The Role of Biological and Environmental Contexts in the Integration of Psychology: A Reply to Posner and Rothbart

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The unification of psychology is an important goal, and Posner and Rothbart (this issue) do psychology a great service in proposing Hebb's (1949) model as a basis for unification. But Hebb's model deals only with a biological level of analysis. A more comprehensive plan for unification would deal with ecological and cultural levels of analysis as well. In this article, I propose a more encompassing basis for thinking about unification, and give an example of how taking into account cultural context may change one's perspective on psychological phenomena.

Clichés are often boring. Sometimes, however, they are true. One such cliché is "United we stand. Divided we fall." The slogan has been traced to various sources. For one thing, it is the motto of the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the United States (http://www.phrases. But it goes further back to the Liberty Song, composed by John Dickinson in 1768 ( btilletin_board/8/ messages/1013.html). Going even further back to Biblical times, Jesus said, "If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand" (Mark 3:25) (http://www. ted. ht ml).

Clearly, the view of Posner and Rothbart (this issue) that psychology will do better united than divided has deep historical roots, as described above, as well as some more recent historical ones (e.g., Staats, 1999; Sternberg, 2002, 2003; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 200Ia). Posner and Rothbart are particularly interested in Hebb (1949, 1958) as bases for exploring the unity of psychology, and in particular, Hebb's theory of the organization of behaviour through what are now called neural networks. Posner and Rothbart's wonderful article shows how Hebb's theory can provide a basis for thinking about psychological science in a unified way.

I strongly support and applaud Posner and Rothbart's efforts to unify psychology. I differ from them only in means, not in goals. In terms of means, I view the biological level of analysis as an important one for the unification of psychology. But I see the study of biological bases and correlates of behaviour as a start, rather than as a finish toward this unification. Thus, I differ somewhat from Posner and Rothbart in how I think unification should be achieved.

First, I believe unification cannot be reductionistic, based only on a single level of analysis. Rather, it should recognize that environmental contexts as well as biology play a crucial role in behaviour and in unifying psychology.

second, I prefer as a goal the unification of psychology rather than psychological science. My own goal is to bring together not only scientists of different stripes, but also those who might view themselves as interested in psychology, but not necessarily primarily in psychology as a science. For example, therapists might view their primary allegiance to the practice rather than the science of psychology. Well more than half the professionals who are, one way or another, in the business of psychology, are concerned primarily with applications of psychological science, rather than with psychological science, per se. I believe it important to include them in the mission of unification because it is so easy for science and practice to become separated and even antagonistic (Sternberg, 2003).

A Framework for Unification

A framework for unification needs to take into account both biological and contextual levels of analysis. A start for thinking about unification is culture. Culture can be defined as "the set of attitudes, values, beliefs and behaviours shared by a group of people, communicated from one generation to the next via language or some other means of communication" (Barnouw, as cited in Matsumoto, 1994, p. 4). Cultural context does not necessarily form a single context. For example, Berry and Irvine (1986) have proposed four nested levels of cultural context. The broadest ecological level comprises the permanent or almost permanent characteristics that provide the backdrop for human action. The experiential context refers to the pattern of recurrent experiences within the ecological context that provides a basis for learning and development. The performance context comprises the limited set of environmental circumstances that account for particular behaviours at specific points in space and time. The narrowest experimental context comprises the environmental characteristics manipulated by psychologists and others to elicit particular responses or test scores. Most psychological work, then, is done in the experimental context.

There are levels of analysis that are more specific to particular environments than the cultural one. The bioecological model of Bronfenbrenner (1986, 1995, 2000; Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994; Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 1998) is useful in this regard.

In its original form, Bronfenbrenner (1986) referred to his model simply as an ecological model. The model comprised four embedded levels:

1. the microsystem, which consists of the immediate contexts that an individual experiences;

2. the mesosystem, which consists of the interconnections (links) among the microsystems;

3. the exosystem, which consists of settings that are not experienced directly but that may nevertheless affect an individual's development (e.g., the parental workplace)

4. the chmnosystem, which consists of the patterns of events and transitions between events that occur over the lifespan of an individual.

