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1. Introduction
Social psychology realizes the need to account for the variability in cultural, environmental and social factors to explain human behavior. In general, different populations of the world tend to respond differently to similar psychological phenomenon. But is the same claim also valid for cognitive psychology, a sub-discipline of psychology broadly defined as the study of the mind? If so, then what could be different at the basic level of internal mental processes and representations that may explain psychological variability across populations, if at all?

Henrich et al. (2010), review these questions in their article “The Weirdest People in the World?”. They present empirical evidence to support the claim that differences amongst

populations exist even across phenomenon that are presumed to be psychological universals. Particularly, their study focuses on cognitive aspects like visual perception, spatial reasoning, categorization, moral reasoning, self-concepts and the like. In doing so, they make a comparison between WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) and the non-WEIRD societies. The article comprises four sub-comparisons: industrialized societies versus small-scale societies, western versus non-western societies, contemporary Americans versus the rest of the world and finally, typical contemporary American subjects versus other Americans. The authors highlight psychological diversity between all contrasts, in addition to pointing out that the majority research work in psychology has in fact examined only the WEIRD populations, particularly American undergraduates. Henrich et al. (2010) further claim that by studying this “narrow and unusual slice of humanity”, researchers have inaccurately derived generalizability from their results which may not hold true for the rest of the world.

In the section below, I present a summary of the key findings and evidence presented in this article, followed by a synopsis of the relevant commentaries from peer review. However, the main objective of this essay is to critically analyze the strength of the evidence presented in support of cognitive variation across cultures. Firstly, I try to assess whether this variation occurs at the level of mental content or mental processes and if the two subcomponents can be completely disconnected from each other. Secondly, I discuss the relevance of cultural and social factors in cognition, which are commonly known to be the focus of social psychology. Thirdly, I present some contradicting findings on the topic of self-enhancement, arguing that cross

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The level of basic category is lower in non-industrialized societies because of greater cultural exposure to natural environment. giving evidence that English speakers employ egocentric approach (relative to themselves) where as other non-urban languages use an absolute or object-oriented frame of reference for spatial orientation. the debate over the misinterpretation of experimental task and its consequences on inflating cross population variation is highlighted upon. The industrialized American and South African-European societies showed greatest intensity of illusory effect. In comparing westerners versus non-westerners. Or alternatively. Next.c population variation may not only be due to cultural differences but also individual differences. as Henrich et al.g.d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . evidence from folkbiological reasoning shows that for WEIRD adults and children.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . frequently used and found to be more typical than subordinate category (e. In the domain of visual perception. (2010) mention that developmental effect itself could be shaped by socio-cultural factors.g.d o c u -tr a c k . 2. maple tree). The nature of these differences is however debatable. The samples constituted both adults and children with both showing similar trends across societies. However. Finally. otherwise considered to be universal across populations. developmental effects are outweighed by cultural and evolutionary aspects. Muller-Lyer illusion was tested across various societies (Segall et al. otherwise a correlation between the response of children and adults would not have been observed. Westerners develop relatively independent self-concepts which lead to self-enhancing and positive self views. This suggests that in determining the nature of differences in illusory effect across different societies. a greater emphasis on personal choice and a lower o m w w w . 1966). hence a multicultural comparative study may not be the answer to the problem.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 2 w . Similarly. (2010) point out that the differences between the two sub-populations are quantitative as well qualitative in nature. Summary of Target Article The first comparison is drawn between industrialized and small-scale societies. basic category (e. but my focus would be on the differences drawn upon to categorize the WEIRD population as an outlier. Henrich et al. an important conclusion derived by the authors is that significant variation could be observed in a domain like visual perception. Though few cross-population similarities have also been mentioned in the article. tree) is first learned. In terms of self-concepts. the authors examine variability in spatial reasoning.

