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Discuss Culture and Its Relation to Thought and Language

Discuss Culture and Its Relation to Thought and Language


The discussion above centers on the role of culture in attitudes, behaviors, and personality. But there is reason to believe that culture may affect the way people actually think about the world. The belief that Inuit people have a multitude of words for snow and that this linguistic abundance leads them to conceptualize their snow-filled world differently than people in moderate climates is just a myth. But the point behind that myth has a reality. One’s cultural background, including one’s language, seems to be causal in the development of a world view.

For example, as noted previously, Ji et al. (2004) presented their participants with word triads such as monkey–panda–banana. Participants selected two items that formed a group. A grouping like monkey–panda is categorical, whereas a grouping like monkey–banana is relational. The question that the researchers addressed was whether people of Chinese background and of American background responded similarly. The results confirmed that the Chinese participants were more likely to choose relational pairings (e.g., monkey–banana because monkeys eat bananas), whereas the American participants favored categorical pairings (e.g., monkey– panda because both are animals).

These results support the notion that people of East Asian backgrounds preferentially focus on overall context but that those with Western backgrounds make use of taxonomic concepts. Such findings are compatible with a collectivist, context-oriented perspective versus an individualistic perspective. Such sensitivity to context has appeared in numerous studies, including accuracy in identifying one’s orientation in a rod-and-frame test (Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000) and memory for focal versus background elements in visual display (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001).

However, explanations are always fraught with rival hypotheses. Simply because Ji et al.’s (2004) participants may have differed on the IC continuum, it does not necessarily follow that the differences in their patterns of responses in choosing a pair of words from the triad were due to collectivism versus individualism. Drawing such a conclusion may reflect an example of the cultural attribution fallacy.

For example, Matsumoto and Yoo (2006) have speculated that differences in memory for individual items in a visual display between Japanese and American participants may be due either to the greater emphasis on rote memorization in schools or on the visual computer game culture in Japan. Such memorial differences may be consistent across cultures, but those differences do not always signal cultural differences (as the term culture is used by psychologists). This difficulty with interpretations lies at the heart of the interpretation paradox (van de Vijver & Leung, 2000), which reflects the fact that large differences across groups are easy to spot, but hard to explain, whereas small differences are hard to spot, but easy to explain.

Similarly, differences in responses to stimuli may reflect a combination of culture and other factors. As noted above, Ji et al. (2004) reported that Chinese participants organized words relationally but Americans organized words categorically. At the same time, the language in which participants were tested affected their responses. Response patterns of some Chinese participants differed depending on whether the language of the experimental session was Chinese or English. This finding corresponds to differences that other investigators have noted. For instance, Marian and Neisser (2000) found that language itself provides a context for recall. When Russian–English bilinguals received a prompt in Russian, their memories for autobiographical details associated with living in Russia, whereas English prompts spurred better memory for events associated with speaking English. In addition, the researchers have noted differences in cognitive processes associated with language itself.

Similarly, cross-cultural research has revealed differences in recognition of emotions. Matsumoto, Anguas-Wong, and Martinez (2008) discovered that Spanish– English bilinguals recognized facial emotions more accurately when they were tested in English than in Spanish, and Matsumoto and Assar (1992) showed that Hindi–English bilinguals recognized facial emotions more accurately when tested in English than in Hindi.

These results based on language may extend beyond language itself. That is, it is possible that bilinguals who are bicultural engage in a kind of cultural frame switching, viewing their world in different ways depending on the context.

For example, Benet-Martínez, Leu, Lee, and Morris, (2002) assessed the degree to which participants saw their two cultures as being consistent with one another or contradictory to one another. They characterized the participants as either high in bicultural identity integration (BII, cultures were consistent) or low in BII (cultures were contradictory). In the experimental session, the researchers primed participants to think either of American culture (e.g., by presenting pictures of Mickey Mouse, the U.S. Capitol, etc.) or Chinese culture (e.g., by presenting pictures of a rice farmer, the Great Wall of China, etc.). Participants subsequently viewed an animation of a single fish swimming in front of a school of fish, and then the participants gave an explanation as to why the single fish was leading the pack. The researchers coded the responses as involving factors that were either internal (personal characteristics of the fish) or external (the fish being influenced by other fish).

The results revealed that people who saw their two cultures as consistent with one another (those high in BII) responded with internal attributes of the fish when primed with American symbols and with external attributes when primed with Chinese symbols. On the other hand, participants who saw their two cultures as contradictory (those low in BII) showed internal attributions when primed with Chinese symbols and external attributions when primed with American symbols.

The researchers concluded that those high in BII readily engaged in cultural frame switching because they were comfortable with both worldviews. In contrast, those low in BII reacted to cues in one culture by drawing to mind their affiliation with the other culture. This response resembles the behavior of tourists to foreign countries who have a heightened awareness of their affiliation with their culture but who rarely think of that affiliation in their home country. As Markus (2008) pointed out, ethnicity can affect the psychological experience even when people are not aware of it.

As these results show, culture plays a significant role in how people observe and respond to the world around them. But the issue is complex because behaviors change due to individual differences like the language that the person uses and the degree to which the person feels assimilated into the various cultures to which he or she is exposed. Depending on the sample used in a research project, results might show vastly different patterns. Furthermore, the nature of a prime could affect the outcome significantly. For example, Shih, Pittinsky, and Ambady (1999) primed women of Asian descent to their gender identities or to their cultural identities before asking them to solve math problems. When the women received the gender prime, they performed less well on the math task than when they received the culture prime.

Inzlicht and Ben-Zeev (2000) provided an example of what may be a very subtle prime that had a major effect on women’s math performance. Simply being in the presence of men depressed women’s math performance compared to being in a single-sex research session.

Priming is a useful technique for assessing the effect of group membership. Much of the work on performance after a prime as it systematically affects different groups has involved sex and gender (e.g., Inzlicht & Ben-Zeev, 2000); it is well known, but less studied, in the context of race (e.g., Aronson, Lustina, Good, Keough, Steele, & Brown, 1999; Steele & Aronson, 1995). There is a collection of additional research on other cultural groups whose members are affected by appropriate primes, including Canadian (Walsh, Hickey, & Duffy, 1999), Chinese (Lee & Ottati, 1995), French (Croizet & Claire, 1998), German (Keller, 2007), Italian (Muzzatti & Agnoli, 2007), and poor people (Croizet & Claire, 1998).

This complex pattern of factors that influence one’s outlook and behavior reveals the caution one must exercise in attributing differences in performance simply to culture. As noted before, culture might be very important, but differences in behavior may reflect the moderating effect of other variables and of individual differences among participants. Thus, significant differences across groups might actually reflect a confounding variable that is correlated with cultural affiliation but the differences may not be due to that affiliation itself.

The Council of National Psychological Associations for the Advancement of Ethnic Minority Interests (2000) has developed guidelines for research in ethnic minority communities in the U.S. These guidelines were developed in the context of American culture, but they pertain to cross-cultural research of any kind. The principles involve (a) avoidance of treating all members of a group as being the same, (b) development of cultural competence by researchers, (c) use of multiple, valid, convergent measurements, (d) understanding of cultural context, (e) use of representative samples, and (f) avoidance of using race as a predictive construct.

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