Just how adaptable are we?
Human thought is different from animals in the degree to which it can be programmed to deal with a variety of information landscapes. For example, the deer who are unfortunate enough to be born in an urban or suburban area may have difficulty dealing with cars, roads, and buildings, but human children have no difficulty learning about the world around them no matter different that world is from that of our evolutionary ancestors.
The cost of that flexibility, though, is that it takes humans about 20 years of cultural programming before they are ready to take their place in the workforce.
Some of what we learn from our culture is the set of concepts that help us to navigate our world. A child growing up in a hunter-gatherer culture may need to learn about different species of plants, the habits of animals, and the weapons that can be used for hunting. If that same child grows up in a modern city, then that child has to learn about elevators, iPads, and subways.
In addition to teaching concepts and skills, though, culture also shapes more subtle aspects of thinking. One fascinating influence of culture on thinking comes from research by Richard Nisbett and his colleagues. They have looked at differences between people from Western cultures (like the U.S. and Europe) and those from Eastern cultures (like Japan, China, and Korea).
These cultures differ in how strongly individualistic they are. Broadly speaking, Western culture focuses on the individual. Western culture looks at individual performance and achievement. Members of Western culture do not need to be strongly attuned to who else is in the room when they speak, because Western cultures do not have a strong hierarchy.
Eastern cultures are more collectivist. They focus on the welfare of the group and expect group members to think of their group identity before their individual identity. As a result, members of Eastern cultures often have to be acutely aware of who is in the room and to give deference to those whose position demands more respect.
This focus on the individual or the group that emerges from these social interactions extends to the way that members of these cultures habitually think of a variety of aspects of the world.
In particular, members of Western cultures tend to extract objects from their context and to think about them in isolation. This can be very helpful when doing science, because it allows an intense focus on the properties of particular objects.
Members of Eastern cultures tend to focus on the relationships among objects the way that objects relate and change in the contexts in which they are found. This focus is great for the development of solutions to social problems, because understanding society often requires exploring how changes in one area of society affect other areas.
Most people are blissfully unaware of these deep influences of their culture on the way they think. Luckily, by knowing more about the way culture affects thought, you can change your own typical way of doing things. If you have a tendency to focus on individual people and objects, then start paying attention to the way people and objects interact. These relationships are often a fertile source of new ideas.
For example, when you watch another person’s behavior, you often assume that they acted as they did because of some characteristic of who they are. But, the situation in which someone is engaged has a profound influence on what they do.
Paying more attention to the context of behavior helps you to recognize these situational influences on behavior more easily. Then, if you are trying to influence what people are doing, thinking about the context of behavior provides more opportunities to influence their environment to change the situation around them in ways that will have the desired outcome.
Ultimately, learning more about how culture influences thought will help you to distinguish between those aspects of the way people think that are truly part of human nature, and those that are the result of the decades of cultural programming you have gone through before you reached adulthood.