non-western populations consider the relationships between objects and contexts while reasoning. environmental. Henrich et al. In the general discussion that follows. let alone for the rest of the world. Similarly. Henrich et al. (2010) mention that there are numerous reasons for cross-population variation including cultural. the effects of poverty are also analyzed.d o c u -tr a c k . self-independent and opportunistic than other westerners. as supported by evidence from social psychology and behavioral economics. However. (2010) further go on to establish that a sample comprising only American subjects would not be representative of even the western sub-population. one comparative examination illustrates that western samples show an over-emphasis on abstract ethical principles (such as justice and human rights).d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . plays a much greater role. poor American children do not show any sexdifferences in spatial reasoning. The validity of such o m w w w . which are under-developed in non-western societies. probably explained by the political and demographic history of America which has led to an overvaluation for the right to freedom. focusing attention on the object (and its attributes) irrespective of the overall context. the nature of the interaction of genes and environment in IQ heritability differs across low and highSES (Socio Economic Status) children. In addition. Contrary to this. genetic and evolutionary. assumed otherwise to be a universal finding. It is noted that the difference is not due to variation in education levels between west and non-west as some highly educated non-western samples also show a lack of reasoning on basis of abstract moral standards. Research cited views an average American as more individualistic. Also. With respect to moral reasoning.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . For example. where environment. being a highly variable factor for low-SES children. a trend deep-rooted in the cultural and social set-up of non-western communities. child-rearing methods used by American parents inculcate the importance of independence from a very young age. A further micro-level comparison between typical contemporary American subjects (usually university undergraduates) and other Americans highlight the former as an outlier yet again. their discussion largely draws from cultural causes.c motivation to conform. relatively. Stemming from this over-reliance on independent self-concepts is the tendency of westerners to exercise analytic rather than holistic reasoning.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 3 w .

d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . the article also attempts to address potential challenges against its validity: (1) exaggeration of crosspopulation differences by presenting consenting research only and ignoring the rest and (2) methodological difficulties in conducting cross-population research where variation could reflect differences in interpretation. which includes some critiques dissenting from the main argument. while others agreeing to it in addition to mentioning alternative explanations and recommendations for the generalizability problem. Henrich et al.c causes for phenomenon that are cognitive in nature will be discussed in a later section. This broadly includes differences in interpretation and communication. While the target article has basically focused on cultural reasons to account for cross-population variability. In comparative studies. The authors further clarify that the use of WEIRD samples should not always be avoided. So if for example the purpose is to find existential evidence. which can be highly subjective in nature. questions may be mistranslated in other historical contexts (Rita). employing various methodological techniques (e. children-oriented subject pools). More importantly.living in a large scale society and not knowing most people around. 3. the authors recommend expanding comparative data through various means of incentivizing cross-population research. Sangeet et al. depending on the type of research question. any sample whether from WEIRD or non-WEIRD population would do.d o c u -tr a c k . many commentaries propose the variation may be due to differences in the way information is input by subjects. (2010) acknowledge that majority of these findings compare the means of self-reported responses.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 4 w . Similarly.g. The authors only partially address this by mentioning that there is a need to collect more broad-based comparative data and that the findings reviewed in this article are based on diverse fields of study. Nicolas further related this to economic games. argue that what may be deemed as a cultural difference may actually be a difference in individual strategies (where each individual may respond differently to the same task at different points in time depending on how he/she interprets the instructions) while Edouard maintains that the captured cultural differences may actually reflect differences in task conceptualization rather than o m w w w . explaining the reason Americans do not make generous monetary offers to fellow participants does not lie in a different moral psychology from the rest of the world but rather in a different interpretation of the situation. American do not feel a sense of sharing. Summary of Peer Commentary The target article is followed by an open peer commentary.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . However. As a way forward. implicit techniques.

a direct comparison between them would be a flawed strategy to account for this variation. To see if WEIRD and nonWEIRD subjects differ at a neural level.. face recognition) (Rochat). points out that WEIRD sample may also appear as an outlier because of linguistic reasons.) and use research techniques which are culturally more apt for their own people.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 5 w . Few critiques develop the argument that underlying the diverse populations are some commonalities such as uniform mental processing. Failure of communication to subjects of a specific culture arises because of the difficulty of conveying/representing a situation which is actually relevant to other dissimilar cultures. cite evidence from brain imaging showing differences in brain activated regions to the same phenomenon.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . subjects in a comparative study “may not be playing the same game” (Shweder). The same idea is elaborated by Shweder using David Campbell’s argument that cross-population differences are largely an artifact of failure of communication. Joan et al. Another source of variation is the researcher bias arising because of the cultural similarity between the researcher and the researched (Bennis et al. Fessler). Different types of research questions place different demands on cognitive processing and the higher the load. Danks et al. One solution to the interpretation problem has been provided by Stephen et al. as English language itself is a unique language in many ways. and therefore. for example testing Muller Lyer illusion rather than the Moon illusion which may be ecologically more convincing to a wider range of people (Rochat).d o c u -tr a c k . Other methodological difficulties include the use of WEIRD experimental techniques which the non-WEIRD populations cannot much relate to.c difference in psychological mechanisms. draw a distinction between mental representations and mental processes.d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . Majid et al. whereby the variation in former is explained by cultural and environmental discrepancies but the uniformity in latter is explained by similar o m w w w . the greater the variability observed across populations as in a task involving economic games (vs. That is to say. we should only “compare what is comparable” (Boesch). misperceived as differences of cultural cause. suggesting that subjects should be exposed to various contexts of the same situation to try to ease the process of meaning derivation. as most experimenters themselves are WEIRD (Meadon et al. The view that cross-population variation is rather a matter of interpretation stresses that since same situations are interpreted differently.

