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The well-respected tradition of research on concepts uses cross-cultural comparisons to explore which aspects of conceptual behavior are universal versus culturally variable. This work continues, but it is being supplemented by intensified efforts to studyhowconceptual systems and cultural systems interact to modify and support each other. For example, cultural studies within the framework of domain specificity (e.g., folkphysics, folkpsychology, folkbiology) are beginning to query the domains themselves and offer alternative organizing principles (e.g., folksociology, folkecology). Findings highlight the multifaceted nature of both concepts and culture: Individuals adopt distinct conceptual construals in accordance with culturally infused systems such as language and discourse, knowledge and beliefs, and epistemological orientations. This picture complicates questions about cognitive universality or variability, suggesting that researchers may productively adopt a systemslevel approach to conceptual organization and cultural epistemologies. Related implications for diversity in cognitive science are discussed. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Psychology Volume 66 is November 30, 2014. Please see for revised estimates.
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Perspectives on Culture
and Concepts
bethany l. ojalehto and Douglas L. Medin
Psychology Department, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208;
Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2015. 66:249–75
First published online as a Review in Advance on
September 17, 2014
The Annual Review of Psychology is online at
This article’s doi:
Copyright c
2015 by Annual Reviews.
All rights reserved
conceptual organization, language, folk theories, conceptual domains,
cultural epistemologies
The well-respected tradition of research on concepts uses cross-cultural
comparisons to explore which aspects of conceptual behavior are universal
versus culturally variable. This work continues, but it is being supplemented
by intensified efforts to study how conceptual systems and cultural systems in-
teract to modify and support each other. For example, cultural studies within
the framework of domain specificity (e.g., folkphysics, folkpsychology, folk-
biology) are beginning to query the domains themselves and offer alternative
organizing principles (e.g., folksociology, folkecology). Findings highlight
the multifaceted nature of both concepts and culture: Individuals adopt dis-
tinct conceptual construals in accordance with culturally infused systems
such as language and discourse, knowledge and beliefs, and epistemological
orientations. This picture complicates questions about cognitive universality
or variability, suggesting that researchers may productively adopt a systems-
level approach to conceptual organization and cultural epistemologies. Re-
lated implications for diversity in cognitive science are discussed.
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Culture: a way of life,
often equated with
shared knowledge or
what one needs to
know to live
successfully in a
INTRODUCTION............................................................... 250
CULTURALCOMPARISONS................................................ 252
Unitsof Cultural Comparisons.................................................. 252
Cultureand the Brain........................................................... 253
Interdisciplinary Collaborations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 254
Summary....................................................................... 254
CULTURE,LANGUAGE, ANDCONCEPTS................................... 255
Word-Concept Mappings: Cross-Linguistic Perspectives . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 255
Linguistic and Conceptual Diversity Across Cultures . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 256
Summary....................................................................... 257
DOMAINSPECIFICITY......................................................... 257
Folkphysics..................................................................... 257
Folkbiology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 259
Folkpsychology . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 260
Summary....................................................................... 263
EXTENDINGDOMAIN SPECIFICITY ......................................... 263
ConceptualDomains attheIntersections........................................ 263
NewPerspectives onDomains.................................................. 265
MULTIPLEFORMS OF DIVERSITY......................................... 266
One could hardly imagine writing a cognitive psychology textbook without having a major section
on concepts, but just a few decades ago it would not have been out of line to exclude any work
on culture. Consider Medin & Smith’s (1984) review of research on concepts. The only study
involving cultural comparisons they cited was Eleanor Rosch’s (1973) now classic study of color
concepts among the Dani of New Guinea. Just 16 years later, cultural comparisons in studies of
cognition and conceptual behavior were much more common, and a review by Medin et al. (2000)
cited more than 30 cross-cultural or cross-linguistic comparisons. In this review, studies of culture
linked closely to concepts have assumed a leading role—quite a dramatic change in 30 years.
There has been a corresponding substantial shift in the nature of and intentions associated with
cultural comparisons. Traditional comparative approaches continue to receive consideration and
play an important role, but they are being supplemented with new theoretical and methodolog-
ical frameworks for understanding culture and cognition. In particular, changing conceptions of
culture are feeding back to affect not only how culture is studied, but also how we understand the
concepts recruited in such studies. Although a great deal of previous research focused on cultural
similarities and differences in conceptual spaces (e.g., color terms, folk taxonomic systems, spa-
tial cognition), the discreteness of these very domains is now increasingly under scrutiny. These
developments, in turn, are affecting ideas about how culture should be conceptualized.
Our article is organized as follows. First, we provide a few observations on culture and concepts
as background for our review. We discuss how cultural research continues to play a role in ideas
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Folkbiology: intuitive
understanding of
living things (plants
and animals, including
humans) in terms of
biological processes
and events
understanding of
intentional agents’
behavior in terms of
mental states
(thoughts, feelings,
intentions) that drive
Folkphysics: intuitive
or everyday
understanding of
physical events,
bounded objects, and
different ways of
seeing the world; that
is, broad cultural
framework theories
that provide skeletal
principles determining
what is considered
worthy of attention
and relevant to sense
making and
about categories and conceptual behavior. This includes tests for generalizability across cultures
as well as studies selecting different cultural groups on the basis of likely differences on some
dimension or factor of interest.
Second, we point to several approaches to the study of culture and cognition, reviewing vari-
ous sociocultural comparisons, interactions between language and thought, and domains of folk-
biology, folkpsychology, and folkphysics. This body of research offers fertile ground for recent
developments that extend the domain-specificity approach by examining potential cross-domain
concepts and proposing novel organizations of conceptual domains themselves. Another viewpoint
adopts a systems-level approach to understanding the interplay of culture and concepts and em-
ploys epistemological orientations as a framework for understanding how diverse cultural systems
organize conceptual knowledge, values, and behavior.
Concepts can take many forms and functions and thus may be defined in various ways (Barsalou
2008, Carey 2009, Medin et al. 2000, Solomon et al. 1999), including ways that influence roles for
culture and culture’s very definition (Brumann 1999). One influential view holds that concepts are
the “units of thought” that form the building blocks of domain-specific folk theories (Carey 2009,
p. 5; Gelman 2009). On this account, culture can be seen as input to domain-specific cognitive
systems that structure learning (Gelman & Legare 2011). For example, empirical studies may
compare how people from different cultures think about particular concepts (e.g., concepts of
false belief, see Liu et al. 2008) or a series of related concepts (e.g., spatial terms, folk taxonomies).
These results are then interpreted in terms of whether people across cultures share basic concepts
and the extent to which those concepts are shaped by cultural inputs.
Other approaches take a more relational perspective on concepts, both with respect to how
cultural systems (e.g., languages, artifacts, practices, values) affect conceptual organization and
with respect to how concepts permeate cultural behavior (e.g., in the production of words or
other artifacts). This includes work that emphasizes the distributed and contextualized nature of
concepts as embedded in language and action (Barsalou et al. 2010, Cole 1998, Malt & Majid
2013). Empirical studies in this vein may investigate how distinctive conceptual patterns, such
as spatial frameworks or agency attributions, emerge from the interaction between cognitive and
social structures (see also Enfield & Sidnell 2014). From this perspective, culture and concepts are
mutually constitutive processes rather than separate variables, leading to a more interactive view
than the framework of cultural input and mental output suggests.
Complementary approaches treat concepts as embedded within cultural orientations that
provide broad framework theories, also known as epistemological orientations, for organizing
knowledge and behavior (Medin et al. 2013). For example, studies may focus on how epistemo-
logical orientations that view humans as part of nature (or apart from nature) influence conceptual
organization and reasoning processes relative to the living world (Bang et al. 2007). This work
takes a systems-level view in which culture affects both the contents and the processes of thought,
a step that complicates the traditional separation between higher-level beliefs associated with
culture (studied by anthropology) and basic cognitive functions associated with the mind (studied
by psychology).
In a different but related vein, a great deal of research in cultural psychology aims to identify
and systematically analyze domain-general systems of thinking that are typical of a culture (e.g.,
Nisbett et al. 2001). On these views, culture provides a generalized orientation to the world that
influences cognitive processing across many domains, ranging from concepts and categorization
to judgment, inference, reasoning, self-construal, and understandings of agency. Leading theories Perspectives on Culture and Concepts 251
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have focused on notions of self (Markus & Kitayama 1991), analytic versus holistic cognitive styles
(Nisbett & Masuda 2003, Nisbett et al. 2001), individualist versus collectivist social orientations
(Greenfield et al. 2003), and more recently high-context versus low-context (Kittler et al. 2011)
and tight versus loose orientations (Gelfand et al. 2011). These approaches have in common a
focus on potential conceptual diversity as one manifestation of pervasive cultural-psychological
processes that determine global cognitive functioning.
In summary, different views of concepts and culture lead to different research emphases, ques-
tions, and methods. In our analysis, the goal is not to identify which views of culture or concepts are
correct or even the best, but rather to examine the different kinds of contributions each view has
to offer. The emerging consensus across these diverse approaches is that culture and conceptual
behavior are inseparable.