Sternberg and Grigorenko (200Ia) argued that the model provides a useful basis for understanding human behaviour and its development, but that the levels are not strictly embedded, the one within the next, but rather interactive. For example, mesosystems may alter microsystems, which in turn may alter mesosystems. If, for example, you live in a certain neighbourhood, the events in your life will be affected by that neighbourhood. But those events may in turn lead you to change neighbourhoods, yielding a new neighbourhood and a new set of events influenced by and influencing where you live. In terms of the theory of successful intelligence (Sternberg, 1997), you adapt to, shape, and select environmental contexts interactively. The levels are better thought of as mutually influencing each other than as arranged in a strict hierarchy.

In its later form, Bronfenbrenner (1995, 2000) expanded the model to be a bioecological one. The bioecological model is not simply a renaming of the earlier model, but rather, a considerable expansion of it to consider how biological processes interact with environmentally based ecological ones. The new system theory involves two main propositions, which, in Bronfenbrenner's words, are as follows (Bronfenbrenner, 2000, p. 130):

Proposition 1: Human development takes place throughout life through processes of progressively more complex reciprocal interaction between an active, evolving biopsychological human organism and the persons, objects, and symbols in its immediate external environment. To be effective, the interaction must occur on a fairly regular basis over extended periods of time. Such enduring forms of interaction in the immediate environment are referred to as proximal processes....

Proposition II: The form, power, content, and direction of the proximal processes [ajffecting development vary systematically as a joint function of the characteristics of the developing person: the environment - both immediate and more remote - in which the processes are taking place; the nature of the developmental outcomes under consideration; and the social continuities and changes occurring over time through the life course and the historical period during which the person has lived.

Posner and Rothbart (this issue) view an essentially biological model - Hebb's - as a basis for unifying psychology. I believe that Hebb's model provides an excellent start, but a limited finish. Instead, I would rather see a model that starts with one or more cultural levels, and then proceeds through Bronfenbrenner's levels, ending with his newly formed biological one. But it is important to note that these levels are not strictly embedded, but rather systemically interactive.

In summary, then, we can speak of cultural levels of analysis, ecological levels of analysis, and a biological level of analysis. These levels are highly interactive. None is strictly embedded in any other. For example, people's biology may affect how they adapt to their culture, but their cultural context also may affect the kinds of biological responses they show to certain situations, such as whether a given situation (e.g., attraction to an individual other than one's marital partner) produces anxiety or joy.

Why are Cultural Levels of Analysis Desirable?

I have discussed in detail the necessity of taking into account culture in understanding human intelligence (Stcrnberg, 2004), and others have discussed much more generally the importance in psychology of culture (e.g., Berry, Poortinga, Segall, &Dasen, 1992; Cole, 1998; Luria, 1976; Nisbett, 2003; Shweder, 1991; Tomasello, 2001; Valsiner, 2000). Because this reply is brief, I would like to give just one example of how, when one takes into account cultural context, one's view of a psychological phenomenon may be quite different from one's view of the phenomenon outside a cultural context.

We usually think of all cognitive skills as showing positive correlations with each other. On average, for example, people who are better than average with words are better than average with numbers. Indeed, that is the foundation of the theory of general intelligence (Jensen, 1998; Spearman, 1927). However, our research suggests that children may develop contextual!}' important skills at the expense of academic ones, which can actually create a negative correlation across certain kinds of cognitive tests (Sternberg et al., 2001).

