Cognitive Abilities: A Cross-Cultural Perspective

By Van De Vijver, F. | Psychologische Beiträge, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Cognitive Abilities: A Cross-Cultural Perspective


Van De Vijver, F., Psychologische Beiträge


The main paradigms of cross-cultural studies of cognition are briefly described: Piagetian studies, the psychometric tradition, cognitive style, and daily cognition. These provide the theoretical background to our work at Tilburg University, which is described in the second part. Three different types of project are discussed: first, a meta-analysis of the global patterning of observed cognitive test performance differences (main finding: mental test scores observed in a country are positively related to its Gross National Product); second, the context specificity of logical reasoning has been studied among Dutch and Zambian mothers (main finding: characteristics that moderate the difficulty of logical reasoning are identical in both countries); third, in a group of migrant and host national primary school children in the Netherlands score differences were stronger related to cultural linguistic aspects of the tasks than to cognitive complexity, thereby disconfirming Spearman's hypothesis.

Key words: cognition, testing, cross-cultural comparison.

Cognition Across Cultures

The intellectual roots of cross-cultural psychology go back centuries. In the period of Enlightenment and Romanticism there was already a keen interest in cultural variations of human behavior (Jahoda & Krewer, 1997). Yet, it is only in the last 30 to 40 years that psychologists have initiated large-scale comparative studies. The rather steady increase in interest in the last decades is remarkable; even a cursory comparison of the first edition of the Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology of 1980 and the second edition of 1997 is sufficient to appreciate the immense interest in cross-cultural issues in recent years. It is my impression that in the early days of empirical cross-cultural psychology the emphasis was more on comparison of western and non-western cultures, thereby following long-standing traditions in cultural anthropology and ethnography. However, more recently the interest in the comparison of western countries has augmented. Ongel and Smith (1994), reviewing 25 volumes of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, found an overrepresentation of affluent countries in the studies reported in this journal. Business globalization and large migration streams have undoubtedly made us more aware of cross-cultural differences in everyday life.

In the last 30 to 40 years, cognition studies have played roles both at the center and the margin of the cross-cultural stage. Four prevailing paradigms in cognitive cross-cultural psychology are described. In the beginning of this period there was a lively interest in the cross-cultural study of Piagetian cognitive development (Dasen, 1972, 1977; Piaget, 1972). Cross-cultural studies necessitated some adjustments of the implicitly claimed universalism of Piagetian theory. The sequence of the developmental stages, as postulated by Piaget, was never challenged in these studies, but the age of onset of the stages turned out to vary across cultures. The assumed universalism of formal-operational stage was not confirmed; finally, decalages showed meaningfully patterned differences across cultures (depending on the familiarity of the stimulus domains in which they were investigated). This line of research, very popular in sixties, has now largely been abandoned.

Second, cross-cultural studies of cognitive style followed a similar pattern of waxing and waning interest. This research is theoretically interesting as it attempts to model ecologycognition interactions, such as the influence of food gathering style on perception, cognitive preferences, and interpersonal skills. Because of its wide ramifications, space limitations prohibit a discussion of the paradigm (important sources are Berry, 1976, and Berry et al., 1986).

A third type of research is based on the usage of standardized assessment procedures, often intelligence tests. The tradition has a strong psychometric inclination. …

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