extending into space. Carpentered-world dwellers are thus likely to be more susceptible to the Sander parallelogram illusion (below). Why? Because they would misjudge A to be longer than B, since they perceive the (2D) parallelogram's angles as though belonging to a (3D) rectangle extending into space.

Carpentered world hypothesis

Figure 6.5 Carpentered world hypothesis

Front-horizontal foreshortening hypothesis

Figure 6.6 Front-horizontal foreshortening hypothesis

  • • Cross-cultural differences in mean illusion-susceptibility showed up on all three illusions, so the likelihood of being misled seemed to be related to cultural background.
  • • On the Sander parallelogram and the Miiller-Lyer illusion, westernised participants were most susceptible.
  • • On the horizontal-vertical illusion the Bayankole were more susceptible than westerners, while the Bete showed fewest illusion-supported responses.

Two aspects of the findings especially support the association between illusion-susceptibility and the shape of samples’ surroundings. First, westerners’ extra susceptibility to the Sander parallelogram supports the predictions of the carpentered world hypothesis.

Second, on the horizontal-vertical illusion, open country dwelling Bayankole’s extra susceptibility, coupled with the (forest-dwelling) Bete’s lesser susceptibility, supports the predictions of the front-horizontal foreshortening hypothesis (see Figure 6.6). Segall et al. concluded:

These findings accorded well with a theory that attributes perceptual tendencies to ecologically valid inference habits.

(Segall et al., 1990, p. 77)

Segall et al.’s data offer an explanation for Rivers’ finding that Europeans were most susceptible to Muller-Lyer, yet less susceptible to the horizontal-vertical illusion (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017). The carpentered world and front-horizontal foreshortening hypotheses can be used to shed retrospective light on Rivers’ apparently unexpected findings. Subsequent research also supports an environmental theory of differential illusionsusceptibility. Brislin and Keating (1976) built enlarged, wooden, three- dimensional versions of Muller-Lyer and found inhabitants of uncarpentered environments (in Pacific Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian islands) to be less susceptible than North Americans, as Segall et al. would predict.

Limitations of Segall’s theory

1 Age before ecology

Support for Segall et al.’s ideas is not universal. Stewart (1973) and Weaver (1974) both found susceptibility to the Sander parallelogram and Muller-Lyer illusions to decline with age. This is puzzling, since the carpentered world hypothesis would predict that increased exposure to carpentry (with age) would increase susceptibility (Segall et al., 1990).

2 Analytic sophistication

It has been suggested that as children grow older, the perceptual habitforming effects of the environment are overridden by the acquisition of more sophisticated perceptual abilities. These maturational changes enable older children and young adults to overcome any effect that ecologies may have on illusion susceptibility (Berry, 1969; Dasen, 1972). This would lead to the decline of illusion susceptibility with age.

3 Retinal pigmentation

Jahoda (1971) explored a biological explanation for cultural differences in illusion-susceptibility, based on retinal pigmentation. Levels of retinal pigmentation affect the transmission of blue light, but not red. Africans have higher pigmentation levels than do Northern Europeans. Jahoda found that when presented with blue and red versions of the Muller-Lyer illusion, Scots were equally susceptible to the two, yet Malawians’ susceptibility varied with colour. This suggests that physiology, not ecology, may be at the root of variations in susceptibility.

All of this suggests that factors besides environment and ecology are influential in the development of perceptual habits. Yet Segall et al.’s ecological theory is still taken seriously and has partial support, as well as being widely covered in mainstream psychology (Berry et al., 2011). Further evidence of cultural relativity in visual perception comes from research into our interpretation of pictures that are not optical illusions.

Pictorial perception and culture

Comic-book connoisseurs will know the cartoonist’s convention of representing people turning their heads in shock or disbelief by showing the head in various stages of rotation. Yet on seeing such an illustration one group of South African Bantu schoolchildren thought the boy had three heads (Duncan et al., 1973). Perhaps then, this artistic convention is not culturally universal. Cultural relativism in the portrayal of the (three- dimensional) world in (two-dimensional) pictures presumably reflects regional artistic conventions. Furthermore, artistic styles differ historically as well as culturally. For instance, the convention of drawing two lines in convergence (like tramlines) to convey distance only emerged in European art during the fifteenth- to seventeenth-century Renaissance period (Berry et al., 2011). Arguably then, habits of picture perception involve skills that are taught and learned differently in different places and at different times. Early support for picture perception as a function of culturally learned codes came from Winter (1963), who observed South African miners misinterpreting ‘red for danger’ warnings on safety posters. Conventions in colour coding and the use of depth cues (see Figure 6.7) in pictures are not, it seems, universally applied across cultures (Gombrich, 1977). Arguably, cultural differences in picture perception relate to more general differences in cognition. For example, when shown photographs and asked to describe them, Japanese participants were more likely to convey an overall (holistic) impression of the contents, including background and contextual elements, as compared with North Americans, who focused on central, de-contextual elements (Nisbett, 2003).

