Cultural psychologists approach the mind as a set of psychological processes that both reflect and reproduce cultural worlds, explained the field's proponents at the 2004 University of British Columbia Mind, Culture and Evolution conference. On a first day devoted to cultural psychology research, presenters covered psychological processes ranging from perception to reasoning and cultural worlds ranging from contemporary Oceania to ancient East Asia.

  • Color perception. Psychologist Debi Roberson, PhD, of the University of Essex demonstrated that the Berinmo-speaking hunter-gatherers of Papua New Guinea divide all visible colors into only five categories, compared with the 11 categories that English speakers use. Among other differences, Berinmo speakers pool blue with green, but divide darker and lighter greens into separate categories. Roberson speculated that traditional cultures might only attend to colors that indicate a useful property, such as edibility of leaves. Cultures with the technology to change the colors of things, however, may divvy up the visual spectrum differently.

  • Self-understanding. A relatively well-known finding is that European-Americans are likely to view themselves as fundamentally independent, separate and unique, while people from many other cultural contexts are likely to view themselves as fundamentally interdependent, connected and relational. University of Michigan psychologist Shinobu Kitayama, PhD, presented laboratory studies showing that independent European-Americans are keener to influence others and to pursue individual achievement, while interdependent Japanese are keener to adjust to others and to cultivate empathy.

Expanding on the independence/interdependence distinction, University of British Columbia psychologist Steven Heine, PhD, then showed that independent selves are more motivated to pursue high self-esteem. Interdependent selves, however, seem more motivated by the desire not to lose face, he said. For instance, in an early laboratory experiment, Heine and his colleagues found that European-Canadians worked harder at tasks on which they were succeeding, because success boosts self-esteem. Japanese, however, worked harder at tasks on which they were failing, so as not to fall short of social expectations. Heine suggested that concerns with self-esteem versus face show that while people everywhere want to have positive self-views, cultures differ in what a positive self-view entails.

  • The roots of reasoning. University of Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett, PhD, likewise explored East-West differences, locating their sources in the soils of Greece and China. Ancient Greece was mostly mountains that could not support much farming, and so gave rise to competitive, individualistic businessmen, he conjectured. Ancient China, in contrast, had good soil and irrigation, and so gave rise to cooperative, collectivistic agriculturalists. Nisbett explained that heirs to the two philosophical traditions still differ not only in their social relations, but also in how they distribute their attention, explain events and reason about contradictions. For example, Nisbett and his colleagues' research indicates that to this day, Westerners try to figure out which of two conflicting arguments is right, while Easterners try to figure out how to reconcile conflicting arguments. Thus Easterners and Westerners differ not only in what they think about, but also in how they think about it.

--A.C. SNIBBE