Other critiques diverge from the target article on the perspective that WEIRD people are not necessarily unrepresentative of the human species at large as with increasing trend in globalization and industrialization.1. According to them. Eckardt (1995) maintains that “human cognition can be successfully studied by focusing exclusively on the individual cognizer and his or her place in the natural environment…the influence of society or culture on individual cognition can always be explained by appealing to the fact that this influence is mediated through individual perception and representation” and further points out that “although there is considerable variation in how o m w w w . Moreover. though across different domains. it is crucial to define cognitive science and its domain. 4. Gaertner et al. Westerners use self-enhancing statements in the domain of individualism whereas Easterners self-enhance in the domain of collectivism. The subject matter of cognitive science is individual human cognition (Eckardt 1995). External/Cognitive vs. Critical Analysis 4. the expression may vary across cultures but the underlying processes are similar. both Westerners and Easterners show evidence of selfenhancement as opposed to the findings presented in target article.d o c u -tr a c k . Easterners are usually more reluctant to publicly express positive self-views due to modesty norms in their culture.d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . Another class of commentaries provides recommendations such as the use of internet (Gosling et al) and naturalistic environment (Rai et al.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . For example. Highlighting assumptions behind cognitive approach.c genetic and evolutionary causes. Hence. Content I now return back to the initial question of evaluating if humans really differ in cognitive aspects that are internal to the mind. what is the nature of such differences? Before exploring this debate.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 6 w . further elaborate on the phenomenon of universal psychological processes citing research on selfenhancement. this critique mentions that experimental evidence presented in Henrich et al.) to incorporate greater cultural diversity in experiments. (2010) focuses primarily on cognitive representations rather than processes. Rozin). Furthermore. Internal vs. and if so. Cultural/ Processes vs. hence implying an overstated cross-population variation. and implicitly controlling for modesty level may eliminate the East-West variation as far as selfenhancement is concerned. the world population is converging to the WEIRD standards and becoming more and more homogenous (Maryanski.

” Taking this in to consideration. We can only make the claim that contents are dissimilar whereas processes are universal across humans if there is no interaction between both. Considering this. But should we classify these as cognitive differences or cultural differences since the causal factors appear to be cultural in nature? Since both external and internal influences interact to produce a psychological response. One suggestion as to how the transmission from cultural to cognitive processes takes place is provided by the evolving field of culture-gene co-evolution which if broadly described contends that cultural factors influence gene evolution and genetic factors in turn affect adaptation to a given culture. 2010). al 2007). (2010) in their response to the peer commentary. implying that cultural processes affect cognitive processes. what people think about impacts how people think (Bang et. hence forming different mental contents. o m w w w . human knowledge and beliefs about plants differs across naturalistic and urban environments.c adult human beings exercise their cognitive capacities.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . is this article then trying to challenge the assumptions characterizing cognitive science? In my view point. Similarly. However. there is an overlap. Moreover.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 7 w . the distinction between what is internal to the mind and what is external is not a very clear one.d o c u -tr a c k . then naturally differences in response to psychological phenomenon are likely to be observed. but this influences the basic level category people form in turn. So if these external factors vary across the human species. For example. as presumed in some of the critiques. the field of epigenetics studies the changes in gene expressions that are associated not by the alteration in the underlying DNA sequence but rather by the variation in the local circumstances of the individual (Henrich et al.d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . we cannot completely separate mental content from mental processes. External influences like culture and environment shape up internalized procedures of thinking and perception. we cannot neatly classify the cause under one category. hence their mental processes for evaluating and using the taxonomic categorizations also vary. adults are sufficiently alike when they cognize and it is possible to arrive at generalizations about cognition that hold (at least approximately) for all normal adults. as also reported by Henrich et al.