Another factor that has been linked to cultural differences in picture perception in general (and the use of depth cues in particular) is schooling. Correlations between levels of western-style schooling and the application of depth cues in picture perception have often been observed

Depth cues

Figure 6.7 Depth cues: devices used by artists and illustrators to give their (2D) drawings the impression of representing (3D) objects and landscapes

(Duncan et al., 1973). In a famous and often-cited series of studies from the archives, Deregowski (1972) wanted to know more about cultural variations in picture perception. He reviewed several cross-cultural studies in which the same pictures were shown to people from different cultural groups and their interpretations recorded.

Study 1 A test for 3D perception (Deregowski, 1972)

This test is designed to distinguish participants who use depth cues for perceiving three dimensions (3D) in two-dimensional (2D) drawings. Hudson (1960) showed participants (South African mine labourers, clerks, teachers, schoolchildren) pictures incorporating familiar size, convergence and overlap. Participants were asked:

What is the man doing?

Those who thought the man was spearing the buck (not the elephant) were classed as 3D perceivers and assumed to be conversant with the depth cues. Participants with a higher level of formal education were more frequently classed as 3D perceivers.

Study 2 Deregowski's trident test

Zambian primary schoolchildren were pre-tested, using a test similar to that in Study 1, to distinguish 2D/3D perceivers. They were then shown the trident illusion, plus a second, non-illusion picture of a three-pronged figure, and asked to copy the two pictures. To make things trickier they had to cover up the drawings while drawing.

Can you copy what is in the picture?

Those who had been classed as 2D perceivers spent the same amount of time copying each trident. 3D perceivers spent longer copying the illusion than the non-illusion. The illusion task was made more difficult by their ‘ability’ to perceive 3D. Once again, these findings suggest cultural differences in picture perception, evidently due to schooling.

Study 3 The split-style drawing test

This study deals with aesthetic (artistic) preference rather than 3D perceptual ability. Hudson (1960) wanted to know if some cultural groups prefer different styles of drawing. Southern African adults and children were asked:

Which elephant do you prefer?

The first elephant is drawn in a split-style, typically showing more aspects of the object. The second view is more consistent with photographic representation. While the sample tested here was not representative of all Southern Africans, all but one of the participants preferred the one on the left. It appears from this study that aesthetic preferences may be culturally relative. Split-style preferences may appear unnatural to anyone accustomed to drawings that employ depth cues such as overlap. Yet they can be seen in the work of North-West American Indians, in Saharan cave art and in ancient aesthetic styles in New Zealand and Siberia - and in the drawing styles used by engineers in industrialised contexts.

Deregowski reveals several instances of cultural variation in the use of depth cues. He ascribes the label ‘2D perceiver’ to some (usually less formally educated) groups, reserving the term ‘3D perceiver’ to other (usually more formally educated) groups. These differences invite the conclusion that the perception of depth in pictures, which Deregowski regards as an ability is regulated by cultural and environmental factors. Yet as the study also shows, some group preferences for split-style drawings suggest that cultural diversity in picture perception is not simply a matter of understanding depth cues. There are other aesthetic conventions to take into account. To achieve deeper insights into how people in different times and places view pictures, perhaps future researchers need to take greater account of diverse artistic styles. They may benefit from seeing picture production and perception through the eyes of diverse cultural groups.

Limitations of Deregowski's work

1 Familiar materials. Certain features of the design used in these studies are questionable, such as the way pictures were presented. Serpell (1976) points out that in Study 1 (key study) only selected depth cues were used. Crucially, the cue of density gradient was omitted.

In Serpell’s (1976) Zambian replications of this test, with added depth cues of density gradient and colour, there were increases in 3D perceiving participants (from 54% to 64%, and 54% to 76% respectively). It seems that under optimal testing conditions, when more participant-friendly materials are used, 3D perception is more widespread. Indeed, Deregowski (1968) himself has tested depth perception by asking participants to construct and manipulate wooden, 3D objects - rather than using the often unfamiliar paper-based methods. In a series of experiments in Namibia (Deregowski & Bentley, 1986), the use of depth cues increased when 3D objects for manipulation were part of the research design.

