Lecture 2: Cultural transmission, Cross-cultural cognition

Cultural evolution

Cultural variation: differences between cultural groups. Cultures are fluid and dynamic, in most cases changing over time. But cultural ideas and norms don't necessarily emerge to address universal problems. Rathe result from cultural learning. Example: fashion, tertiary level.

Sources of cultural variation: ecological geographical differences are important and can lead to far-reaching consequences. Eg availability of food sources, ease of living in specific habitats, interdependence among groups, etc. Local ecologies influence cultural values and norms and can lead to cultural in different ways: proximal causes vs distal causes and evoked culture vs transmitted culture.

Proximal causes: influenced that have direct and immediate effects. - eg when Spanish conquistadors invading had good armour, allowing a quick victory over the Incans, who lacked such technology. 

Distal causes: initial differences that lead to effects over long periods of time. - eg because of sufficient food, people could devote their time to nonfood activities such as creating tools.

Evoked culture: specific environmental conditions evoke specific responses from (all) people within that environment, becoming part of a culture. - eg acting in an intimidating manner when your children are being threatened. 

Transmitted culture: cultural information passed on or learned via social transmission or modeling. - eg copying behaviour, clothing, aspects of etiquette, etc, from food-finding to social interaction. 

Evoked and transmitted culture are not always clearly separated! Eg more emphasis on physical attractiveness due to greater parasite prevalence, vs parents teaching their children to pay attention to physical attractiveness. Transmitted culture is arguably always involved in maintaining cultural norms, even when evoked cultural responses are also present. Evoked culture based on ecological pressures alone cannot explain cultural variation. Transmitted culture represents situation-specific AND group-specific knowledge. 

Transmission of cultural information, how is information transferred

  1. ideas need to be retained
  2. ideas need to be passed on

Parallel with biological evolution, the main mechanisms are natural selection: increasing proportions of traits that confer a survival advantage; sexual selection: increasing proportion of traits that confer reproductive advantages. Sometimes conflicting!

Cultural evolution

Similarities with biological evolution: Ideas can be persistent (high survival rate) and ideas can be more prone to being passed around (reproduced more).

Differences: cultural ideas can be transmitted horizontally among peers, not only vertically across generations.

What makes ideas interesting and sticky?

Transmission of cultural information 

Information going viral: memes: agents of cultural transmission --> shared jokes/context

Communicable ideas

In order to be easily shared, information might be especially useful or informative, elicit an emotional response, be socially desirable, and are simple to communicate. Eg instructional videos (life hacks), messages of common interest (risk of rumours), messages confirming your shared values or messages that are not too complex. The stronger the emotion, the more likely people are to pass a story on. 

Ideas generally spread within social networks, leading to clustering of attitudes: Dynamic social impact theory. An account for the origin of culture: norms develop among those who communicate regularly. 

Persisting ideas: ideas that have a small number of counterintuitive elements persist longer. Minimal, but noticeable violations of expectation. Characteristics of many religious narratives as well as myth/storytelling. Supported by the research into 'catchiness' of fairy tales: the unknown/unpopular fairy tales have to many of not enough violations of expectation. 

How do cultures change?

In recent decades, cultures have been changing and evolving in several ways:

  1. Increases in interconnectedness: easier & cheaper transportation and long-distance communication allow more connections between cultures. This interconnectedness had created a global culture, many large companies operate internationally. This globalization has been countered by increased tribalism or modern populism (an urge to return to traditional cultures; sense of cultural identity within smaller in-groups). 
  2. Increases in individualism: cultures often studied on an individualism/collectivism (I/S) dimension. Individualism: individual encouraged to consider themselves as distinct from others and prioritize own personal goals over collective goals. Collectivism: individuals encouraged to place more emphasis on one's collective or in-group. Visible when comparing younger and older Americans, proposed reasons include more pressure of time and money, increased suburbanization, more electronic entertainment and living through a 'transformational' experience like WWII. Also visible in traditionally collectivistic cultures (eg Japan): higher divorce rates, decreases in family size and placing a higher value on independence in children. 
  3. Increases in intelligence: longitudinal data suggest that IQ scores rise between 5 and 25 points per generation. Depends on the intelligence test! Some are also dropping (eg vocabulary scores, people are reading less). Largest increase seen for Raven's matrices test, intended to be culture-free. Proposed reasons for increased intelligence include: more people receiving education than before (increased percentage of the population had bachelor's degree) and pop culture has been increasingly more complicated (movies and tv shows have more complicated plots; videogames have become highly complex). 

