Do our culture and language shape the way we think? A new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by Caren Walker at the University of California at San Diego, Alex Carstensen at Stanford and their colleagues, tried to answer this ancient question. The researchers discovered that very young Chinese and American toddlers start out thinking about the world in similar ways. But by the time they are 3 years old, they are already showing differences based on their cultures.
Dr. Walker’s research took off from earlier work that she and I did together at the University of California at Berkeley. We wanted to know whether children could understand abstract relationships such as “same” and “different.” We showed children of various ages a machine that lights up when you put a block of a certain color and shape on it. Even toddlers can easily figure out that a green block makes the machine go while a blue block doesn’t.
But what if the children saw that two objects that were the same—say, two red square blocks—made the machine light up, while two objects that were different didn’t? We showed children this pattern and asked them to make the machine light up, giving them a choice between a tray with two new identical objects—say, two blue round blocks—or another tray with two different objects.
At 18 months old, toddlers had no trouble figuring out that the relationship between the blocks was the important thing: They put the two similar objects on the machine. But much to our surprise, older children did worse. Three-year-olds had a hard time figuring out that the relationship between the blocks was what mattered. The 3-year-olds had actually learned that the individual objects were more important than the relationships between them.
In fact, when they saw an ambiguous pattern, which could either be due to something about the individual objects or something about the relationships between them, the Chinese preschoolers actually preferred to focus on the relationships. The American children focused on the objects.
The toddlers in both cultures seemed to be equally open to different ways of thinking. But by age 3, something about their everyday experiences had already pushed them to focus on different aspects of the world. Language could be part of the answer: English emphasizes nouns much more than Chinese does, which might affect the way speakers of each language think about objects.
Of course, individuals and relationships are both important in the social and physical worlds. And cultural conditioning isn’t absolute: American adults can reason about relationships, just as Chinese adults can reason about objects. But the differences in focus and attention, in what seems obvious and what seems unusual, may play out in all sorts of subtle differences in the way we think, reason and act. And those differences may start to emerge when we are very young children.