  • 2 Are depth cues universally desirable? Implicit in Deregowski’s conclusions is the view that using depth cues illustrates an advanced ability to perceive pictures. He even suggests that while children in all societies may be naturally drawn to alternative aesthetic styles such as split-style drawing, the majority ultimately ‘come around’ to using depth cues. In most societies, he suggests, aesthetic preference is sacrificed on the altar of efficiency in communication.
  • (cited in Gross, 1994, p. 20)

Here the assumption is that split-style drawing is a retrograde means of communication, even though those who use it have pointed out that split drawing reveals more features of an object than do other styles of representation.

(Serpell, 1976)

There is little doubt that the perception of pictures in general (and of illusions in particular) is in part culturally constructed. It is demonstrably influenced by the learning of codes and conventions that owe something to our ecologies, although we should be sceptical about affording causal relations between culture and preferences for visual representations in art and design (Berry et al., 2011). Common sense tells us that most of the time, most people worldwide interpret realistic, photographic representations of 3D worlds in fairly similar ways. Differing interpretations are perhaps most likely when 2D representations (pictures) are complex, unusual (in the case of visual illusions), lacking in certain depth cues, or perhaps simply presented on unusual materials.

Culture and intelligence

What is intelligence?

Many psychologists have squabbled over the meaning of intelligence and some notorious transatlantic disagreements typify these disputes. British author Charles Spearman (1904) espoused the idea of general intelligence (‘g’ factor) underlying all human intelligent thoughts and actions. In the US Louis Thurstone (1938) modelled intelligence as comprising seven primary mental abilities (PMAs), including perceptual speed, spatial ability and numeracy For Thurstone, competence in one PMA didn’t guarantee success in others. The idea of multiple intelligences, residing in several, uncorrelated factors (abilities where success in one does not predict success in another), resurfaced in the work of Gardner (1983), who took the idea a step further, extending intelligence beyond purely cognitive competences to encompass interpersonal (knowing others) and intrapersonal (knowing oneself) capacities, all traceable to separate neurological locations. Just as competence in any of these factors is not predictive of success in others, damage to part of the brain controlling, say, musical ability (Sacks, 2007) need not impair linguistic competence. As well as being multiple definitions of intelligence within psychology, this elusive concept has been defined differently across different cultural contexts (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017; Frey, 2017).

Global disputes about what intelligence is are also reflected in debates about how it should be measured. Indeed, the field of psychometrics has yielded as many devices for measuring psychological abilities such as intelligence. All of which echoes Boring’s (1923) famous remark that intelligence is what is measured by intelligence tests. Yet as the next section will show, historically the measurement of intelligence has been a site for controversies relating to culture and intellect.

What is measured by intelligence tests?

Many assume intelligence tests to be neutral measures of intellect. Yet since the first tests were administered at the start of the twentieth century (Binet & Simon, 1905), certain cultural and social groups have repeatedly outperformed others. Average differences between group scores suggest that factors other than individual intellect are being recorded


Culturally diverse definitions of intelligence


Buganda region, Uganda

Combined cognitive and social skills, reflecting steadiness and friendliness (Wober, 1974)


Shona region, Zimbabwe

Caution, prudence, diplomacy (Sternberg, 2002)


Djerma-Songhai of Niger

Know-how and social skills (Bissilat et al., 1967)


Cote d’Ivoire

Alertness and helpfulness (Dasen et al., 1985)



Vitality, alertness, giftedness, independence, activeness (Klein et al., 1976)



Understanding nature, oral traditions, storytelling, art and community rituals (Frey, 2017)



Speaking, reading, social and symbolic skills (Gill & Keats, 1980)

during testing. Yet these conclusions are challenged by those who point out that group differences in intelligence test results also correlate with factors such as familiarity with the culture where the test was devised (see Figure 6.8) and familiarity with formal schooling/testing conditions. In other words, intelligence tests might partly be seen as tests of ‘cultural know-how’ or length of residence in a certain country (Gould, 1981), rather than merely of cognitive ability. Van de Vijver and Leung (1997) support the view that intelligence tests measure characteristics besides natural intellect. In a meta-analysis of 197 studies using tests of intellect there was a positive correlation between test success and experience of formal schooling. Income levels also correlated with intelligence test scores. Test scores were boosted by higher levels of shared cultural knowledge between the tests and the type of schooling the children has experienced, illustrated satirically by the intelligence test in Figure 6.9.