they cite an example about underwater human visual ability. such physical differences are bound to exist due to different environmental and evolutionary factors and therefore seem irrelevant to the core discussion trying to establish evidence for psychological rather than physiological diversity. (2010) report differences in human foot anatomy and henceforth in the quality of running across populations. Henrich et al. and since cultural influences are more consistent than expertise influences. Mokens is but one unique group of people exposed to such extreme location factors which will naturally have a consequence on their visual capacity.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W .. However. a tribe called Mokens who live in islands and collect food from sea floor as means to subsistence. (2010) to reconsider who is weird: undergraduates who share underwater visual ability with the general human population or the Mokens who are exposed to exceptional local conditions? Secondly. we should be careful in interpreting brain scans because imaging by itself does not reveal the causes behind activation. Henrich et al. they should affect the physiology of brain more significantly.d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . the claim is that generalization about this ability cannot be inferred if research focuses solely on undergraduates’ ability to see underwater. Other evidence presented against universal mental processes concerns changes in brain in response to changes in culture and experience. (2010) have not done complete justice to address it.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 8 w . The authors point out that expertise such as musical training and taxi driving are associated with structural changes in brain. have twice the underwater visual ability compared to Europeans. Even though such changes at the neural level have been identified by Joan et al. to illustrate that the processes involved in motor development too are not universal. Moreover. Differences across most world populations are not as concrete as differences between land and water but rather more subtle. human eye is not adaptive to see underwater and this would not only apply to undergraduates but to a wide range of human species who do not share the unique experience exclusive to Mokens. o m w w w . To explain that even basic level processes deemed to be universal such as visual perception can exhibit significant variation. I still feel that Henrich et al.’s claim that by studying only the WEIRD runners you get “the wrong answer” appears to be too extreme as getting a different answer does not necessarily classify it as wrong.d o c u -tr a c k . This should compel Henrich et al.c While not entirely consenting with the critique’s argument about the separation of ‘variable’ mental content from ‘universal’ mental processes. According to the reported finding. More importantly. In particular. However.

c 4. trust and punishment are social in nature and directly depend on the socio-economic set up of the communities. they henceforth show a more powerful illusory effect for geometric objects. o m w w w . This is not to deny the role of social factors in determining cognitive response. (2010) correctly point out that their study rather focuses exclusively on areas from cognitive psychology. Sander-Parallelogram and Horizontal-Vertical illusions. then cultural variation could be explicitly controlled for in explaining visual perception. Even though culture impacts cognitive processes (as we established earlier). subjects were tested on something they could universally relate to. the questions put forward concerning valuation of sharing. Machery in his commentary puts forward the question that “why are most examples in the target article drawn from social psychology?” to which Henrich et al. Even though the subject matter of decision making is part of cognitive science. such as the Moon illusion (see Rochat). whereby subjects are asked to evaluate the monetary amount they would be willing to share with their fellow participants and to decide punishments for non-cooperative and free-riding participants. but to suggest that cognitive capacities should be attempted to be studied in isolation from other non-cognitive capacities. (1966). it is still only one of the many factors that account for psychological diversity. If on the other hand. The domains studied in Henrich et al. and while we acknowledge the impact of culture on cognition.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . (2010) are unquestionably cognitive in nature.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 9 w . Another example to explain the above argument is that of economic games. cultural influences are essentially the subject matter of social psychology. an overemphasis on culture may deviate us from the traditional cognitive approach and make blurry the distinction between cognitive and social psychology. I deem Machery’s concern valid in the essence of what he intended to convey. Even though not precisely phrased. then perhaps we can make a stronger claim about cognitive diversity. Moreover. For example. Culture in Cognition The target article presents evidence for cognitive variation across populations and it mainly does so by emphasizing the role of culture. as reported from Segall et al. Because people in industrialized societies are exposed to such angular variations in the surrounding architecture and buildings. but the experimental techniques appear to be such so as to promote cultural diversity in response.d o c u -tr a c k .d o c u -tr a c k ! w o .2. If cross-population differences still arise. differences in visual perception between smallscale and industrialized societies are observed when subjects are tested on geometric illusions such as Muller Lyer illusion.