Given the consensus just described, it is not surprising that the interaction of cognition and
culture is becoming increasingly important to cognitive science. Many scholars investigate po-
tential universals linked to nativist, modular, or domain-specific views of cognition (e.g., Sperber
& Hirschfeld 2004), whereas others seek to explore potential variability linked to the diversity
of experiential and social interactions that contribute to mental life (e.g., Enfield & Levinson
2006). Consequently, one common concern across research programs is the question of what is
universal or culturally variable in cognition. This question takes different forms at alternative
levels of analysis—a set of differences at one level may become similarities at a more abstract level
(Norenzayan & Heine 2005). We summarize three trends in cultural comparisons—changes in
the units of comparison, a focus on neuroscience, and interdisciplinary collaborations. All three
contribute to the diversity of perspectives relevant to culture and concepts.
If cultural cognitive research is growing by leaps and bounds, bear in mind that this dramatic
increase in cultural research comes from a tiny base rate. The overwhelming majority of cognitive
research, including research on the psychology of concepts, comes from samples of college students
attending major research universities in Western, industrial, democratic countries—especially the
United States (Arnett 2008). This focus continues despite evidence that these samples may be
especially unrepresentative of people in general (Henrich et al. 2010). Some scholars suggest
that Internet studies are a cure for this limitation, but Internet studies have problems of their
own, including the observation that workers in these studies typically have participated in literally
hundreds of other studies (Rand et al. 2014). Within the domain of concepts and conceptual
behavior, college students, at a minimum, are atypical with respect to the basis for typicality
effects and the use of categories in reasoning (Medin & Atran 2004).
Units of Cultural Comparisons
Comparisons can range from those on a global scale (e.g., East-West); to cross-national analyses;
to within-nation cultural contrasts; or even to within-culture differences linked to socioeconomic
class, religious affiliation, age, or gender. Although cross-national comparisons are the most com-
mon, significant cultural differences also distinguish groups within nations and societies (Stephens
et al. 2014). Even within a relatively small geographical area, differences associated with socio-
economic class; rural, suburban, or urban lifestyles; and religion can be important to cognitive
diversity. For example, consistent differences in self-construal and perceptions of agency are found
between working-class and middle-class samples (reviewed in Kraus et al. 2012, Stephens et al.
2014). In terms of residency, Rhodes & Gelman (2009) reported substantial differences between
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understanding of
interactions among
plants, animals
(including humans),
inanimates (soil,
rocks), and dynamic
processes (weather and
water systems)
US Midwestern rural and suburban samples in tendencies to essentialize race and gender, and
research in folkbiology finds different developmental trajectories for urban, suburban, and rural
children (Coley 2012, Coley & Tanner 2012, Herrmann et al. 2010). There are also differences in
conceptions of evolution associated with different religious orientations within the United States
(Evans 2001).
A small but growing body of research explores how cognition interacts with lifestyle differ-
ences across non-Western, small-scale societies (Uskul et al. 2008). For instance, hunter-gatherer
and farming communities differ in patterns of child development and parenting (Hewlett et al.
2011). Echoing trends found in the United States, folkbiological reasoning also differs between
indigenous individuals who reside in traditional rural settings and those residing in modernized
town settings (Shenton et al. 2011).
The majority of cultural studies involve between-group comparisons and are not geared to ex-
plore within-group differences. Yet attention to within-group variation may offer insight into the
distributed, evolving nature of cultural knowledge. One way to explore such variation is through
cultural consensus modeling, which measures the degree to which individuals share a consensus
within a domain (Romney et al. 1986). Such analyses can reveal nuanced variations in mental mod-
els that inform theories of conceptual knowledge: For example, men and women in Guatemalan
Ladino communities make different inferences about specific ecological relations between forest-
dwelling animals and plants, suggesting that folkecological models are linked to gendered expertise
(Atran & Medin 2008, p. 216). Likewise, within-group variation in folkecological knowledge can
be traced along intergenerational lines (Le Guen et al. 2013).
Intriguingly, coherent between-culture differences may not be accompanied by a correspond-
ing patterning of within-culture differences at the individual level (Na et al. 2010). That is, re-
lationships that distinguish between cultures at the group level (e.g., individualistic orientations
are linked to low-context reasoning and collectivistic orientations to high-context reasoning)
need not and do not similarly distinguish related differences among individuals within those cul-
tures (i.e., among Westerners, more individualistic people are not also lower-context thinkers).
This observation offers a perspective different from studies that link individuals’ cognitive measures
(e.g., contextual information produced in drawings) and their cultural styles (e.g., cultural tests
of context sensitivity) on the expectation that culture-level differences found between groups will
also predict individual differences within groups (Istomin et al. 2014). Further research is needed
to clarify the (sometimes counterintuitive) interrelations of cultural and cognitive orientations at
these different levels of analysis. So far, the general lesson from this growing body of research is
that culture and concepts involve multiple, correlated dimensions that vary with different forms
of subsets of larger groups (e.g., religion, residency, class), all of which can be expected to interact
in complex ways.
Culture and the Brain
Recent reviews have highlighted cultural influences on cognition across multiple levels of analysis,
from neuroscience and embodiment to higher-order cognition (Kitayama & Uskul 2011, Seligman
& Brown 2010). Some new approaches argue that culture may be embrained in neurological
pathways through repeated behavioral practices for a hard culture-mind interface that is not
always mediated by soft cognitive mechanisms (Chiao & Immordino-Yang 2013, Han et al. 2013,
Kitayama & Uskul 2011). In short, culture may wire the brain (Park & Huang 2010).
Neuroscience studies increasingly offer support for this view. For example, localized neural
activation associated with attention to contextual information is more pronounced for Chinese
than for American participants while making physical causal judgments, in line with holistic or Perspectives on Culture and Concepts 253
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analytic reasoning styles (Han et al. 2011). An emerging body of work is revealing a patterning of
differences in brain activation on various cognitive and perceptual tasks across culture and age (e.g.,
Park & Gutchess 2006, Reuter-Lorenz & Park 2010). More broadly, researchers propose that the
causal relations among brain, body, and culture are multidirectional, such that different patterns
of neural activation and psychophysiology may form the basis of, and be caused by, embodied
cultural practices (Seligman & Brown 2010).
Interdisciplinary Collaborations
Interdisciplinary teams are changing the kinds of questions asked and the data brought to bear
on cognitive questions. The present template for these collaborations was set by economists and
anthropologists interested in studying decision making involving economic games across cultures
(Henrich et al. 2005, House et al. 2013).
Interdisciplinary collaborations have made notable contributions to experimental philosophy,
causal cognition, and folkpsychology. Philosophers are using empirical studies to investigate philo-
sophical intuitions among ordinary folk, such as the distinction between the concepts of knowing
versus believing that is critical to epistemology, with the result that intuitive principles that were
previously presumed universal are now suspected to vary as a function of culture, socioeconomic
status, and gender (Buckwalter 2012, Buckwalter & Stich 2014, Weinberg et al. 2001). Related
work addresses folk concepts of intentionality and morality (Knobe & Burra 2006, Knobe et al.
2012, Sarkissian et al. 2010).
Another project has brought together anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, and philoso-
phers to study causal reasoning across cultures (Bender & Beller 2013). One significant result of
the collaboration has been heightened attention to social dimensions of causal reasoning (Bender
& Beller 2013, Stenning & Widlok 2013, Whitehouse 2011). For example, people may engage
in rituals to achieve an instrumental physical outcome (e.g., curing an illness), but they do so in
ways that reflect normative, social causal frameworks (e.g., establishing relationships with forces
of good) (Whitehouse 2011). Another example comes from hunting: The San of Namibia hunt
termites using methods based on social causation geared toward seducing the termites and taking
their perspective to predict where they will emerge; in such cases, physical causal reasoning seems
inadequate to describe people’s conceptual behavior (Stenning & Widlok 2013). Finally, another
major interdisciplinary project has studied morality, folkpsychology, and artifacts with a focus on
the cognitive and evolutionary foundations of culture (House et al. 2013, Laurence 2014).
Proponents of a more interdisciplinary cognitive science have argued for the benefits, even
the necessity, of bringing multiple perspectives to bear on cognitive questions (see special issue
in Bender & Beller 2011b). Many projects have adopted the strategy of running standard psycho-
logical tasks with samples around the world (e.g., Barrett et al. 2013, Henrich et al. 2005), but
interdisciplinary diversity can also be leveraged to challenge the research process itself. Given that
psychological research and theory tailored to Western samples tend to limit the framework of
cultural investigations to Western norms and problems (Medin et al. 2010), a critical advantage
of multidisciplinary and multicultural teams is their ability to formulate new (or revised) starting
points for theory and methods concerning concepts (Medin & Bang 2014). This challenge remains
a vital one, as the research reviewed below attests.
These advances in cultural comparisons contribute new perspectives to the science of culture and
concepts, many of which are highlighted in this review. With this nuanced view of culture in
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mind, the stage is set for considering conceptual behavior from multiple cultural perspectives. We
begin with the notion of concepts themselves, exploring their status as units of thought from a
cross-linguistic perspective.
A large body of research takes advantage of language differences by trying to trace their cognitive
consequences (or antecedents) (see edited collection in Malt & Wolff 2010). In the following
section, we highlight cross-linguistic research that analyzes how words can speak to the nature
of concepts. Introducing language in terms of cognitive consequences or antecedents implicitly
construes the relationship between the two as ordered, from cause to effect. These causal influences
have been hotly debated since Whorf [1956 (2012)] introduced the idea of linguistic relativity,
which holds that the language we speak determines the concepts we think. Today the debate
is often reframed as a system of mutual influence in which concepts and language reciprocally
interact (Fausey et al. 2010).