Yet the idea that intelligence tests fall short of measuring intellect is not universally supported. Flermstein and Murray (1994) looked into whether intelligence test items requiring cultural knowledge were more difficult for African Americans or European Americans. They found that differences in performance across cultural groups were no greater on ‘culturally loaded’ items than on ‘culturally neutral’ items. It is clear from these exchanges that questions about whether intelligence can be measured as a discrete phenomenon, irrespective of cultural knowledge, remain pertinent. Indeed, they lie at the heart of the debate about how much of intellectual ability is inherited, and how much is nurtured through our interactions with culture.


Figure 6.8 Intelligence: native intellect or cultural knowledge?

The original Australian intelligence test

Figure 6.9 The original Australian intelligence test

The 'nature' of intelligence: the heritability hypothesis

Average differences in intelligence test scores between groups from different cultural backgrounds persist, with some minority groups lagging as much as 15% behind European descendants in the US (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017). How much of this variation is due to inheritance, or to a mix of social, cultural and economic factors? These questions have divided authors for most of psychology’s history, and the publication of The Bell Curve (1994) by Harvard psychologist Richard Hermstein and political scientist Charles Murray only stoked the quarrel (see Figure 6.10).

But hereditarian views on intelligence pre-date the Bell Curve dispute. Jensen (1981) has perhaps been the main protagonist on the nature side of the debate, arguing that group differences in intelligence test scores (for example, between African Americans and those of European descent) emerge because intelligence is predominantly (80%)

The Bell Curve controversy

Figure 6.10 The Bell Curve controversy: are intelligent people more successful?

biologically attributable. Others have set the proportion of variance attributable to genetic factors at 40% (Plomin, 1990). Reed and Jensen (1993) have also observed correlations between race and reaction time (a component of intelligence), adding further grist to the hereditarian mill.

Assumptions about a genetic component of intelligence have been supported by data from studies using twins. Identical (monozygotic (MZ), 100% genetically related) twins raised in different environments have shown greater intelligence test score similarity than have fraternal (dizygotic (DZ), 50% related) twins raised together (Bouchard & McGue, 1981). Positive correlations between genetic relatedness and test score similarity have been replicated on several occasions in twin studies (Newman et al., 1937; Shields, 1962). Yet the hereditarian argument falters a little when we consider that MZ twins raised together also show greater test score similarity than MZ twins reared apart (Bouchard & McGue, 1981). Furthermore, studies using twins have been criticised on three counts.

  • 1 Inconsistency: different intelligence tests have in some cases been used to provide scores for different participants in the same study.
  • 2 Semantics: different definitions of ‘apart’ have been used in different studies (Birch & Hayward, 1994). Twins allegedly reared apart might in fact have had similar experiences.
  • 3 We have seen that their mixed findings can be used to offer support for both the nature and the nurture arguments, to which we will now turn.

The 'nurture' of intelligence: the environmental-cultural hypothesis

Those who highlight cultural and environmental influences on intelligence have suggested that varying achievement between cultural groups illustrates how intelligence itself is made up of separate fluid and crystallised components (Cattell, 1971; Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2006). Fluid intelligence involves forms of 'mental agility’ that allow us to reason effectively irrespective of acquired knowledge, cultural background or experience. Crystallised intelligence involves the application of knowledge and experience in intellectual activity and is therefore affected by upbringing and cultural background. Arguably, then, underachievement among certain cultural groups on tests of ‘intelligence as a whole’ (both fluid and crystallised) might be due to a number of environmental factors relating to knowledge, experience and their accumulation. Such factors include levels of unfamiliarity with cultural knowledge included in intelligence tests (see Table 7.1 and Figure 6.8), as well as to differing definitions of what counts as knowledge, or what constitutes intelligence in the first place. Flowever, the relative contributions of nature and nurture in relation to test performance is not straightforward. In one study using twins, performance on tests with culturally loaded items tests tended to have greater heritability coefficients than did performance on tests with culture- reduced items, which is a counter-intuitive outcome (Kan et al., 2013).


Fluid intelligence.

Forms of 'mental agility’ that allow us to reason effectively irrespective of acquired knowledge.

Crystallised intelligence. The application of knowledge and experience in intellectual activity.

However, a number of environmental factors have been identified which may influence performance in intelligence tests. For example, underachievement by people from low income groups has been attributed to economic deprivation and differences in parental influence, not inferior genetic heritage (Blau, 1981). Indeed, longitudinal research data from the UK suggest that less affluent children who score well on cognitive tests at three years fall behind their more affluent (though lower scoring at three years) counterparts by the time they are seven (Blanden et al., 2007).