Many times, investigations of intelligence and other cognitive skills conducted in cultural settings outside the developed world can yield a picture of intelligence that is quite at variance with the picture one would obtain from studies conducted only in the developed world. In a study in Usenge, Kenya, near the town of Kisurnu, we were interested in school-age children's ability to adapt to their indigenous environment. We devised a test of practical intelligence for adaptation to the environment (see Sternberg 8c Grigorenko, 1997; Sternberg et al., 2001). The test of practical intelligence measured children's informal tacit knowledge for natural herbal medicines that the villagers believe can be used to fight various types of infections. Tacit knowledge is, roughly speaking, what one needs to know to succeed in an environment that is usually not explicitly taught, and that often is not even verbalized (Sternberg et al., 2001). Children in the villages use their tacit knowledge of these medicines an average of once a week in medicating themselves and others. More than 95% of the children suffer from parasitic illnesses. Thus, tests of how to use these medicines constitute effective measures of one aspect of practical intelligence as defined by the villagers as well as their life circumstances in their environmental contexts. Note that the processes of intelligence are not different in Kenya. Children must still recognize the existence of an illness, define what it is, devise a strategy to combat it, and so forth. But the content to which the processes are applied, and hence appropriate ways of testing these processes, may be quite different.

Middle-class Westerners might find it quite a challenge to thrive or even survive in these contexts, or, for that matter, in the contexts of urban ghettos often not distant from their comfortable homes. For example, they would know how to use none of the natural herbal medicines to combat the diverse and abundant parasitic illnesses they might acquire in rural Kenya.

We measured the Kenyan children's ability to identify the medicines, where they come from, what they are used for, and how they are dosed. Based on work we had done elsewhere, we expected that scores on this test would not correlate with scores on conventional tests of intelligence. In order to test this hypothesis, we also administered to the 85 children of the study the Raven Coloured Progressive Matrices Test (Raven, Court, & Raven, 1992), which is a measure of fluid or abstract-reasoning-based abilities, as well as the Mill Hill Vocabulary Scale (Raven et al., 1992), which is a measure of crystallized or formal-knowledge-based abilities. In addition, we gave the children a comparable test of vocabulary in their own Dholuo language. The Dholuo language is spoken in the home, English in the schools.

To our surprise, all correlations between the test of indigenous tacit knowledge and scores on fluid-ability and crystallized ability tests were negative. The correlations with the tests of crystallized abilities were significantly so. For example, the correlation of tacit knowledge with vocabulary (English and Dholuo combined) was -.31 (p < .01). In other words, the higher the children scored on the test of tacit knowledge, the lower they scored, on average, on the tests of crystallized abilities (vocabulary).

This surprising result can be interpreted in various ways, but based on the ethnographic observations of the anthropologists on the team, Prince and Geissler (see Prince £ Geissler, 2001), we concluded that a plausible scenario takes into account the expectations of families for their children. Many children drop out of school before graduation, for financial or other reasons, and many families in the village do not particularly see the advantages of formal Western schooling. There is no reason they should, as the children of many families will for the most part spend their lives farming or engaged in other occupations that make little or no use of Western schooling. These families emphasize teaching their children the indigenous informal knowledge that will lead to successful adaptation in the environments in which they will really live. Children who spend their time learning the indigenous practical knowledge of the community may not always invest themselves heavily in doing well in school, whereas children who do well in school generally may invest themselves less heavily in learning the indigenous knowledge - hence the negative correlations.

The Kenya study suggests that the identification of a general factor of human intelligence may tell us more about how abilities interact with cultural patterns of schooling and society and especially Western patterns of schooling and society than it does about the structure of human abilities. In Western schooling, children typically study a variety of subject matters from an early age and thus develop skills in a variety of skill areas. This kind of schooling prepares the children to take a test of intelligence, which typically measures skills in a variety of areas. Often intelligence tests measure skills that children were expected to acquire a few years before taking the intelligence test. But as Rogoff (1990, 2003) and others have noted, this pattern of schooling is not universal and has not even been common for much of the history of humankind. Throughout history and in many places still, schooling, especially for boys, takes the form of apprenticeships in which children learn a craft from an early age. They learn what they will need to know in order to succeed in a trade, but not a lot more. They are not simultaneously engaged in tasks that require the development of the particular blend of skills measured by conventional intelligence tests. Hence it is less likely that one would observe a general factor in their scores, much as we discovered in Kenya.