Word-Concept Mappings: Cross-Linguistic Perspectives
Relations between language and concepts traditionally have been explored through documentation
of semantic fields such as ethnobiological classification terms (Berlin 1992, Berlin et al. 1974)
or spatial lexemes. Such approaches assume that word-concept mappings are fairly direct, by
identifying single lexical items (e.g., the word “dog”) with concepts (the concept DOG)—an
idea still important in psychology (e.g., Carey, 2009), especially for object concepts (Waxman
& Gelman 2009). Recent linguistic studies offer a more complex view of word-concept relations
(Malt & Majid 2013, Malt & Wolff 2010, Malt et al. 2014, Sauter et al. 2011).
In a study of human locomotion terms, Malt et al. (2008) analyzed how speakers of four lan-
guages (English, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese) assigned words to various forms of human locomotion
(e.g., jumping, hopping) depicted in action videos. Of interest were not only individual word-action
mappings, but also the way that words from different languages might cluster around (potentially
shared) dimensions of movement. On the first point, languages did mark movements differently
at the level of single lexical items such as “jumping” versus “hopping” (note that such lexical
items might be identified as concepts under common psychological methods). On the second
point, however, multidimensional scaling showed that all four languages tracked similar discon-
tinuities in locomotion corresponding to biomechanical and speed/aggressiveness dimensions of
movement. Importantly, this shared conceptual space did not map precisely onto the words of any
single language. On the basis of these and other findings, Malt et al. (2014) proposed that concepts
do not represent stable sets of features but instead track dimensions of thought “experienced as a
coherent grouping” (p. 37).
One way that language influences categorization is through linguistic features such as clas-
sifiers used to mark kinds of things by shape, number, or other features. These classifiers may
influence preferred categorization strategies simply due to shared linguistic structure rather than
presumed conceptual structure. For example, German and Chinese children’s categorization and
induction strategies follow either taxonomic or thematic patterns depending on the linguistic clas-
sifiers for the task items (Imai et al. 2010). This finding undermines more sweeping claims about
culture-wide East-West differences in thematic versus taxonomic conceptual styles. As Imai et al.
(2010) observed, categorization behavior is only one index of conceptual structure that should be
contextualized in a global picture of cognition that includes multiple constraints on conceptual
behavior. Perspectives on Culture and Concepts 255
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In summary, studies on the interaction of words and concepts across cultures refine claims about
cultural cognitive styles based on any given task or set of (language-specific) words. Broadening the
range of concepts examined and highlighting the shifting nature of at least some types of categories
and concepts lend a nuanced view to the interaction of culture and conceptual strategies. Systematic
cross-linguistic studies are critical to understanding the range of variation in conceptual systems.
As Malt and colleagues (2013) caution, “It seems impossible to discern from only a single language
what the shared elements will be and which parts of the patterns are idiosyncratic to the language”
(p. 31).
Linguistic and Conceptual Diversity Across Cultures
Whereas locomotion terms differ lexically but converge on common conceptual dimensions, re-
searchers have argued that there are other domains in which languages reflect basic conceptual
divergence (Evans & Levinson 2009). Studies in this field are generally motivated by the question,
If languages have different words, do their speakers possess correspondingly different concepts?
There are at least two possibilities. Despite surface variation, all languages may share underlying
concepts. If concepts share universal structure, this could imply that languages will too—that is,
that humans will categorize and name the biological world in ways that track “beacons on the
landscape of biological reality” (Berlin 1992, p. 53). Another view holds that linguistic systems are
shaped by local communicative and social constraints (Evans & Levinson 2009) and that properties
of language are as variable as the diversity in human social systems.
Language may affect how people construct notions of agency (Fausey & Boroditsky 2011,
Fausey et al. 2010). Linguistically, there are different ways to mark agents involved in intentional
versus accidental events. English allows speakers to specify the agent who caused an accidental
event (“she broke the vase”), but Japanese and Spanish tend to omit the agent in such cases (“the
vase broke”). Recent evidence suggests that these linguistic differences affect eyewitness memory
for agents involved in accidental events. Compared with English speakers, Spanish and Japanese
speakers are less likely to remember the agents involved in accidental, but not intentional, events
(Fausey & Boroditsky 2011, Fausey et al. 2010).
Another set of investigations looks at how language influences sensory experience and associated
concepts (see special issue, introduced by Majid & Levinson 2011). This work refines universal-
ist claims about human sensation by showing how diverse languages facilitate differing modes
and degrees of sensory discrimination. For example, although it was long thought that humans
(represented by English speakers) are poor at discriminating odors, recent work undermines this
generalization (Majid & Burenhult 2014). Compared with English, the Jahai language has many
olfactory names, and its speakers are substantially better than English speakers at discriminating
unfamiliar odors.
Researchers have argued that language reflects variable concepts associated with other domains
such as time perception (N ´
nez & Sweetser 2006) and spatial reasoning (Haun et al. 2011) (but see
Li et al. 2011). Spatial reasoning represents one domain in which researchers have gone beyond
singular, lexicalized notions of concepts to focus on language as one component of a system that
also includes gesture, metaphor, ideology, and worldview. A growing body of findings demon-
strates that people’s preferred spatial frameworks (coordinate systems for referring to location and
direction) may reflect cultural factors rather than language per se. For example, Yucatec Maya
children gesture with absolute (cardinal) directions before they learn Maya spatial reference terms
(Le Guen 2011), so spatial frameworks are not exclusive products of language.
Other researchers propose that conceptual frameworks for space may conform to ideological
rather than linguistic constraints (N ´
nez & Cornejo 2012). This claim derives from an analysis of
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Domain specificity:
the view that concepts
are structured by
specialized cognitive
capacities tied to
particular content
domains or causal
the origins of a unique linguistic phenomenon among the Aymara of the Andes. When Aymara
speakers describe things in space, they use an absolute frame but encode it with intrinsic lexemes.
For example, “in back/front of” can and is used for “west/east of.” This intrinsic-for-absolute
encoding is cognitively robust, expressed in spontaneous cospeech gesture, Andean Spanish,
metaphors, and urban layouts. But critically, the Aymara language has words corresponding to
“east” and “west.” Why then do Aymara speakers use the intrinsic terms for “back” and “front”?
The authors point to the Aymara worldview, which perceives the entire community as part of
nature, a social system that is canonically oriented toward and faces the sunrise. Thus, Aymara do
not use absolute (east-west) terms to describe their spatial layout because doing so “would portray
an empty meaningless land, deprived of its constitutive humanity” (N ´
nez & Cornejo 2012, p. 24).
Recent investigations suggest that concepts are products of multiple cultural systems that include
linguistic, sensory, and ideological components, among others. Just as concepts interact with
language, language itself is situated within and responsive to cultural forces.
Significant bodies of work have explored how conceptual thought and development are organized
in terms of domain-specific theories and causal principles (Carey 2009, Sperber & Hirschfeld
2004, Wellman & Gelman 1992). In this view, concepts are structured and constrained by in-
tuitive causal-explanatory frameworks tied to the particular ontological domains of folkphysics,
folkbiology, and folkpsychology (Keil 1995, Wellman & Gelman 1992). The following section
reviews cultural research addressing concepts from the vantage point of these domains (including
work by proponents of both domain-specific and domain-general perspectives). Much of this work
reflects a developmental orientation (see Keil 2007).
Experience of the physical world seems relatively direct and unmediated (compared with the social
world), so it is not surprising that na¨
ıve physics or folkphysics (knowledge about physical objects
and events) traditionally has been assumed to be largely independent of cultural influence. This
view is being reexamined in light of research documenting both within-culture and cross-cultural
variations in conceptions of physical interaction.
The well-known studies of Morris & Peng (1994) focused on East-West differences in the
perception of social causality, where the lack of cultural differences in the perception of physical
causality acted more or less as a baseline or control condition. But just a few years later researchers
began to explore the hypothesis that East-West differences in causal attributions extend also to
nonsocial, physical events (Nisbett et al. 2001, Peng & Knowles 2003). On this account, East-
ern folk theories of physics should emphasize external, relational factors in causal determination
of physical events (in line with their collectivist orientation), and Western folk theories should
emphasize dispositional factors of the object (in line with their individualistic orientation).
As predicted, when asked to interpret ambiguous physical events such as a round object bobbing
on a surface, Chinese participants saw the event as attributable to the relation between object and
medium, whereas US participants attributed causality to the properties of the object itself. These
results suggested that folk theories of physics are open to cultural influence, including, as Peng &
Knowles (2003) found, cultural forms of knowledge acquired through physics education. Perspectives on Culture and Concepts 257
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Recent findings extend and complicate this view. In one series of studies involving similar judg-
ments about floating (Beller et al. 2009, Bender & Beller 2011a), German and Tongan informants
were asked about physical interactions with probes that varied contents, entities, and linguistic
construction. Replicating what would be expected on the individualistic-collectivistic paradigm,
Germans (a more individualistic society) tended to attribute prime causality to the floater object,
while Tongans (a more collectivistic society) attributed causality to the medium. Importantly,
however, these cultural patterns were modulated by task content and linguistic agency construc-
tion (Bender & Beller 2011a).
