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Is Cultural Cognition Culture-Specific? 

Is cultural cognition culturally specific?  

I just read a great piece over on the PLoS Blog about the cultural specificity of many purportedly universal psychological biases / mechanisms.  As an example, the blog uses the famous Müller-Lyer Illusion.  You probably know of it.  In the image below, many people see the line on the right as longer than the one on the left.  

For almost a hundred years, social psychologists thought this a universal illusion.  It turns out, though, that this illusion is actually acute only in those who live in modern urban environments -- environments where straight lines, flat sides, and sharp corners are common.  When, in 1966, Marshall H. Segall conducted a study across cultural groups, he found tremendous variation (as illustrated in the graph below). 

For folks who are interested in the phenomenon of cultural cognition, this raises an interesting question: Is cultural cogntion itself culture-bound?  The answer, I think, is either "probably yes" or "probably no" depending on what is meant by "culture-bound".  

The "probably yes" answer obtains if one were to try to use the same value measures across highly distinct cultural groups.  There is no reason to believe that San foragers or the Fang are divided over the questions that comprise the cultural value measures we use to distinguish US subjects from one another.  It wouldn't make sense (at least without more evidence) for us to presume our measures are universal.  

But that isn't really what the PLoS Blog post is about.  It asks whether the underlying phenomenon itself is generalizable.  One could broaden the way that such illusions are characterized in order to account for visual training and local adaptions.  Do people see view depth-cues that are relevant to their conceptual contexts.  The newly recast "local cues for depth perception" bias could still plausibly be universal. 

The phenomenon of cultural cognition, I would argue, is closer to the latter than the former.  It is one in which people develop factual beliefs that support or are consistent with their preferred social orderings (typically with the life-ways and values of their in-groups given high status).  If viewed this way, the answer is "probably no" because the theory derives from observations by anthropologists across many different cultural groups.  (I can't say "definitively no" or even "almost certainly no" since we haven't done extensive work across these non-Western cultural groups ourselves.)  More recently, a more general form of this has been studied as "motivated cognition" by social psychologists.  For cultural cognition as a general concept to be culture-bound, the phenomenon of motivated cognition itself would have to be culture-bound.  And, because the idea of motivated cognition is something that we use to describe differences in belief-formation across cultures, it would be very hard to construe it as culture-bound as well.  

But then again, it may be that my sample is too limited -- indeed motivated cognition would suggest that I would be particularly motivated to not notice contrary evidence! Perhaps it just seems obvious to me that the everyone sees the world as shorter or longer as befits there preferred social order when, in fact, there are some groups who do not.  

But one thing we can be fairly certain of: these groups would have to be very distinct from the main groups involved in various forms of culture wars in the United States.  As Dan has pointed out in numerous posts at this point, there is very strong evidence that whatever cultural groups might be immune to cultural cognition, they are not the cultural groups who are involved in popular political debates in this country.  Your cultural adversary may fall foul of cultural cognition, but the fact that you have cultural adversary suggests that you are just as likely to yourself. 

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Reader Comments (1)

Yeah, but did you read the great response commentary to the Behavioral & Brain Sciences article that is the inspiration for the PLoS Blog post? As I recall, it points out that cultural cognition within societies casts as much doubt on the external validity of stylized behavioral economic experiments as cross-cultural behavioral economic experiments do!

And what about that great cross-cultural cultural cognition experiment on geoengineering?!

I am willing to conjecture that (1) the latent dispositions that the cultural worldview scales measure are universal even though(2) the indicators of those dispositions will be culture specific as will (3) the particular schedules of opposing risk perceptions associated with those dispositions. Disagree?

May 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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