How do cultures persist?

Changes are usually slow, and some cultural qualities persist for far longer than their initial usefulness! Persistence is an effect of pre-existing structure: evolution of culture departs from and is based on, some initial cultural state, such initial cultural states will limit the manner in which future cultural variation takes shape. 

Facilitated by pluralistic ignorance(= tendency to collectively misinterpret the thoughts that underlie other people's behaviour. When everyone (incorrectly) assumes everyone else in favour of some cultural norm, they will comply with the norm, thus perpetuating the culture.

Part 1 key points

  1. There are competing mechanisms by which cultures either change or persist. Parallels with biological evolutions, but generally culture evolves more quickly and less adapted. Behaviours often outlive their usefulness. Cultural differences may have distal or proximal causes and be evoked or transmitted (or a combination). 
  2. Only certain cultural ideas will likely spread successfully within a population. Information is useful, socially acceptable, emotion-inducing and easy to communicate will be passed on more readily. 
  3. Cultures have become increasingly interconnected, individualistic, and intelligent. 

Cross-cultural differences in perception and cognition 

Thoughts of as mostly universally functions! However, there are cross-cultural differences in the basic phenomena of:

  • Sensation: different modalities through different senses: seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting. Different sensitivities: what is perceivable?
  • Perception: perceptual organization: how to structure and interpret incoming sensory information.
  • Cognition: various cognitive functions: memory, attention, task switching, imagery, reasoning, etc.

 Sensing vs perceiving 

Sensation: input through the senses: visions/seeing, auditions/hearing, haptic sense/touching, olfactory sense/smelling, gustatory sense/taste and more.

Perception: the conscious percept or experience 

 Enculturation in perception

Previous exposure leads to changes processing of new information: eg increased sensitivity. Predictability: if you know what to expect, infrequently perceived things become more interesting, but processed less successfully. This applies to faces, weather, colours, tastes, music, etc. 

 Statistical learning

  • What is frequent? - common vs rare
  • What goes together? - normal vs surprising
  • What is important? - salient aspects of a stimulus are processed more efficiently 

Bottom-up & top-down: cognitive processes interact with basic sensory mechanisms to produce a conscious percept. Top-down modulation: internally driven attention. Bottom-up processing: externally driven attention. 

New categories in sound 

Different cultures lead to different 'auditory environments'. Music: scale notes make up common melodies, but tone is continuous! Music scales are different in different cultures. Your auditory environment teaches you what is normal and what is deviant. 

Developing structure in perception: Infants are developing rhythmic categories.  Study with violations of structures, with babies they used looking time: they can hear the violations in structure. Rhythmic biases are enculturated!

Auditory environment

Language: The rhythm of composed music caries for languages, even without lyrics! 

Normal pairwise variability index: nPVI: calculates the duration variability of successive vocalic duration: how variable is rhythm in speech? The higher the nPVI value, the larger the contrast of successive duration. In Dutch, German and English there are more variations in the language between long and short syllables. 

Perception and thinking styles

Analytic and holistic thinking appear to be culturally variant, potentially based on philosophical traditions (Cf. Greek vs Chinese).

Analytic thinkinginvolves focus on objects and attributes, objects perceives as independent from contexts, taxonomic categorization, more prevalent in individualistic societies.

Holistic thinkinginvolves attending to the relations among objects, prediction an object's behaviour on the basis of those relationships, thematic categorization, more prevalent in collectivistic societies. 