Another ‘nurtured’ factor implicated in differential achievement is low expectation of members of social groups who have traditionally done poorly on cognitive tests. Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) showed how school performance deteriorated for children who were labelled as underachievers. Such ‘labelling effects’ can occur in children who are from social groups, or families, that traditionally score poorly on cognitive tests (Seaver, 1973). Cognitive scores can also be depressed when respondents are overtly reminded that they hail from groups whose members frequently fail. Black university students who were asked to fill in details of their race or ethnicity on an intelligence test questionnaire underperformed compared with others from similar groups who did not reveal their race or ethnicity (Steele & Aronson, 1995).

All of which suggests that a number of environmental factors can be used to explain why intellectual potential is regularly not converted into performance in certain cultural groups. Common sense (as well as the evidence) suggests that people score less well on intelligence tests when their own definition of intelligence is overlooked, or where others in their own cultural group have historically underachieved. Arguably, what is being tested in these situations is not intelligence as such (above and beyond cultural background and upbringing), but a version of intelligence that is inextricably wedded to the symbolic culture from which the test hails (Greenfield, 1997). Arguably these tests lack validity, since they are not tests of intellect but of cultural meanings, knowledge and language.

Can intelligence tests be culture-fair?


Culture-fair tests.

Tests designed to assess intelligence without relying on cultural knowledge.

Attempts to measure intelligence above and beyond culture must wrestle with the influence of shared cultural concepts between those being tested and those writing the tests (Greenfield, 1997). History has shown that respondents whose intellectual heritage is similar to that of their assessors have a distinct advantage. Despite this, there have been attempts to devise culture-fair tests of intelligence. Culture-fair tests are designed to assess intelligence without relying on cultural knowledge, often using non-verbal questions. Cattell and Cattell’s Culture Fair Series (1973) has paper-and-pencil questions involving the relationships between figures and shapes. Such tests are an attempt to rectify ethnocentrism in intelligence testing as it affects those who may be unfamiliar with the dominant symbolic culture of mainstream testing. Yet culture-fair tests show little external validity in relation to school performance. Furthermore, Nenty (1986) found that over half of the items in Cattell’s test still contained cultural knowledge that alienated ‘un-American’ participants. Similarly, when Nisbett (2003) conducted research using test items modelled on ones from Cattell and Cattell’s test, he found that Chinese and American participants who were matched on variables that correlate with IQ (such as memory speed) still scored very differently on the so-called culture-fair items. Difficulties in producing ‘culture-less’, all-weather assessments perhaps demonstrate the challenge of finding test questions that are equally meaningful in different locations.

Indigenous intelligence

The alternative to devising culture-fair tests is to investigate how intelligence manifests itself differently in different cultural settings. Where we come from certainly affects our idea of what is clever or smart, as well as our beliefs about how we should assess such qualities. So much so, in fact, that the ideal of a culture-fair concept of intelligence has been abandoned by some authors, who search instead for indigenous conceptions of intelligence. This culturally relativist approach sets out to unearth intelligence as it is manifest differently in different cultural settings (Cole etal., 1971). For example, members of Canadian Cree communities were interviewed to gain an understanding of their indigenous concept of ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ in the senses that English speakers use these words (Berry & Bennett, 1989). Cree intelligence has been reportedly defined as relating to, and synonymous with, indigenous concepts of understanding nature, oral traditions, storytelling, art and community rituals (Frey, 2017). Qualities that emerged as nearest equivalents were Cree concepts of ‘wise’, ‘respectful’ and ‘attentive’. Interestingly, a Cree quality that epitomised the opposite of intelligence was ‘living like a white’ (seen as ‘cunning’ or ‘boorish’). This indicates that concepts of intelligence may never be universally agreed across all cultures.

Everyday intelligence and cognition

Global psychologists who investigate indigenous intelligence take a relativist approach, focusing on how knowledge and expertise are defined within diverse meaning systems (Segall et al., 1990). Consequently, they tend not to locate their enquiries in formal testing environments. Rather, aptitude and performance are sought in everyday contexts (where most of us would probably claim to carry out our most intelligent acts). Cole (1992) suggests that we should identify intelligence not in the results of universally administered tests, but in its manifestation in culturally diverse practices. Unique cultural conditions, he argues, require unique intelligent adaptations.

