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In recent years, researchers in Africa, Asia and elsewhere have found that people in non-Western cultures often have ideas about intelligence that differ fundamentally from those that have shaped Western intelligence tests.

Research on those differences is already providing support for some of the more inclusive Western definitions of intelligence, such as those proposed by APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, of Yale University and Howard Gardner, PhD, of Harvard University's Graduate School of Education (see related article). Eventually, it may also help researchers design new intelligence tests that are sensitive to the values of the cultures in which they are used.

Researchers of cultural differences in intelligence face a major challenge, however: balancing the desire to compare people from various cultures according to a standard measure with the need to assess people in the light of their own values and concepts, says Elena Grigorenko, PhD, deputy director of the Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies and Expertise at Yale.

"On the one hand, mindless application of the same tests across cultures is desired by no one," she suggests. "On the other, everyone would like to be able to do at least some comparisons of people across cultures."

Thinking about thinking

Some cultural differences in intelligence play out on a global scale. In "The Geography of Thought" (Free Press, 2003), Richard Nisbett, PhD, co-director of the Culture and Cognition Program at the University of Michigan, argues that East Asian and Western cultures have developed cognitive styles that differ in fundamental ways, including in how intelligence is understood.

People in Western cultures, he suggests, tend to view intelligence as a means for individuals to devise categories and to engage in rational debate, while people in Eastern cultures see it as a way for members of a community to recognize contradiction and complexity and to play their social roles successfully.

Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. In a study published in Intelligence (Vol. 25, No. 1), Sternberg and Shih-ying Yang, PhD, of National Chi-Nan University in Taiwan, found that Taiwanese-Chinese conceptions of intelligence emphasize understanding and relating to others--including knowing when to show and when not to show one's intelligence. Such differences between Eastern and Western views of intelligence are tied, says Nisbett, to differences in the basic cognitive processes of people in Eastern and Western cultures.

University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Kaiping Peng, PhD, who has collaborated with Nisbett on a number of studies, also believes that there are differences between the cognitive styles of people raised in Eastern and Western cultures. But, like Nisbett, he cautions against the simplistic idea that everyone raised in a particular culture will share equally in that culture's style of thinking, or that someone raised in one culture will be unable to learn the cognitive style of another.

"I don't believe that simply because you are born Asian means you will think like Asians," says Peng. "Culture is not just race, nationality or any particular social category--culture is experience."

The distinction between East Asia and the West is only one of many cultural distinctions that separate different ways of thinking about intelligence. Robert Serpell, PhD, who is returning this year to the University of Zambia after 13 years at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has studied concepts of intelligence in rural African communities since the 1970s.

Serpell and others have found that people in some African communities--especially where Western schooling has not yet become common--tend to blur the Western distinction between intelligence and social competence. In rural Zambia, for instance, the concept of nzelu includes both cleverness (chenjela) and responsibility (tumikila).

"When rural parents in Africa talk about the intelligence of children, they prefer not to separate the cognitive speed aspect of intelligence from the social responsibility aspect," says Serpell.

Over the past several years, Sternberg and Grigorenko also have investigated concepts of intelligence in Africa. Among the Luo people in rural Kenya, Grigorenko and her collaborators have found that ideas about intelligence consist of four broad concepts: rieko, which largely corresponds to the Western idea of academic intelligence, but also includes specific skills; luoro, which includes social qualities like respect, responsibility and consideration; paro, or practical thinking; and winjo, or comprehension. Only one of the four--rieko--is correlated with traditional Western measures of intelligence.

In another study in the same community, Sternberg and his collaborators found that children who score highly on a test of knowledge about medicinal herbs--a measure of practical intelligence--tend to score poorly on tests of academic intelligence.

The results, published in the journal Intelligence (Vol. 29, No. 5), suggest that practical and academic intelligence can develop independently or even in conflict with each other, and that the values of a culture may shape the direction in which a child develops.

They also agree with studies in a number of countries, both industrialized and nonindustrialized, that suggest that people who are unable to solve complex problems in the abstract can often solve them when they are presented in a familiar context.

The end result of this research is twofold. As Sternberg has pointed out, lay theories of intelligence often lack the precision of scientific theories, but they can suggest new avenues of research, shed light on how people use intelligence in everyday life and highlight aspects of intelligence that scientific theories have ignored. Studying intelligence in different cultures can thus be a way of challenging conventional Western ideas about intelligence.

Research in non-Western cultures can also be directly useful to people in those cultures. It indicates the extent to which Western intelligence tests measure what those cultures are interested in measuring, and it may suggest alternative, culturally appropriate methods of assessing skills and abilities.

'Culture free?'

Are "culture-free" or "culture-fair" intelligence tests possible, or is success on a test inevitably influenced by familiarity with the culture in which the test was developed?

Moreover, is it desirable--or even possible--to adapt Western tests to non-Western cultures, or should new tests be designed from the ground up to measure skills and abilities valued by the culture in which they are to be used?

Many psychologists believe that the idea that a test can be completely absent of cultural bias--a recurrent hope of test developers in the 20th century--is contradicted by the weight of the evidence. Raven's Progressive Matrices, for example, is one of several nonverbal intelligence tests that were originally advertised as "culture free," but are now recognized as culturally loaded.

Patricia Greenfield, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that nonverbal intelligence tests are based on cultural constructs, such as the matrix, that are ubiquitous in some cultures but almost nonexistent in others. In societies where formal schooling is common, she says, students gain an early familiarity with organizing items into rows and columns, which gives them an advantage over test-takers in cultures where formal schooling is rare.

Similarly, says Greenfield, media technologies like television, film and video games give test-takers from cultures where those technologies are widespread an advantage on visual tests, while test-takers from cultures where the language-based media are more common have advantages on verbal tests.

"I think it's important to point out that nonverbal tests or visual tests are the most culture-bound of all," she says. "They are not 'culture free' and they are not 'culture fair'; in fact, they are less fair than verbal tests."

Greenfield does not, however, believe that administering valid tests of ability in other cultures is impossible--just that it requires a deep familiarity with each culture's values and practices.

Recently, she and Ashley Maynard, PhD, now a professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, conducted studies of cognitive development among children in a Zinacantec Mayan village in Chiapas, Mexico, using toy looms, spools of thread and other materials drawn from the local environment. The research convinced Greenfield that the children's development can be validly compared to the progression described by Western theories of development, but only by using testing materials and experimental designs based on the Zinacantec culture.

According to Serpell, simply translating a Western test into the local language is not enough. Instead, it is critical to tailor each test to the needs and values of the culture in which it is to be used.

Unless that happens, says Serpell, "you're just going to be able to pick out more efficiently those individuals who would be considered intelligent by Western standards, but you're not going to be able to answer the question of whether you're picking out people who are most intelligent according to the standards of their culture."