only reach to this conclusion by ignoring studies with contrary findings. report to be less valid being the only method amongst a total of 31 that confirms to Gaertner et al. as proposed by Henrich et al.d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . they should be careful in interpreting it. if variation in self-enhancement is not at cultural but individual level. (2010). even after employing implicit experimental techniques to control for modesty levels. for example. (2010) point out that Gaertner et al. talk about positive self-valuation as a natural human tendency. whereby culture influences the domain of the self-enhancement motive (individualism or collectivism) and not its existence. Gaertner et al.Caution for Researchers Henrich et al. (2010) in their response give ample space to address Gaertner et al. otherwise people within the same culture should not exhibit a variation in their self-view response. In my opinion.c 4. in this case a o m w w w . However. Henrich et al. a within culture study should be undertaken first to ensure individual differences are not being misunderstood for cultural variation. The latter evidence indicates that self-enhancement is not solely a cultural phenomenon and suggests that in order to establish the nature of differences. cross-cultural variation in selfevaluation does not vanish except under the technique of Implicit Association Test (IAT) which Henrich at al. However. Evidence presented against Gaertner et al. what are other better implicit techniques and why different studies yield contrary evidence in the first place. however. “parents. Researchers therefore should not only look at the quantitative rating or the subjective response of the participants but also at the underlying reasons behind it. Self-enhancement.’s critique. Easterners may derive greater self-enhancement by assigning higher positive valuation to their friends and family than to themselves. Moreover. These reasons may exhibit similarity at a deeper cognitive level.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 10 w . As mentioned in Brown and Kobayanshi (2002). divergent evidence on self-enhancement motive may be explained more by individual rather than cultural differences. then perhaps conducting multi-cultural research.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . quantitative in nature and lacks a qualitative perspective as to what makes IAT less valid.’s commentary is. To reiterate. Also.d o c u -tr a c k . may take pride in thinking their children and smarter and more talented than are they”. would not resolve the problem of generalizability.’s findings. A better approach would be to redirect attention to the examination of individual differences and the reasons behind them. Brown and Kobayashi (2002) find that Japanese students not only evaluated themselves and their friends more positively than other students but also against other Japanese.3. For example. even if researchers are able to establish cultural diversity in self-enhancement.

Depending on whether we look at it from a deeper or a surface level.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . it is important to ensure that interpretation of task requirements be consistent across subjects. People from different cultures develop different understanding of the underlying tasks and thus diverge in their responses.d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . If there is variation in the first stage of information handling. but still show an output variation then it can most likely be explained in terms of how information is being processed.d o c u -tr a c k . which could be achieved through alternate means depending on different cultural variables. this output variation cannot be causally attributed to how information is processed in the intermediate stage and hence we cannot make a strong claim for diversity in cognitive processing. The point to convey is that while I consent with the argument in critiques that misinterpretation of a task is a cause of concern for establishing evidence for cognitive variation (due to reasons mentioned above).4. it is only the first kind of misinterpretation that should be avoided whereas the second o m w w w .c similarity in the objective of maximizing self-esteem. This would involve making use of different cognitive processes hence supporting the claim for cognitive diversity. 4. then is it correct to compare the output response which is a function of how information is input. If on the other hand. If it is due to subjects finding the task very unfamiliar and peculiar (which I term as the first kind of misinterpretation). process and output. we must look at why different people register the same information differently. should the output variation be attributed to cognitive variation? The answer though not very clear cut can be hypothesized upon. then of course the universality claim stands in jeopardy. it will consequentially predict variation in last stage too. The three stages in any information handling system are input. then before dismissing universality we should first modify the experimental set up such that all subjects at least understand the basic demands of the task. For this reason. However. and not be wrong with either of the classification because we are using a different lens to study the same phenomenon. More importantly.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 11 w . we may classify the phenomenon either as a psychological universal or as a psychological diversity. If not. But if subjects indeed understand the task but interpret differently depending on their cultural and social norms (termed as second kind of misinterpretation). This raises the question that if information is being input differently in the first place. we assume that people from various cultures input information equivalently. Role of Misinterpretation in Cross-population Variation Another area of debate raised in some of the critiques was over the interpretation of the tasks.

Conclusion While cognitive psychology essentially looks at individual behavior. Consequently. the more specific the research question.d o c u -tr a c k . the narrower would be the lens of study and therefore. we must not discard external factors like culture which differentiate how we cognize about everyday things in life. economic and cultural variables. 5. o m w w w . and more importantly.PD PD F- XC h a n g e Vi e w F- XC h a n g e Vi e w er er ! O W N y lic C m C lic Hafeez 12 w . the extent of the generalizability problem is not same across all areas of cognitive psychology.c kind should serve as a basis to further strengthen the case for cognitive diversity across cultures as how you input and cognize information (post understanding of task) is a function of social. Nonetheless. However. For example. to identify the grounds for these differences which currently seems to be an area of debate. the greater the expected variation. even for purely cognitive phenomenon. the nature of the cross-population variation may not always be cognitive in nature as other factors like misinterpretation and artificiality of the underlying task may overemphasize the role of culture in cognitive diversity. Wide-ranging methodological techniques including extensive contexts and well-controlled experiments can help solve this problem. the extent of the psychological variation depends on the nature and scope of the research question. Moreover.d o c u -tr a c k ! w o . A way forward is for research to focus on not only the similarities but also the differences across populations.c bu to k k to bu y N w O W . (2010) have highlighted an important concern of apriori establishing universality from a narrow group of subjects. Henrich et al.