Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders

ResearchBlogging.orgHere's a fascinating paper that got some attention when first published a few months ago, although mostly in short blog pieces that quote the abstract in full and assert "this is cool". Here's an attempt to be more detailed. The paper finds that relatively specific differences in life circumstances are associated with differences in cognitive processing styles. I say that the differences in life circumstances were specific because the research subjects were from the same national, geographic, ethnic, and linguistic group. The subjects were "members of three communities in Turkey’s eastern Black Sea region whose daily economic activities are governed by varying degrees of interdependence" (p. 8552). The differences in cognitive processing style related to degrees of holism in "attention, categorization, and reasoning" (abstract).

As the authors of this paper note, there's an existing body of work suggesting relationships between degree of social inter-dependence and aspects of cognitive style. Much of this work focussed on comparing East Asians and Westerners, who tend to differ in cognitive style, but who also tend to differ in many ways (including languages, and educational systems) as well as in the hypothesised extent of interdependence thought to explain the differences in cognitive style. For an account of much of this research see R.E. Nisbett's 2003 book The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... And Why (Free Press, New York). The fact that the present paper (Nisbett is one of its authors) considers groups whose differences far more narrowly concern interdependence is a significant advance. The paper also addresses some concerns that the measures of cognitive style in earlier work lacked ecological validity.

As the authors note:
"Farming requires harmonious group collaboration. Moreover, farmers are largely sedentary; they are tied to the land they cultivate and, thus, to fixed communities. These factors are likely to encourage a high degree of social interdependence. In contrast, herding activities do not require much cooperation, but rely on individual decision making and autonomy. Moreover, herders are much less sedentary; their capital can be moved to any location with enough nutrition for animals. Herding communities are therefore unlikely to exert much pressure toward cooperation or conformity. Instead, they foster individualistic or independent social orientations" (p. 8552).
The study used a number of measures of cognitive style, including:

(1) The Framed Line Test (p. 8553f).

The figure above is figure 1 from the paper (p. 8554). The left panel represents the test - subjects are shown a square with a line descending from the middle of the top side. They are then asked to draw a line on a second square of a different size, with two different instructions: to draw a line of the same absolute length, and to draw a line that is the same relative length (compared to the sides of the triangle). To do better at the first task it helps to ignore the context (the square) and focus on the line, whereas the opposite holds in the second case. As the right hand panel (illustrating mean length error in millimeters for each task) shows, the herders made comparatively larger errors in the relative task, and comparatively smaller ones in the absolute task.

(2) A categorisation task (p. 8554).

In this task subjects repeatedly said which two of three depicted objects belonged together, where two of the three (e.g. a glove and a scarf - see panel a in the figure below) shared a mostly categorical relationship, whereas another two (e.g. a glove and a hand - again, see figure below) shared a mostly functional or contextual relationship. As predicted herders showed less of a tendency to opt for functional/contextual pairings in favour of categorical ones.

(3) Similarity task (p. 8554,5).

In this task, which I won't describe in much detail, it was found that Farmers and fishermen “more often perceived similarities based on holistic judgments of family resemblance” whereas herders preferred to decide similarity on the basis of a “unidimensional rule”.

This is all very interesting - although the effect sizes for differences in 'cognitive style' are not large, they're present, and they're apparently related to the sort of differences in level of social interdependence that informed the design of the study. It's also important in a number of ways. These differences might well be important at least near the margins for the effectiveness of things like public health campaigns, teaching methods, political decision making, and advertising. We need to know more, including more on how early in life the differences are measurable, and how enduring they are, for example whether differences are still measurable after one, or five, or more years following a change from one level of interdependence to another.


Nisbett RE (2003) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... And Why (Free Press, New York).

A. K. Uskul, S. Kitayama, R. E. Nisbett (2008). Ecocultural basis of cognition: Farmers and fishermen are more holistic than herders Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (25), 8552-8556 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803874105

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