Sternberg (2002) agrees that there is more to intelligence than whatever it is IQ tests measure. Instead, we can extend our definition of intelligence behaviour to include everyday cognition (Gamaldo & Allaire, 2016). True, it is reported that children who lack access to formal education display lower scores on general intelligence measures (Pluck, 2015). However, it is also reported that some forms of intelligence are displayed outside schooling and IQ testing arenas, in the realm of everyday cognition. Flourishing task-specific, on-the-job mathematical abilities have been observed (Greiffenhagen & Sharrock, 2008) amongst street-connected participants who do not attend formal schooling. Elsewhere, when Peruvian non-school attenders were compared with a control group, no cognitive differences emerged. Indeed, on one measure of divergent thinking, the former excelled (Dahlman et al., 2013). Research by Lave (1977, with Liberian tailors), Stevens (1990, with US short-order waitresses) and Carraher et al. (1985, with Brazilian coconut vendors) all show that outside of formal testing, intellect flourishes in forms of expertise that have proved adaptive in specific cultural settings. Global psychology has thrown up numerous investigations into everyday cognition, largely from the cultural psychology perspective. Studies like these suggest that where cultural circumstances allow, intelligence can flourish in the face of risk, albeit in more on-the-job settings (Stevenson et al., 2019b).

Scribner (1975) refers to research that is modelled on everyday intellectual practice as located experiments. In one study Lave (1977) set Liberian tailors two sets of mathematical problems: formal, school-type and vocational, ‘tailoring’ problems (such as measuring and calculating quantities of fabric). Interesting patterns emerged in her results. Tailors with most ‘on-the-job’ experience performed well on the tailoring problems, while those with more formal educational experience did well on school-based tasks. Seemingly, intellectual abilities were compartmentalised rather than generalised, so vocational experience was no guarantee of effective problem-solving at school. Likewise, Carraher et al. (1985) showed that juvenile Brazilian coconut vendors excelled with problems that were embedded into their daily practice, yet underperformed at school.

These located experiments suggest that when testing scenarios make 'daily sense’, the gap between aptitude (ability) and performance

For Sternberg (2002), successful intelligence has four key elements, enabling us to:

  • 1 succeed in terms of our own personal standards, within our own cultural context
  • 2 succeed by capitalising on our strengths and compensating for our weaknesses
  • 3 succeed by achieving a balance of analytical, creative and practical abilities
  • 4 use our abilities to help us adapt to and shape our environments.

Figure 6.11 Sternberg’s theory of successful intelligence

is narrowed. They also suggest that ‘on-the-job’ competence is no guarantee of proficiency in a formal testing scenario (and vice versa). Third, they illustrate a view of intelligence as being at least partly embedded in cultural practice, which suggests that we should fully expect conceptions of intelligence (of what is valued as intelligent) to differ across cultures.

Cultural and everyday aspects of intelligence were largely absent from the early models of Spearman (1904) and Thurstone (1938), though their stock has risen in later writing. We have seen how crystallised intelligence is influenced by the accumulation of cultural experience (Cattell, 1971).

For Sternberg (2002, see Figure 6.11), intelligence is what enables us to make successful adaptations to diverse, everyday environments. Naturally, then, according to Sternberg the assessment of intellect should be carried out in contexts that have mundane realism. In short, it should be assessed in contexts that are relevant to the real world where it is applied. Testing everyday cognition would thus include social and practical problem-solving, often requiring a degree of creativity. Sternberg’s idea of successful intelligence can boast a degree of face validity, since it arguably conforms closely to lay interpretations of what intelligence should look like (Sternberg, 2002).

It is interesting to note that research which acknowledges intelligence as belonging to everyday practice (waiting tables, cutting cloth, selling coconuts) has much in common with many indigenous definitions, which tend to incorporate adaptive, practical and creative qualities. Indeed, Sternberg also recognises intelligence as partly social, partly intellectual. Arguably, mainstream psychometrics has not always appreciated that intelligence in its broadest form amounts to more than what has often been included in traditional IQ tests. We should perhaps therefore be wary of attempts to produce universal models and tests of intelligence, since they naturally exclude content that relates to how we as humans adapt intelligently to the demands of different cultural settings.

Limitations of the relativist approach to intelligence

1 What about general intelligence? Viewing intellect as manifest in cultural diversity and therefore as culturally constructed may dovetail with an emic (see Chapter 4) viewpoint, but it is incompatible with the views of those who pursue the etic ideal of constructing standardised methods for assessing a globally recognised notion of intelligence.

When intelligence is defined differently across cultures, the comparison of intelligence levels between cultural groups is no longer viable. Arguably, this explains why many on the field have shifted their attention to investigating how intelligence is defined and expressed in different locations.


