Culture can shape how we learn, according to a study by Japanese and English researchers, published online on May 4, 2012, in the journal Cognition [1].

Picture of forest and trees.

Do people with different cultural backgrounds think differently? The idea that they do, known as cultural relativity, was taboo for decades. According to some scholars, even raising the question whether different groups of people think differently was racist. Others argued that cultural relativity was theoretically wrongheaded—of course the basic workings of the human mind are universal, right?

Scientists who dared to wonder how culture shapes thought faced another challenge: How do you define “culture” and “thought”? How can these abstract notions be quantified and compared?

At the turn of the 21st century, psychologist Richard Nisbett and colleagues constructed a new framework for studying cognition across cultures, summarized in his 2003 book The Geography of Thought. Whereas Westerners (Europeans and Americans) tend to think “analytically,” Easterners (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans) think more “holistically.”

According to Nisbett, habits of thinking in Westerners and Easterners can be traced back to the way people conceptualized themselves, their society, and the natural world in ancient Greece and ancient China [2].

The ancient Greeks valued public debate, and individuals who achieved victory in verbal combat were revered. The Greeks believed that they could discern truth by applying the rules of logic, and they could understand the world by carving nature at its joints.

The ancient Chinese, by contrast, valued harmony. People earned respect by acting respectfully toward their family, community, and country. Conspicuous achievement by individuals was not prized, it was discouraged — a value reflected in modern Chinese proverbs like, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Formal logic played little role in reasoning. Nature was not analyzed into categories. Rather, the natural world was viewed as constantly in flux, with no clear separation between the past and the present, the living and the dead, or the animate and the inanimate — no clear distinction between “self” and “other.”

Nisbett and colleagues wanted to find out whether these cultural differences — valuing independence or interdependence, focusing on distinctions or continuities — corresponded to fundamental differences in Easterners’ and Westerners’ perception and cognition.

Early tests seemed too poetic to convince many scientists. For instance, when asked to describe an underwater scene, American participants were likely to start off by mentioning the most prominent fish (there’s a big fish…) By contrast, Japanese participants began by describing the surroundings (there’s a pond…), and they were 100 percent more likely than the Americans to mention relationships between the fish and things in their environment (e.g., the big fish swam past the seaweed) [3].

According to skeptics, however, these results could merely show that Americans and Japanese people describe things differently, not that they perceive them differently.

Further studies challenge this skeptical position [4]. Japanese and Americans were shown a box with a vertical line inside of it. They were then shown a second box of a different size, and asked to draw a vertical line inside it that matched the one in the first box. Half of the time, participants were told to make the line “the same” as the original, meaning the same absolute length (Absolute condition). The other half of the time, they were told to draw a line that was the “same” length as the first in proportion to the surrounding box (Relative condition).

Results showed that Americans were more accurate in the Absolute task, which required focusing on an individual object and ignoring its surroundings, but Japanese participants performed better on the Relative task, which required perceiving and remembering an object in its context.

In a new study [1], Sachiko Kiyokawa and colleagues tested whether Japanese and English participants have different habits of unconscious learning. Participants were exposed to an artificial grammar — a sequence of letters, which unbeknownst to the subjects, were arranged in repeating patterns, similar to the grammatical patterns found in natural languages. But these letters were special. They were constructed to convey “glocal” information (i.e., both global and local). Big letters were made out of little letters (e.g., a big “N” made up of much smaller “B’s”, see Fig. 1). When you focus on the global wholes, you see the big letters, and when you focus locally on the individual parts, you see the little letters.

Figure 1. Large letters made of smaller letters.

"Glocal" stimuli from Kiyokawa et al., 2012, Cognition.

The big letters were arranged in sequences, and the little letters in different sequences. Results showed that Japanese participants unconsciously learned the global patterns (in the big letters), whereas UK participants learned both the global and local patterns. This result was confirmed when the sequences were made up of big and little Japanese Kana rather than Roman letters, suggesting that the cross-cultural differences could not be explained by participants’ familiarity with one alphabet or another.

Importantly, when Kiyokawa and colleagues instructed participants to attend to sequences at either the global or local level, the cross-cultural difference disappeared. This result shows that Japanese participants were not less capable of learning local sequences. In fact, when instructed to focus on them, the Japanese participants learned the local patterns slightly better than their English peers. In this case, culture does not constrain what we’re able to learn, rather it biases what we are predisposed to learn — and not learn — when we’re allowed to experience the world in the way that comes most naturally to us.

These findings provide some of the first evidence that culture influences unconscious thought processes. It is striking that the culture-based habit of encoding our experiences either analytically or holistically can influence how people learn a grammar — a task many theorists believe human brains are universally hard-wired to perform [5]. Mechanisms of grammar learning may be universal, but it appears that culture-based constraints on attention can determine how these mechanisms are deployed.

Beyond the lab, these findings raise questions about education in a multicultural society. Given the same input, Easterners and Westerners acquired different knowledge — as if the two groups had been taught two different lessons. Increasingly, US classrooms comprise learners from both holistic and analytic cultures. Can teachers develop ways to help a culturally diverse group of students learn about both the forest and the trees?

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1. Kiyokawa, S., et al. (2012). Cross cultural differences in unconscious knowledge. Cognition,

2. Nisbett, R. E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2001). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic versus analytic cognition. Psychological Review: Special Issue, 108(2), 291-310.

3. Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R. E. (2001). Attending holistically versus analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 992-934.

4. Kitayama, S., Duffy, S., Kawamura, T. & Larsen, J. T. (2003) Perceiving an object and its context in different cultures: A cultural look at new look. Psychological Science, 14, 201–206.

5. Hauser, M., Chomsky, N., & Fitch, W.T. (2002). The Faculty of Language: What Is It, Who Has It, and How Did It Evolve? Science, 298, 1569-1579.

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