Furthermore, analysis of individual response distributions within a culture complicates the
generalizations that can be drawn about causal reasoning styles (Bender & Beller 2011a). Given
that each participant in the study above saw nine event scenarios, their overall attribution profile
could reflect either a balanced causal attribution pattern (equal number of assignments to objects
and carriers) or an asymmetric causal bias (strongly favoring either object or carrier). On average,
Tongans looked less biased toward causal asymmetry than Germans did. But the Tongan response
distribution was in fact bimodal, with most informants giving either a consistent carrier or object
attribution profile (and the majority preferring the former). Individual Germans, in contrast,
tended toward a less extreme but more consistent object-bias attribution pattern. Thus, Tongan
informants presented even stronger asymmetric causal bias in physical attributions than Germans
did, in direct contrast to what would be predicted for a collectivistic society that attends to relational
context. This finding underscores how individual response patterns within cultural groups are
critical to making sense of conceptual orientations.
Other research focuses on the complexity of causal beliefs in the physical domain (reviewed in
Spencer-Rodgers et al. 2010). This work finds that, across both physical and nonphysical domains,
East Asians tend to mobilize a larger set of causal antecedents and consequences for events than
Westerners do. This is known as the ripple effect (Maddux & Yuki 2006). When considering
a shot in a game of pool, for example, East Asian participants were more likely than Western
participants to say it would impact both immediate and distant future shots (e.g., the sixth shot),
reflecting a focus on indirect, distal consequences of events. These beliefs also influence causal
reasoning processes, as when East Asians consider a broader array of factors as relevant to causal
attribution than do Westerners (Choi et al. 2003, Koo & Choi 2005). Another aspect of causal
complexity concerns beliefs about change across time, with East Asian children and adults holding
expectations of cyclical change (linked to na¨
ıve dialecticism) and Westerners tending to expect
linear change ( Ji 2008, Ji et al. 2001).
To summarize, research on physical causal reasoning demonstrates that cross-cultural com-
parisons are necessary to test the generalizability of cognitive phenomena. For example, the causal
asymmetry bias has long been seen as a signature feature of human causal cognition (Michotte
1963, White 2006), much as the fundamental attribution error was once seen as a natural feature
of social reasoning (Morris et al. 1995). However, cultural research shows that the asymmetric
bias can be stronger or weaker, and even reverse directionality, depending upon one’s cultural folk
More broadly, research on folkphysics speaks to important questions about concepts and
culture. Cultural diversity may emerge in patterns of frequency rather than categorical differ-
ences: Individuals in all cultures may have access to multiple causal theories and appear to ac-
cess these modes selectively in response to contextual demands. Given that culture encompasses
many factors—including language, education, philosophical orientations, and social norms—that
potentially influence causal cognition in multiple directions, it is inadequate to treat culture as a
monolithic construct that determines “one coherent pattern” of causal cognition (Bender & Beller
2011a, p. 2).
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People’s understanding of life is encompassed by folkbiology. Biological thought may involve
multiple causal frameworks (vitalism, teleology, essentialism) for understanding life across multiple
scales, including adaptation (evolution), life cycles (birth, growth, death), and organism functioning
(illness, organs). Cultural research has been conducted on all these topics, but here we focus on
research addressing understandings of nature and folkbiological knowledge of nonhuman animals
and plants.
Central to folkbiology are the concepts of life and animacy, including how these concepts are
organized in relation to one another. Are humans animals? Are plants alive? For children, the
answer to both questions often is no. Reasoning about these conceptual questions varies across
development (Opfer & Gelman 2001, 2010) and across cultures, influenced by language, ex-
perience, and cultural beliefs about living kinds. With regard to language, Indonesian and US
children’s early reasoning about the living things category is influenced by their language’s nam-
ing practices that either include (English) or exclude (Indonesian) humans from the semantic
category of animal (Anggoro et al. 2010). These language differences also extend to parent-child
discourse about human-animal categories in naturalistic settings, even though parents in both
cultures rarely talk about humans as animals (Leddon et al. 2011). This shared habit of discourse
across two different languages, taken together with the finding that linguistic influences on chil-
dren’s categorization attenuate with age (Anggoro et al. 2010), suggests that biological reasoning
is influenced by factors other than language alone, including cultural orientations to the natural
world and experience (Tarlowski 2006, 2011).
Research on the concepts of alive and animate within the Wich´
ı community of Argentina
illuminates the multifaceted nature of these concepts (Taverna et al. 2012, 2014). For both
children and adults, the concept of living thing branches according to distinctive linguistic
construals and cultural beliefs. The primary construal for the word “alive” taps into the set
of animate things (i.e., excluding plants) believed to have vital spirits, and this pattern holds
even for Wich´
ı adults, thus diverging from Western adult populations. In contrast, the primary
construal for the word “die” taps into the set of all living things (i.e., including plants). One way
to interpret these findings is that Wich´
ı approach the concept of living thing through multiple
Complementing this work on individual concepts, other cultural investigations have begun to
explore the broader conceptual frameworks for organizing folkbiological knowledge (see Erickson
et al. 2010). Although broad similarities in folk taxonomic categories are now well documented
cross-culturally (Atran & Medin 2008, Berlin 1992), there is considerable cultural divergence
in how knowledge about these categories is organized (Levin & Unsworth 2013). Depending
on their culture and expertise, individuals tend to privilege either taxonomic similarities (e.g.,
European American individuals) or ecological relations (e.g., indigenous individuals) when
reasoning about biological phenomena (Medin et al. 2006). These differences between Native
American Menominee and European American rural communities have been replicated with
young (five- to seven-year-old) children (Unsworth et al. 2012). For example, when describing
relationships among natural kinds, children from both groups used habitat relations, but Menom-
inee children were reliably more likely to mention relations involving food chains (e.g., the stink
bug might eat the leaves of the berry bush) and biological needs (e.g., both need water, sunlight, or
Another critical theoretical question concerns the proposition that the initial organizing frame-
work for folkbiological concepts is human centered. One influential theory proposed a universal
conceptual trajectory whereby children first reason about folkbiology from an anthropocentric Perspectives on Culture and Concepts 259
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standpoint (Carey 1985). This notion is consistent with the claim that folkbiology is initially a
part of folkpsychology and only emerges as a distinct domain with development.
Support for Carey’s view came from studies showing that urban five-year-old children in the
United States tend to treat humans as the prototype for inductive reasoning about biological kinds.
That is, they were more likely to extend a novel property to other animals when it was attributed
to humans than when it was attributed to dogs. They also generalized from humans to dogs much
more than from dogs to humans.
Subsequent studies using Carey’s procedure with rural indigenous (Menominee) and European
American children showed no evidence of a human-centered biology (Waxman & Medin 2007).
One possibility is that a human-centered biology is a learned cultural model driven partly by
anthropomorphic images in children’s films and books. An alternative conjecture is that all children
go through a human-centered stage of development but that rural children just go through it
Resolution to this question came from a study showing that urban three-year-old children do
not yet adopt a human-centered perspective, but that four- and five-year-olds do (Herrmann et al.
2010). Thus, the anthropocentric pattern of reasoning is an acquired cultural perspective, one that
emerges between three and five years of age in US children raised in urban settings and one that
can be primed by media directed at children (Waxman et al. 2014).
In summary, even basic concepts such as alive can shift as thinkers adopt different perspectives
afforded by their language, cultural beliefs, media, or orientations to nature. It appears that the
most salient effects of culture on biological cognition are less in terms of individual concepts and
more in terms of framework theories that, for example, see humans as a part of or apart from
nature or foster a taxonomic versus an ecological conceptual organization.
Understanding others in terms of minds and mental states is known as folkpsychology. Folkpsycho-
logical concepts have assumed a central role in several interrelated research areas, including theory
of mind, mind perception, and morality (see reviews in Waytz et al. 2010, Wellman 2010). Follow-
ing an important review of culture and folkpsychology almost 20 years ago (Lillard 1998), there
has been steady empirical research and interdisciplinary conversation on these topics (Danziger
& Rumsey 2013, Luhrmann 2011). We begin with a synthesis of cultural patterns from the large
literature on standard theory-of-mind tasks and then consider how these mental-state concepts
are organized and situated in larger contexts of knowledge.
Theory of mind involves several interrelated concepts, including the understanding that people
can hold false beliefs about reality (false belief), that knowledge depends on perceptual access
(knowledge access), that people have different opinions and beliefs about the world (diverse desires
and beliefs), and that people sometimes hide their true emotions from others (hidden emotions)
(Wellman & Liu 2004). One particular task, the false-belief task, is widely considered the definitive
test of theory of mind (Wellman et al. 2001).1In most versions of the task, one character puts
an object in Container A and leaves the room, at which point the object is moved by a different
1Given that the cross-cultural research has focused on theory-of-mind development in early childhood, verbal measures are
the focus of this discussion. Other research shows that infants have expectations about an ignorant actor’s initial search location
in false-belief tests, as inferred from infants’ looking-time patterns (Onishi & Baillargeon 2005, Senju et al. 2011). How infant
capacities relate to later-developing theory of mind is debated; regardless, claims for universal cognitive capacities will also
need to consider the range of cultural diversity that appears beyond infancy, as reviewed here (even as assessed by looking-time
measures; see Barrett et al. 2013).
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actor to a new location, Container B. When the first character returns to the room, participants
are asked, “Where will she look for the object?” or “Where does she think/believe it is?” Young
children incorrectly say she will look in the true location (Container B); but by three to five years
of age most US children appreciate that she will look in Container A because she does not know
the object has been moved. In passing this task, children demonstrate appreciation of the critical
insight that mental states can diverge from reality and that they are linked to perception and
behavior (Flavell et al. 2002).