  • 1. What is the difference between culture- free and culture-fair IQ tests?
  • 2. At school you have learned that the Battle of Hastings took place in the year 1066 and that France won the football World Cup in 2018. Which of these three varieties of intelligence best describes what you have learned?

a. Fluid intelligence

b. Crystallised intelligence

c. Indigenous intelligence

2 Invalidity. A valid definition (or test) of intelligence is one that refers to what it purports to refer to. We can assess the validity of conceptions of intelligence with reference to their external or predictive validity, in other words how well they predict performance on other measures of the same thing (such as school scores, or other IQ tests). However, where intelligence is regarded as specific to a certain cultural group, or where it is seen as an adaptive response to a set of environmental circumstances, there may be limited sources of external validity against which to measure its worth.

Culture and cognitive style

What is cognitive style?

As we have seen, many researchers have tackled the vexed question of how well people from different cultural groups use their intelligence (however this is defined) to solve problems. Others have focused on how they solve these problems, using strategies that perhaps vary across cultures. Nisbett (2003) argues that our cultural background has an influence on how we approach and undertake problem-solving - known as cognitive style. This view stems from the idea that while underlying cognitive abilities exist worldwide, different cultural and ecological demands yield different patterns of cognitive performance (Berry et al„ 2011). One example of cross-cultural variations in cognitive style has been investigated by Peng and Nisbett (1999), who identify dialectical and поп-dialectical thought as distinct cognitive strategies for making sense of the world. The first is rooted in Chinese philosophical traditions, the second in western logic (see Table 6.2). These two styles represent distinct ways of thinking about incompatibility and contradiction when one is solving problems.


Cognitive style.

How we approach and undertake problem-solving.

Differentiation (favoured, they argue, by North Americans) involves comparing two statements and ultimately selecting one of them as true, thus removing any contradiction. For example, either ‘hawks’ (warriors) or ‘doves’ (peacemakers) are seen as being right in a debate about world peace - but not both. Meanwhile dialectical thinking involves looking for a compromise position that tolerates inconsistencies and incompatibilities.


Cross-cultural variations in cognitive style

Principles of Chinese dialectical thought

Principles of western logical thought

ChangelBian Yi Lu Reality is seen as constantly in flux and open to subjective interpretation. Nothing stays the same for very long.

Identity Anything that is true is irrefutably true and cannot be false. Anything is irrefutably equal to itself and nothing else.

Contradiction!Mao Dun Lu Contrariness is a natural state. Good/bad, hot/cold, old/new happily coexist in all things.

Non-contradiction A statement cannot be both true and false, but must be one or the other.

HolismIZheng He Lu Nothing and no one exists independently of others. All events and beings are connected. Phenomena cannot be studied out of context.

The 'excluded middle' law Only one of any two contradictory statements can be accepted. ‘Middle way’ compromise positions are unacceptable.

Peng and Nisbett (1999) compared North American and Chinese participants’ preferences for dialectical solutions to various problems and contradictions. Their results support the view that there are culturally distinct strategies to addressing contradictions. American and Chinese participants seemingly apply differing heuristics (rules of thumb) when presented with contradictory statements, ambiguous proverbs, everyday quarrels and philosophical debates. The American way emphasises selecting a single true statement from a choice of two alternatives. The Chinese way seeks defensible positions in apparently (to some) incompatible statements. Links between culture and argumentative style have been made by a number of researchers. Leung (1987) found Chinese participants to prefer harmonious resolutions to conflict situations, with North Americans opting for a more adversarial approach. Nakamura (1985) noted that compared with Western Europeans and North Americans, Asians and Chinese are less likely to approach contradictions by engaging in formal debates that produce only one winner.

However, critics suggest that the art of compromise is something that develops with age, notwithstanding cultural background. Older people have been shown to be more likely to take dialectical stances in conflict situations (Kramer & Woodruff, 1986). Ho (2000, cited in Berry et al., 2011, p. 142) suggests that some North American participants do prefer dialectical responses, and vice versa. Clearly, factors other than culture do influence cognitive style.

But how does culture manifest itself in diverse patterns of thinking? There is a suggested link between socialisation practices and cognitive style, especially in relation to visual perception tasks. In other words, the experience of living in different societies has been shown to encourage differential responses to certain perceptual tasks, such as the rod and frame test (see Figure 6.12). Cultures where conformity and

The rod and frame test

Figure 6.12 The rod and frame test

subservience to authority are highly valued have been linked with a perceptual tendency towards rod and frame field-dependence.