Change blindness: after exposure to the images (US city-scape and Japanese city-scape), both Japanese and US viewers increase their ability to detect changes in visual scenes. Perceptual environments can induce specific patterns of attention!

Analytic & holistic approaches: relationship between figure and ground (field), focal and contextual information. Field dependence: linking/integrating an object into its context, difficultly to see separate elements. Holistic thinkers perceive a scene as an integrated whole (more field dependence). Analytic thinkers are able to separate objects from each other (field independence). 

Field dependence in the lab

The rod-and-frame task: is the line vertical? If given control to operate the machine, Americans became more confident as compared to Chinese. 

Fish and background task: Americans were unaffected by background manipulation. Japanese noticed more errors with new background, they were not affected by absent background.  

Focal attention: attention operationalized as gaze direction 

Reasoning and thinking (effected by analytic and holistic thinker)

  • Grouping: what belongs together? - objects characteristics vs relationships, categorization and group memberships. 
  • Understanding people's behaviour. - intrinsic vs extrinsic forces
  • Logical vs dialectical schemas: tolerance for contradiction: right/wrong vs seeking the middle way. 

Rule-based reasoning vs resemblance-based reasoning 

Understanding the behaviour of others

Analytic thinkers are more likely to make dispositional attributions even when contextual/environmental constraints are made explicit. Holistic thinkers are more likely to pay attention to contextual information and make situational attribution. Tendencies develop with age: differences between Indian & American adults *much* larger for children. Indian adults show reversed attribution error.  

Tolerance for contradictions

  • Analytic thinking: arguably based on Greek philosophical tradition, heavy on formal logic. Does not accept contradictions: A=B or A=not B.
  • Holistic thinking: arguably bases on Chinese philosophical tradition (Confucianism), focus on continual change. Everything in interconnected, moving between opposites. 
  • Also applies to attitudes to the self: holistic thinkers give more contradictory self-descriptions
  • Also applies to future expectations: analytic thinkers assume linear progressions; holistic thinkers expect change. 

Other influences on thinking: talking (communication styles

Vocalizing thoughts helps Westerns, but not Easterners. Interpretation: speech forces focus which facilitates analytic thinking but interferes with holistic thinking. 

Language and thought 

All spoking communication contains both implicit (ie nonverbal) and explicit information. 

  • High context cultures = people highly connected with each other, much shared information guides behaviour, less explicit information is needed for communication 
  • Low context cultures = less shared information, more explicit information is necessary for communication 

East-Asian cultures tend to be high-context cultures, Western cultures tend to be low-context cultures. People in high context cultures have a harder time ignoring implicit information than people in low context cultures. 

Linguistic relativity 

Whorfian hypothesis: Strong version = language determinesthought: without access to the right words, people cannot have certain kinds of thoughts --> Largely rejected.

Weak version = language influencesthought: having access to certain words influences the kinds of thoughts that one has (Much controversy surrounding this claim)

Effects of language on perception and cognition  

  • Colour perception 
  • Odour perception 
  • Temporal perception 
  • Spatial perception 
  • Perception of agency 
  • Numerical cognition & math 

 Part 2 key points 

  1. Top-down cognitive influences & bottom up perception combine so that specific aspects of a stimulus may be amplified, ignored, or not perceived altogether. 

    • Exposure to a specific environment shapes future expectation 
  2. While basic sensory mechanisms are likely the same, enculturation leads to different perceptual processing of the same stimuli, in various modalities
  3. Someone’s perceptual environment shapes how new sensory information is processed 
    • Culture heavily influences this perceptual environment! 
  4. East Asian and Western people differ in both reasoning and perception 
    • Differences in application of rules, focus on figure or ground, prioritizing 
    • Measuring cognition should accommodate for these and other cultural differences 

Overall thoughts and conclusions 

Ecological variability (geological/social) is related to cultural differences. Although cultures can change, it appears that superficial (tertiary) aspects might change more readily, while underlying shared values persist for a long time. Cultural differences also impact psychological functions thought to be basic/universal measurable in the lab! Difference may be related to language, to the environment, to cultural importance, etc 

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