By now, many cross-cultural comparisons have been conducted using standard theory-of-
mind tasks (which were developed for use among Western research populations and therefore are
potentially tailored to these same populations). Most of these studies simply aim to test theory-of-
mind generalizability (where the more different the groups, the stronger the test), but a few assess
specific predictions about local theories of mind. The results reveal a somewhat mixed picture
whose interpretation varies across researchers (e.g., Wassmann et al. 2013).
On the one hand, children and adults in many cultures perform successfully on standard tasks, as
demonstrated by extensive survey studies comparing children across multiple large-scale societies
(e.g., Callaghan et al. 2005, Shahaeian et al. 2011, Wellman et al. 2001). On the other hand, some
studies among small-scale societies report that children pass false-belief tasks at ages slightly later
but roughly comparable to those observed among Western children, including communities of
Micronesia (Oberle 2009), Cameroonian Baka (Avis & Harris 1991), and Yucatec Maya (Knight
et al. 2004). These profiles of similarity are often taken as evidence that basic mental-state concepts
are universal and reflect an invariant foundational framework theory for later-developing cultural
folkpsychologies (Wellman et al. 2011).
Against this broad consensus, three major forms of cultural variability can be identified from
recent studies. The first can be characterized as quantitative, concerning age variation. In compar-
ative studies, children from non-Western or small-scale communities sometimes appear delayed
relative to otherwise consistent cross-cultural trends (e.g., Callaghan et al. 2005; Mayer & Tr¨
2013; Naito & Koyama 2006; Vinden 1999, 2002). For example, one study of children’s false-belief
performance among five cultural groups (Euro-Canadian, Indian, Peruvian, Samoan, and Thai)
reported a common false-belief milestone at roughly five years of age, with the exception that
Samoan children evidenced considerable delays (Callaghan et al. 2005). A recent follow-up study
with more than 300 Samoan children found that false-belief understanding did not reliably emerge
for the majority of children until 8 years of age, and even then, one third of 10- to 13-year-olds
still failed the task (Mayer & Tr¨
auble 2013). These are huge differences compared to the four- to
five-year landmark reported for children in Western societies.
Another framing of this trend is to say that Western children appear oddly advanced relative
to children the world over. Indeed, in studies comparing Mofu, Tolai, Tainae, and Western
children, Western children were the only ones at or near ceiling on all four theory-of-mind
test questions by age six. In other communities, comparable levels of success were not achieved
until anywhere from 7 to 15 years of age (Vinden 1999, 2002). Lacking broader investigation of
children’s folkpsychological understanding in these diverse societies, it is difficult to interpret such
age differences—seeing their development as delayed seems to adopt a deficit model that may well
be ethnocentric.
A second, more qualitative source of variability is seen in children’s developmental trajectory for
mastering specific tasks (e.g., Shahaeian et al. 2011; Wellman et al. 2006, 2011). For example, Chi-
nese and Iranian children understand concepts of knowledge access earlier than opinion diversity,
an order reversed for Australian and US children. These developmental differences are clearly not
delays but rather suggest distinct sociocultural influences on cognitive development. One hypoth-
esis is that the two sequences reflect collectivist versus individualist cultural orientations, which Perspectives on Culture and Concepts 261
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differentially emphasize the value of personal beliefs and knowledge acquisition (Shahaeian et al.
2011). Still, these researchers interpret their results as evidence that “cross-cultural variations exist
within broadly culturally consistent, if not universal, patterns” (Shahaeian et al. 2011, p. 1,245).
A third source of variability comes from categorical differences in theory-of-mind task perfor-
mance. Several research projects with youth in small-scale communities have failed to produce
expected results using standard theory-of-mind tasks. For example, one recent study reported stan-
dard outcomes for false-belief understanding from three small-scale societies, but results from a
fourth field site in Kenya were not included because these children (no ages reported) did not
show the expected preferential-looking patterns on false-belief tasks (Barrett et al. 2013). Simi-
larly, false-belief tasks could not be administered with children from a Jun´
ın Quechua community
of Peru, apparently due to different understandings of the task itself (Vinden 1996).
Explaining cultural variability in theory-of-mind performance is a challenge. Some researchers
point to methodological issues, including children’s unfamiliarity with task contents, experimental
settings, or shyness with adult researchers (e.g., Knight et al. 2004). Other investigators suggest
that children attend to, or perhaps interpret, the false-belief task differently. For example, with
regard to the failed administration of a false-belief task in Kenya, these children may have been
attending to “the social demands of the testing situation rather than to the task itself ” (Barrett
et al. 2013, supplementary materials S.6, p. 27). The current consensus appears to view all three
sources of variation as modest and methodological.
But a minority voice argues that observed cultural differences point to a more basic diversity in
conceptions of the mind and mental world. In Samoa, for instance, children’s delayed false-belief
understanding may reflect local conceptions about the “opacity of other minds” (Mayer & Tr¨
2013), associated with the practice common to Oceanic communities whereby people refrain from
explicit discussion of others’ mental states (Robbins & Rumsey 2008).
An important contribution to this literature comes from research programs that explore how
folkpsychological concepts are organized by conceptual frameworks and everyday practices. For
example, attention to internal mental states is prized in Western middle-class contexts, where talk
about mental states is found to enhance theory-of-mind development (Doan & Wang 2010). In
contrast, attention to social situations, external actions, and context are emphasized in Chinese
culture, and Chinese children advance in false-belief understanding through talk about others’
actions rather than mental states (Lu et al. 2008). These findings point to the potential signifi-
cance of variable mental-state language and discourse across cultures (Danziger & Rumsey 2013,
Goddard 2010).
Another approach to folkpsychological concepts analyzes how children’s concepts of minds and
mental states are learned via social testimony (Harris & Koenig 2006). For example, in Western
communities, children gradually learn from social testimony to construct a metaphor of the brain
as a container for thoughts, and to discriminate the brain’s role in psychological processes from
common metaphorical allusions to the heart, gut, and other peripheral body parts (Gottfried &
Jow 2003, Winer et al. 2009).
Comparable studies of social testimony about the mind in other cultures are rare, but ethno-
graphic reports suggest that they would be informative (Luhrmann 2011). Related research ex-
plores how mental-state concepts organize everyday practices and knowledge in adjacent domains,
including morality (especially concepts of intentionality) (Lee & Evans 2013, Sachdeva et al. 2011)
and emotional states (e.g., Lim et al. 2010). These approaches help situate specific mental-state
competencies (e.g., false belief) within larger conceptual frameworks. The next step might be to
develop theory and methods that can assess how folkpsychological concepts are organized dif-
ferently across cultures, and to explore what other competencies may be privileged indicators of
social-cognitive understanding among children in small-scale, non-Western societies.
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concepts and causal
principles that involve
mappings across
domains of folk
Discussions of universality and variability in domains of folkphysics, folkbiology, and folkpsychol-
ogy have highlighted diverse perspectives on concepts. One lesson from this research is that basic
concepts such as physical cause, living kind, or mind are construed in different ways depending
on perspectives afforded by context, language, knowledge, social testimony, and cultural orien-
tations. Diverse cultural folk theories may serve to selectively highlight distinct aspects of events
or things in the world while deemphasizing others, yet still be based on a common foundation
for discriminating those core phenomena (e.g., Peng & Knowles 2003, p. 1,283). For instance,
cultures may differ in their focus on either the internal mental aspect or the external relational
aspect of folkpsychology, but both cultural orientations afford “pathways for theory of mind de-
velopment” that support social-cognitive competency (Lu et al. 2008). One important implication
is that conceptual frameworks are intrinsically pluralistic, which brings us to the next topic of
Essential to domain specificity is the proposal that unique causal principles and explanatory theories
guide understanding of physical, biological, or psychological events. Yet a growing body of research
shows how physical, biological, and psychological knowledge interact at the levels of concepts,
explanatory frameworks, and novel folk theoretical perspectives.
Conceptual Domains at the Intersections
Researchers are now beginning to ask what happens at the intersections of domains, with many
inquiries organized around two motivating observations: (a) Everyday concepts often involve
cross-domain interactions, raising questions about conceptual integration across domains; and (b)
people readily reason about events in terms of multiple, different kinds of causes, pointing to the
potential fluidity of explanatory frameworks.
Cross-domain concepts: the case of psychophysical dualism. Cultural ideas associated with
concepts of mental-physical dualism have generated a great deal of interest (Bloom 2005, Cohen
2007, Cohen et al. 2011, Hodge 2008, Slingerland & Chudek 2011, Wellman & Johnson 2008).
The primary question concerns how people reason about the interactions of psychological events
with biological or physical events. For example, people may believe that biological events such
as heart attacks are linked to psychological causes, or that depression has both physical causes
and consequences. At first glance, such beliefs may seem to complicate the dualistic distinction
between mind and body.
Illness beliefs have been an informative site for investigating cross-domain mind-body concepts.
Many illnesses include psychophysical events (e.g., stomachaches) that involve both biological and
psychological factors. Given this cross-domain aspect, people might conceptualize such events in
at least two distinct ways. Some research offers evidence for an intuitive cognitive division between
psychological and biological causes (reviewed in Gelman & Noles 2011). For example, three- to
five-year-old children in the United States are less likely to construe cross-domain psychological
(versus within-domain biological) factors as causally related to events such as stomachaches (Schulz
et al. 2007), and similar patterns are reported for Japanese preschool children (Toyama 2010).