What does a general factor mean anyway? Some years back, Vernon (1971) pointed out that the axes of a factor analysis do not necessarily reveal a latent structure of the mind but rather represent a convenient way of characterizing the organization of mental abilities. Vernon believed that there was no one "right" orientation of axes, and indeed, mathematically, an infinite number of orientations of axes can be fit to any solution in an exploratory factor analysis. Vernon's point seems perhaps to have been forgotten or at least ignored by later theorists.

Just as we have argued that the so-called g factor may partly reflect human interactions with cultural patterns, so has Tomasello (2001) argued that socalled modularity of mind may reflect, in part, human interactions with cultural patterns. We are not dismissing the importance of biology. Rather, we are emphasizing its importance as it interacts with culture, rather than simply viewing it as some kind of immutable effect that operates independently and outside of a cultural context.

The partial context-specificity of intellectual performance does not apply only to countries far removed from North America or Europe. Youth who wish to become National Football League stars will probably not maximize their chances by getting straight As at a highly competitive college such as Harvard. Those who wish to become solo cellists will not necessarily maximize their options in this highly competitive world by excelling in liberal arts rather than practicing the cello extensively. Someone who wishes to become a top-notch plumber or carpenter might better do so through an apprenticeship than through study at a selective liberal-arts school. Even in our own culture, youth must makes choices, and the appropriate choice depends on goals. It is not always to maximize the kinds of cognitive and academic skills measured by conventional tests. To the extent that one defines intelligence in terms of succeeding in terms of one's own goals (Sternberg, 1997), correlations among tests of skills that matter for one's own adaptive success, wherever this success occurs, might truly be negative with respect to more traditional tests of cognitive skills, as we found in Kenya.

Note that the kind of analysis we did in Kenya in no way precludes a search for a biological understanding of intelligence, even one based on Hebb's (1949) theorizing. But a purely biological analysis will never in itself fully encompass the diverse factors that lead us to a full understanding of intelligence, as well as of how to assess and develop it.


The unification of psychology will best proceed when researchers fully value not only the levels of analysis and methodologies with which they are most comfortable, but also recognize the importance of understanding psychological phenomena at multiple interactive levels of analysis (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2001). Such kinds of levels are the cultural, ecological, and biological, all of which themselves may be further subdivided. We cannot fully understand psychological phenomena unless we understand their biological bases and correlates. But we also cannot fully understand such phenomena outside their cultural and ecological contexts.


L'unification de la psychologie est certes un objectif important et Posner et Rothbart (dans le présent numéro) rendent un fier service à la psychologie en proposant le modèle de Hebb (1949) comme fondement à cette unification. Cependant, le modèle de Hebb traite uniquement du niveau d'analyse biologique. Pour tenir compte des niveaux d'analyse écologique et culturel, il nous faut recourir à un plan qui serait plus exhaustif. Dans le présent article, je propose une base plus englobante pour alimenter la réflexion sur l'unification et je donne un exemple illustrant la façon dont la prise en considération du contexte culturel peut changer la perspective d'un individu concernant les phénomènes psychologiques.



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[Author Affiliation]


Yale University

[Author Affiliation]

I am grateful to my many collaborators at and affiliates of the PACE Center for their collaborations. My principal collaborator in this work has been Elena L. Grigorenko, who has made invaluable contributions both to our research and to the preparation of the graphs for this article. The work in Kenya was supported primarily by the Partnership for Child Development, centred at Imperial College, University of London. Direct correspondence to Robert Sternberg, PhD, Department of Psychology Yale University, Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520-8205 (E-mail:


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