The socialisation of assertiveness to authority correlated with field- independence on the same test (Witkin & Berry, 1975). Field-dependence has also been observed to correlate with overall structural differences between social groups. In rural India, nomadic hunter-gatherer communities have tended to score closer to the field-independence end of the continuum on perceptual tests. Agriculturalists tended towards field- dependency (Mishra et al., 1996).

Further evidence suggests that in non-industrial societies, increased contact with western cultural norms (associated with an introduction to formal schooling) tends to correlate with increased levels of field-independence (Berry et al., 2011). These data, which suggest a link between ecological-cultural factors and cognitive style, have been replicated in other cross-cultural studies (Sinha, 1979). In terms of problem-solving strategies, field-independent individuals have also been found to be more likely to make decisions without engagement of or consultation with others, as compared with those who are more field-dependent. The former appear to function more autonomously (Witkin et al., 1979). Interestingly, field-dependency is a construct that pervades both social and cognitive domains, echoing indigenous conceptions of intelligence (see key concept above) and those of Sternberg (2002).


Imagine a meeting between two psychologists who are interested in the relationship between culture and cognitive ability. Psychologist A wants to devise a culturally universal means of assessing intellect. Psychologist В is a cultural psychologist who prefers to investigate indigenous intelligence. Outline how each of these psychologists is likely to assess intelligence differently.

So does culture change the way we think?

Having begun this chapter by posing this question, we might end by summarising some of the influences that cultural background can exert on our intellectual habits. There is, for example, a strong argument that the character of our environment or ecology has some bearing on our perception of certain visual stimuli, such as visual illusions and art. It is also likely that where we grow up - incorporating how affluent we are or how familiar we are with formal schooling and with aspects of cultural knowledge inherent in intelligence tests (including our definitions of intelligence) - is likely to influence how well we score in the formal testing scenario. Away from formal IQ, cognitive strategies for solving problems and disputes also vary from culture to culture. Intelligent behaviour is manifest in effective expertise, which expresses itself in various local, every day and often quite specialised settings - where success is not necessarily predictive of educational achievement. Wherever we look, then, we can see that whatever cognitive characteristics we all share, our ecology, experience and environment have been shown to have some bearing on how we solve problems and make sense of the world.


Chapter 6 examines the study of cognition in varying cultural contexts. Cognitive psychology featured heavily in the early development of the cross-cultural perspective, with several early twentieth-century writers carrying out visual perception studies in order to examine the influence of ecology and environment on the way we perceive the world. A critical examination of these theories is our starting point here.

Another favoured topic for cross-cultural researchers of cognition is intelligence and IQ testing, which has spawned many debates and controversies over the years relating to inheritance, cultural bias in definitions and testing of IQ. These debates are covered here, along with some culturally diverse approaches to intelligence. These include indigenous approaches to intelligence from around the world, such as attempts to model intelligence on everyday behaviour rather than more traditional methods of IQ testing.

All of this leads into a broader discussion of culturally diverse styles of thinking, or cognitive style. In particular there is a review of some more recent research into the ways in which problem-solving strategies might be subject to cultural variation.



Match up the definitions on the right with the terms on the left (see p. 208 for answers)


  • • Dahlman, S., Backstrom, P., Bohlin, G. & Frans, O. (2013) Cognitive abilities of street children: Low-SES Bolivian boys with and without experience of living in the street. Child Neuropsychology, 19, 540-556.
  • • Frey, J. (2017) A toroidal representation of intelligence from a Plains Cree Lens: a bridge toward enlightenment [online]. Fourth World Journal, 16(1), Summer 2017, 11-30.
  • • Gamaldo, A.A. & Allaire, J.C. (2016). Daily fluctuations in everyday cognition: is it meaningful? Journal of Aging and Health, 28(5), 834-849. doi: 10.1177/0898264315611669.
  • • Herrnstein, R. & Murray, C. (1994) The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.

. Kan, K.J., Wicherts, J.M., Dolan, C.V. & van der Maas, H.L.J. (2013) On the nature and nurture of intelligence and specific cognitive abilities the more heritable, the more culture dependent. Psychological Science, 24, 2420-2428.

  • • Matsumoto, D. & Juang, L. (2017) Culture & Psychology. London: Wadsworth.
  • • Nisbett, R. (2003) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why. London: Nicholas Brealey.
  • • Pluck, G. (2015) The ‘street children’ of Latin America. The Psychologist, 28, 20-23.
  • • Segall, M., Campbell, D. & Herskovits, M. (1966) The Influence of Culture on Visual Perception. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.
  • • Van de Vijver, F. & Lueng, K. (1997) Methods and Data Analysis for Cross-cultural Research. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Culture, social #

cognition and social influence

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