But the tendency to keep psychological and biological causes separate may vary with cultural
perspectives. For example, Lynch & Medin (2006) compared the causal models of energy healers
and mainstream nurses for depression and heart attacks. Both groups generate both physical Perspectives on Culture and Concepts 263
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and psychological factors as relevant but energy healers systematically integrated mental and
physical causes for a given disease, whereas mainstream nurses systematically dissociated them
(kept them on separate causal paths). Using similar methods to explore illness models among
Mexican immigrants to the United States, other researchers have found that social, physical, and
psychological causes play an important role in illness explanations, and that immigrants’ models
diverge from those of US laypersons and medical providers (Maupin & Ross 2012, Maupin et al.
2011, Mendenhall et al. 2010, Weller et al. 2012). These differences suggest that culture may
influence the intuitive boundedness of the psychological domain and its relationship with the
biological domain (see also Ahn et al. 2009, Nguyen & Rosengren 2004, Zhu et al. 2009).
Some observers argue that concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally variable across
cultural groups and that mental-physical dualism represents a particular historical tradition rather
than a universal feature of thought (Hodge 2008, Scheper-Hughes & Lock 1987). Others claim
that diverse cultural beliefs about mind and body nonetheless exhibit shared conceptual dualism
(Astuti 2001), as when people from different cultures treat similar sets of psychological (e.g.,
knowing) but not physiological (e.g., hunger) processes as dissociable from the body (Cohen et al.
2011). This field is one to watch as interdisciplinary approaches are increasingly brought to bear
on mind-body concepts (e.g., Slingerland & Chudek 2011).
Multiple causation: coexisting explanatory frameworks. Another area of inquiry focuses on
coexisting explanatory frameworks that integrate natural and supernatural domains (Legare et al.
2012).2These studies investigate attributions of multiple causation, whereby a single event (e.g.,
the collapse of a granary) is attributed to several causes that derive from different intuitive frame-
works (e.g., both termites and witchcraft) (Evans-Pritchard 1937). Several lines of research address
developmental and cultural influences on explanatory models for illness, death, and the origin of
natural kinds (Casler & Kelemen 2008, Legare et al. 2012, Rosengren & Guti´
errez 2011, Rosen-
gren et al. 2000).
Consider the case study of causal-explanatory reasoning about AIDS in South Africa (Legare &
Gelman 2008), where cultural beliefs about the causal origins of AIDS draw upon factors related
to witchcraft as well as biology. Given that people have access to multiple, discrete explanatory
frameworks for reasoning about the causes of AIDS, how do they accommodate these diverse
causal concepts? Both children and adults use coexisting explanatory frameworks—that is, they
draw on both natural (i.e., biological) and supernatural causes to explain a single event (e.g., why
a person might contract AIDS), often at different levels of causal analysis. The structure of these
coexistence models varies across individuals: Different frameworks can be more or less integrated
in individuals’ explanations. For example, natural and supernatural frameworks may be integrated
(“A witch can put you in the way of viruses and germs”) or remain as distinct, alternative views of
the world (“Witchcraft can cause a disease that looks like AIDS”) (Legare et al. 2012, p. 783).
In addition, cultural epistemologies are linked to the perceived relevance of different explana-
tory frameworks across groups. In the United States, for example, fundamentalist Christians are
more likely than other Americans to appeal to supernatural causes to explain the origin of species
(Evans 2001). This raises questions about why and how people come to consider certain causal-
explanatory frameworks relevant. New research has begun to investigate the kinds of events that
attract spontaneous explanation across development and cultures (Legare & Gelman 2014; see
also Subbotsky 2010, Subbotsky & Quinteros 2002, Woolley 2000).
2Here, natural concepts are defined as ideas that fall under natural conceptual domains (e.g., folkbiology) or that involve “(in
principle) observable and empirically verifiable phenomena” (e.g., germs), and supernatural beliefs involve “kinds that are
supernatural” (witchcraft, religion) from an “intuitive, psychological perspective” (Legare et al. 2012, pp. 780–81).
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understanding of other
agents in terms of their
social qualities, group
membership, and
social relations
Summary and implications: conceptual domains at the intersections. In sum, a growing body
of research shows that explanatory preferences can vary within individuals, depending on the rea-
soning context, and across cultural communities, with perceived relevance of causes closely linked
to cultural epistemologies. The coexistence of causal-explanatory frameworks offers intriguing in-
sights into everyday cognition while offering substantive questions for future work. Understanding
how dualistic or supernatural conceptual modes are leveraged in everyday thinking can shed light
on the more general phenomenon of causal-explanatory pluralism (e.g., Lombrozo 2010) while
sharpening analysis of the psychological distinctiveness of causal frameworks tied to conceptual
Research on coexisting explanatory frameworks heightens attention to na¨
ıve reasoning about
multiple levels of explanation and extended causal chains, resonating with a growing body of re-
search on complex systems thinking (Hmelo-Silver & Azevedo 2006). This interdisciplinary field
focuses on how people understand dynamic systems such as ecological or social systems (e.g., Chi
et al. 2012, Olson 2013, White 2008). Consider an ecosystem, for example, where causation in-
cludes nonlinear processes, feedback loops, and different levels and time frames for causal thinking
(Medin et al. 2013). Thinking in levels is particularly important to complex systems thinking and
involves viewing a phenomenon from different perspectives pitched at different levels of interaction
(e.g., individual behavior and population-level dynamics) (Wilensky & Resnick 1999). This raises
the interesting question whether coexisting explanatory frameworks, even if inspired by a single
event, are actually explaining the same thing or instead are asking different questions about different
levels. More generally, investigating causal cognition from the perspective of complex systems may
afford new insights into conceptual behavior. Given that humans are surrounded by complex sys-
tems (ecologies, societies, consciousness), this is an area of study that deserves more investigation.
New Perspectives on Domains
Domain-specificity theory has served as a productive lens for viewing cognition, but we are be-
ginning to see signs that the very demarcations of these domains may be culturally infused. We
consider folkecology and folksociology as alternative frames.
One potential cultural influence could lie in the focus on folkbiology over folkecology. Above,
we reviewed evidence suggesting that for indigenous individuals ecological relations are a more
salient organizing framework than taxonomic relations (Bang et al. 2007). This raises the possibility
that many concepts traditionally subsumed under folkbiology could also be deeply ecological in
nature, that is, focused on the interactions of beings, organisms, weather, and other forces (Medin
et al. 2013).
When researchers do address folkecological concepts, they often bring their own perspectives
to bear on defining the domain. Consider, for example, Atran & Medin’s (2008) work on culture
and folkbiology, focused on people’s understanding of plants and animals. This research included
studies of ecological knowledge involving plants and animals (including humans). Note, however,
that if the initial research framing had been in terms of ecosystems, the researchers likely would
have included natural inanimates such as rocks, soil, water, the sun, and the moon in their probes.
They did not. The umbrella category, folkbiology, may have led them to focus on living kinds
(and living kinds from a Western ontological perspective).
Another potential reorientation for domain-specificity theory comes in the form of folksociol-
ogy or core social cognition (Hirschfeld 2013, Spelke et al. 2013). The proposal for folksociology
as a coherent domain is based on the idea that attending to social relations, social roles, and social
interactions is a natural and useful way to interpret other people’s behavior (Hirschfeld 2006,
2013). The prelinguistic foundations of social cognition may be widely shared across cultures, as Perspectives on Culture and Concepts 265
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seen for infant pointing with caregivers in the context of joint interaction (Liszkowski et al. 2012).
Supportive evidence for the importance of folksociology can be found in the burgeoning litera-
ture focused on social knowledge and associated concepts of social relations (Banaji & Gelman
Part of the argument for folksociology as a conceptual domain stems from the idea that re-
lational reasoning may play a greater role in everyday social cognition than folkpsychological
reasoning about mental states (Hirschfeld 2013). This idea is consistent with research from many
non-Western communities reporting that folk theories cultivate a focus on relationships and be-
havior rather than explicit attribution of mental states to others (Danziger 2006, 2010; Danziger
& Rumsey 2013; Duranti 2008; Lillard 1998; Luhrmann 2011; Naito & Koyama 2006; Robbins
& Rumsey 2008). Compared with Westerners, people in many cultural communities are more
likely to take a nonmentalistic approach to the interpretation of people’s behavior (Danziger 2006,
2010). For example, Mopan Maya treat the speaker’s intentions as irrelevant to the question of
lying: Any false utterance is considered a lie even if the speaker believed it to be true and the
listener knew that (Danziger 2010). Such evidence implies that Western folkpsychology may be
just one model among many in its emphasis on internal mental states.
From the perspective of a folk theory focused on interactions, interpretations of agency may be
grounded in concepts of relational behaviors. Consequently, such theories may include a greater
diversity of nonhuman agents (e.g., animals, plants) under the umbrella of intentional agency than
does standard folkpsychology. This possibility would be consistent with evidence suggesting that
cultural perspectives facilitate distinct modes of thinking about nonhuman animals’ mental states
and perspectives (Knight 2008, Knight et al. 2004, Unsworth et al. 2012). This line of thought
brings us back to the question of folkecology and the extent to which people may view interactions
among nonhumans as social-relational (Ojalehto et al. 2013).
In sum, by taking a broader view on concepts of the social and natural worlds, researchers are
reevaluating the status of fundamental framework theories such as folkpsychology and folkbiol-
ogy. Whether these particular domains represent culture-specific concerns remains to be seen. On
one view, for example, folksociology could complement folkpsychology as a universal framework
theory. Alternatively, the folkpsychological framework may reflect particularly Western attitudes,
and what has been labeled as folkpsychology in other cultures may actually be more akin to folkso-
ciology or even folkcommunication. Future research addressing these possibilities will contribute
to our understanding of cultural influences on the organization of conceptual knowledge.
The rich contributions of cultural research to our understanding of conceptual behavior are on
display in almost every area of human cognition, ranging from spatial reasoning and sensory
perception to biological thought and social cognition. It is a testament to the significance of this
work that it has generated as many questions for future research as it has insights (see Future
Issues, below). We conclude with reflections on how these questions might be approached in the
wider context of diverse perspectives in cognitive science.
One recurring theme is the idea that people have multiple perspectives on concepts themselves.
Cultural influences on cognition are often best characterized less in terms of individual concepts
and more in terms of broader cultural framework theories. For example, both folkbiology and
folkpsychology may be contextualized within cultural frameworks that see humans as a part of or
apart from nature or view nonhumans as a part of or apart from the (social) realm of relationships
(Medin & Bang 2014).
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If cultural differences involve habitual ways of organizing concepts rather than stable, localized
differences in a cultural concept of x, then this encourages moving beyond research paradigms
designed to answer unambiguously whether a concept is universal or variable. The question may
not be, Which conceptual framework does a culture have? but rather, Which cultural contexts does
a conceptual framework have? The latter question orients away from essentialist treatments of
culture as an independent variable and moves toward viewing cultures and concepts as interacting
elements of niche construction. Just as organisms and environments select and shape one another
over time, so might minds and cultures evolve in constant interaction. On this perspective, the
separation between concepts and culture is itself suspect: Within the complex system of minds in
community, there are no easy distinctions to be made between concepts and the cultural systems
that organize and are organized by them.
The domain-specificity research framework has played a key role in catalyzing our under-
standing of conceptual development. Recent research has turned to the question of how people
conceptualize interactions among these systems, and researchers have begun to question whether
progress can be made without a folkecology (interactions between organisms, habitats, and climate
systems), a folkdynamics (e.g., weather, wave, or water systems), and a folksociology (relational
interactions between persons, human or nonhuman). Traditional cognitive domains may be more
conventional than natural. If conventionalized epistemologies play a role in cognitive scientists’
paradigms, then it is important to consider how notions about domains affect both what research
is done and how it is conducted.
Culturally diverse research teams may have a critical advantage in asking questions and de-
signing methods to get at the possibility of culturally variable conceptual frameworks. Indeed, we
speculate that if indigenous researchers had been telling the story of cognition, they would have
proposed different conceptual domains (or a different approach to conceptual organization itself )
from those privileged on current accounts. Similarly, if Eastern researchers not trained in the West
had told the story about East-West differences, it might be more about context and relationships
and less about generalized cultural differences along some dimension (e.g., individualism versus
Finally, it is only a small step to realize that scientific practices are (cultural) practices, leading
us to our concluding comment relating the researchers to those being researched: If the researched
have distinctive practices, then surely the researchers also do. Consequently, to the extent that our
science incorporates multiple cultural perspectives, it will be the better for it (Medin & Bang 2014).
1. A key priority continues to be increasing the diversity of study populations. Research
going beyond “standard samples” (i.e., college students or Internet users in Western
industrial countries) will contribute to a more inclusive and representative science of
human conceptual behavior.
2. How can the investigation of multiple forms of within-group versus between-group
variation in cognitive processes inform deeper understanding of concepts and cultures?
3. An important domain of interest concerns how people conceptualize complex systems
(systems involving feedback processes, multiple levels of analysis, and emergent phenom-
ena, such as ecosystems and societies). Pursuing this question will afford new insights into
causal-explanatory cognition that go beyond linear cause-effect relations. Perspectives on Culture and Concepts 267
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4. In light of the evidence that the traditional domains of folkphysics, folkbiology, and
folkpsychology exhibit shifting boundaries and extensive cross-domain interactions
across cultures, what is the way forward in domain-specificity theory?
5. How are epistemological orientations and worldviews acquired by children, and how are
alternative orientations coordinated in multicultural contexts?
The authors are not aware of any affiliations, memberships, funding, or financial holdings that
might be perceived as affecting the objectivity of this review.
We are grateful for funding support from the National Science Foundation under grants SES
0962185, DRL 1109210, and DRL 1114530; a Graduate Research Fellowship; AFOSR grant
FA9550-14-1-0030; and the Cognitive Science Program at Northwestern University. We thank
Cristine Legare, Andrea Bender, Susan Fiske, Rumen Iliev, and Norbert Ross for insightful com-
ments that greatly benefitted the current manuscript. We also thank Jennifer Woodring for ex-
tensive editorial and research assistance throughout the writing of this manuscript.
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Consolidating Memories
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Emotion and Decision Making
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... Examining whether children incorporate this kind of understanding of prayer into their beliefs about what kinds of prayers are most likely to work can reveal how children reason about a behavior that does not fit into their intuitive understanding of what is physically and psychologically possible (i.e., their intuitive explanatory frameworks). Research suggests that intuitive theories, such as folk physics, folk psychology, and folk biology, develop as a result of both biological maturation and experience in the world (e.g., Gelman and Legare 2011), but that same research often overlooks the impact that social and cultural input has on the development of these frameworks (Ojalehto and Medin 2015). Given that religion is learned though social and cultural means, the examination of prayer can provide insight into the development of children's intuitive explanatory frameworks. ...
... These explanatory causal frameworks are typically described in terms of children's developing understanding of physical, psychological, and biological processes (Wellman and Gelman 1992). The concept of intuitive physics refers to children's everyday understanding of the relationship between physical/tangible objects and events, intuitive biology refers to their everyday understanding of life and life cycle processes, and intuitive psychology refers to their everyday understanding of the mental states (e.g., thoughts, beliefs, and desires) of agents and how these mental states correspond to behavior (Ojalehto and Medin 2015). ...
... Importantly, cognitive skill development and religious concept development are influenced by sociocultural input (Richert and Smith 2010). Sociocultural practices and beliefs shape the trajectory of cognitive development; in other words, culture and cognition are fundamentally intertwined (Gauvain and Perez 2015); and a growing body of research demonstrates the ways in which the development of causal-explanatory frameworks are shaped by the cultural context within which a child is embedded (Ojalehto and Medin 2015). ...
Full-text available
By the end of early childhood, children indicate that prayer is more effective than wishes or magic to prevent an unwanted, negative outcome from occurring. However, research has not yet delineated whether children would ask God to resolve a problem by changing the internal state of the person facing the problem (e.g., changing someone’s desires or emotions) or changing the external state of the world (e.g., physical or biological change). The current study examined if children request God to act through psychological or physical mechanisms. The participants were 122 4-to-8-year-old children (M = 6.160, SD = 0.918; 63.0% female) who returned to be interviewed for the third wave of a six-wave longitudinal study. The sample was racially–ethnically and religiously diverse. Children heard stories about characters facing two different problems. The results revealed that the children demonstrated a preference for petitioning for physical solutions, rather than biological, psychological, or emotion regulation solutions. The preferences did not vary by religious affiliation, religious exposure, or age. However, children with a more sophisticated social cognition ranked petitioning for physical changes higher. These findings suggest that children’s understanding of prayer (in this case, the most efficient ways for God to answer prayers) involves their coordination of developing folk theories about the world.
... A self-concept in which one identifies the self as one among many animals -as opposed to a hierarchical concept with the self above all -is understood to be a sophisticated developmental ability that children do not grasp until around seven years of age (Carey, 1999). Interestingly, research with Native American societies living in the US has found that children's self-understanding in relation to other animals develops significantly earlier than age seven (around five years of age), and this research indicates that the difference is due to their cultural experience (Ross et al, 2003;Ojalehto and Medin, 2015). Understanding the self as 'one among many' and not as a hierarchical concept can lead to behaviour that reflects more grouporiented thinking and to cooperation. ...
Humans cooperate with one another to a degree that is unmatched in any other species on the planet. However, there is enormous variability in cooperative thinking and behaviour within and between cultures. Here, we identify the features of the early social environment that we know to be predictors of positive elements of cooperation and create a roadmap for parents, educators and policymakers to guide them through the process of encouraging cooperation in development. We identify four basic psychosocial skills that support cooperation: (1) perspective taking; (2) expanding the concept of self to include others; (3) ensuring a secure attachment through shared positive emotions; and (4) internalising the norms of society (thereby decreasing reliance on externally motivated behaviour). We take a policy-oriented approach with a focus on the practical implications of the research presented throughout the article.
... The sociohistorical model also moves beyond existing theories in its predictions of the mechanisms through which people distill cultural information when learning and forming social prototypes. Specifically, we propose that people construct prototypes based on the statistical regularities they encounter in their daily lives (for example, the distribution of people across identities in various social roles), and how they interpret these regularities based on their existing causal beliefs and worldviews 54,65,66 . For example, consider a Black child growing up in a majority Black environment in the USA, who consumes whitecentred cultural products (mainstream television shows, movies or children's books). ...
... An alternative view is that "teleological" thinking reflects useful perspectives about the natural world, not despite, but because they invoke the relational "systems thinking" commonly seen among indigenous knowledge systems (ojalehto & Medin, 2015). In a complex ecological system, many individual entities (e.g., natural objects and processes) are engaged in many different types of relational processes. ...
Full-text available
Many cognitive and evolutionary theories of religion argue that supernatural explanations are byproducts of our cognitive adaptations. An influential argument states that our supernatural explanations result from a tendency to generate anthropomorphic explanations, and that this tendency is a byproduct of an error management strategy because agents tend to be associated with especially high fitness costs. We propose instead that anthropomorphic and other supernatural explanations result as features of a broader toolkit of well-designed cognitive adaptations, which are designed for explaining the abstract and causal structure of complex, unobservable, and uncertain phenomena that have substantial impacts on fitness. Specifically, we argue that (1) mental representations about the abstract vs. the supernatural are largely overlapping, if not identical, and (2) when the data-generating processes for scarce and ambiguous observations are complex and opaque, a naive observer can improve a bias-variance trade-off by starting with a simple, underspecified explanation that Western observers readily interpret as “supernatural.” We then argue that (3) in many cases, knowledge specialists across cultures offer pragmatic services that involve apparently supernatural explanations, and their clients are frequently willing to pay them in a market for useful and effective services. We propose that at least some ethnographic descriptions of religion might actually reflect ordinary and adaptive responses to novel problems such as illnesses and natural disasters, where knowledge specialists possess and apply the best available explanations about phenomena that would otherwise be completely mysterious and unpredictable.
... On closing, we want to highlight that our p(a) measure is consistent with views that see an intimate link between cognition and culture (Atran, 2003;Berntsen & Rubin, 2004;DiMaggio, 1997;Lehman et al., 2004;McCauley et al., 2022;ojalehto & Medin, 2015;Patterson, 2014;Roberson et al., 2000;Talmy, 2000;Waxman et al., 2007), where cognition is thought to reflect objective cultural practices in the subjective domain (Kashima, 2016;Nisbett et al., 2001;Nisbett & Masuda, 2003;Nisbett & Miyamoto, 2005;Romney & Moore, 1998). Thus, we believe that p(a) has a wide range of application and will be pleased if it does indeed live up to this standard. ...
Agreement probability p(a) is a homogeneity measure of lists of properties produced by participants in a Property Listing Task (PLT) for a concept. Agreement probability’s mathematical properties allow a rich analysis of property-based descriptions. To illustrate, we use p(a) to delve into the differences between concrete and abstract concepts in sighted and blind populations. Results show that concrete concepts are more homogeneous within sighted and blind groups than abstract ones (i.e., exhibit a higher p(a) than abstract ones) and that concrete concepts in the blind group are less homogeneous than in the sighted sample. This supports the idea that listed properties for concrete concepts should be more similar across subjects due to the influence of visual/perceptual information on the learning process. In contrast, abstract concepts are learned based mainly on social and linguistic information, which exhibit more variability among people, thus, making the listed properties more dissimilar across subjects. Relative to abstract concepts, the difference in p(a) between sighted and blind is not statistically significant. Though this is a null result, and should be considered with care, it is expected because abstract concepts should be learned by paying attention to the same social and linguistic input in both, blind and sighted, and thus, there is no reason to expect that the respective lists of properties should differ. Finally, we used p(a) to classify concrete and abstract concepts with a good level of certainty. All these analyses suggest that p(a) can be fruitfully used to study data obtained in a PLT.
... Groysberg et al. (2018) defined culture as the similarity of values, customs, and institutions that distinguishes human communities. There are several definitions of culture available (Ojalehto & Medin, 2015). According to , culture is the communal programming of the mind that differentiates one group from another. ...
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the globe, cross-cultural studies are at the forefront of individuals’ minds. Following this line, we conducted a cross-cultural examination between Chinese and Pakistani management employees’ attitude toward job embeddedness. Survey data were collected using the English and Chinese versions of seven items exhibiting attitudes towards the employees’ job embeddedness scale in the COVID-19 pandemic setting. As, the two groups are diverse on geographic, cultural, religious and economic scopes; it was not surprising to see that in this COVID-19 pandemic, these future managers differed on a number of opinions regarding job embeddedness. On the other hand, some similarities were also noted. The current research proposes a novel approach to probe cross-cultural comparison on job embeddedness in COVID-19 background. Considering the previous research on job embeddedness, there is scant attention given to Pakistan and China. This research will not only help to enhance understanding of job embeddedness knowledge but also help to boost the continued development of worldwide business opportunities in the COVID-19 pandemic. The implications of curated findings and future directions are also discussed.
Composé d’articles qui interpellent, ce numéro thématique offre de nouvelles perspectives précieuses sur le développement des théories naïves durant l’enfance. Je commenterai brièvement la raison pour laquelle les théories naïves sont si importantes et discuterai trois éléments clés qui émergent de cette collection stimulante d’articles. Je terminerai en indiquant les directions futures qu’ils inspirent.
This review outlines the development of religious cognition, with a particular focus on the cultural processes involved in the transmission of religious concepts and beliefs. The mechanisms of development of religious concepts and beliefs are made salient by the fact that these concepts are ( a) unavailable for direct observation or experimentation by the child and ( b) involve deeply held personal and collective commitments on the part of adult members of distinct cultural groups defined by specific beliefs and practices. As such, this review highlights how the study of religious cognition provides a critical lens for developmental science and makes clear the mutually constituted relationship between cognition and culture. The review covers development in three key domains of religious cognition: religious agents, the nature of existence, and religious identity. We additionally describe research into religious socialization and conclude with suggestions for future research. Expected final online publication date for the Annual Review of Developmental Psychology, Volume 4 is December 2022. Please see for revised estimates.
The Cartesian-Split-Mechanistic framework has worked as the standard Epistemic Paradigm within developmental science. However, two pervasive limitations have been pointed out: (a) the predominant focus on the individual child split from their context/culture, and (b) the over-representation of only one cultural group: Anglo-speaking children of middle-class European–American descendants. This chapter formulates a bidirectionally epistemological–methodological strategy to address these gaps: under the umbrella of the relational paradigm on the one hand and from population evidence—indigenous evidence—which often happen to exhibit epistemological orientations aligned with the foundations of relational thinking, on the other. To accomplish this, first we present cognitive and language development patterns from the Wichi, an indigenous group living in the Chaco region in South America. Second, and based on this evidence, we describe the ecological–relational paradigm, which brings relationshipism front and center. By focusing on developmental evidence coming from non-dominant populations, such as the indigenous Wichi, we expect to contribute to enlarging the agenda of the ecological–relational paradigm as a comprehensive conceptual framework in developmental science.KeywordsRelational–ecological paradigmConceptsLanguageDevelopmentWichi population
Cognitive development is the process by which human beings acquire, organize, and learn to use knowledge. The article concentrates on the period of childhood when cognition undergoes substantial change. It describes two aspects of cognitive development: “what develops” or the content of knowledge, and “how knowledge develops” or processes that contribute to cognitive change. Description of “what develops” focuses on concepts, the mental groupings used to organize knowledge. The section on “how knowledge develops” describes the development of memory, problem solving, reasoning, and executive function.
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To what extent is the way people perceive, represent, and reason about causal relationships dependent on culture? While there have been sporadic attempts to explore this question, a systematic investigation is still lacking. Here, we propose that human causal cognition is not only superficially affected by cultural background, but that it is co-constituted by the cultural nature of the human species. To this end, we take stock of on-going research, with a particular focus on the methodological approaches taken: cross-species comparisons, archeological accounts, developmental studies, cross-cultural, and cross-linguistic experiments, as well as in-depth within-culture analyses of cognitive concepts, processes, and changes over time. We argue that only a combination of these approaches will allow us to integrate different components of cognition, levels of analysis, and points of view—the key requirements for a comprehensive, interdisciplinary research program to advance this field.
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This volume, first published in 2000, is about the development of human thinking that stretches beyond the ordinary boundaries of reality. Various research initiatives emerged in the decade prior to publication exploring such matters as children's thinking about imaginary beings, magic and the supernatural. The purpose of this book is to capture something of the larger spirit of these efforts. In many ways, this new work offers a counterpoint to research on the development of children's domain-specific knowledge about the ordinary nature of things that has suggested that children become increasingly scientific and rational over the course of development. In acquiring an intuitive understanding of the physical, biological or psychological domains, even young children recognize that there are constraints on what can happen. However, once such constraints are acknowledged, children are in a position to think about the violation of those very same constraints - to contemplate the impossible.
East Asians and Westerners perceive the world and think about it in very different ways. Westerners are inclined to attend to some focal object, analyzing its attributes and categorizing it in an effort to find out what rules govern its behavior. Rules used include formal logic. Causal attributions tend to focus exclusively on the object and are therefore often mistaken. East Asians are more likely to attend to a broad perceptual and conceptual field, noticing relationships and changes and grouping objects based on family resemblance rather than category membership. Causal attributions emphasize the context. Social factors are likely to be important in directing attention. East Asians live in complex social networks with prescribed role relations. Attention to context is important to effective functioning. More independent Westerners live in less constraining social worlds and have the luxury of attending to the object and their goals with respect to it. The physical ‘‘ affordances’’ of the environment may also influence perception. The built environments of the East are more complex and contain more objects than do those of the West. In addition, artistic products of the East emphasize the field and deemphasize individual objects, including people. Western art renders less of the field and emphasizes individual objects and people.