President's Column

On a recent trip to Russia, I saw once again how much I, as a psychologist, have to teach to psychologists abroad, but more importantly, how much I have to learn from them. The Russian tradition, for example, is quite different but every bit as powerful as the American one. Yet most students of psychology in the United States learn little of Russian psychology, except for the usual tidbits on Pavlov, Vygotsky and perhaps Luria, who are scarcely representative of Russian psychology as a whole. For example, Russian activity theory is a useful antidote to American theories that leave the person "buried in thought." But U.S. students learn little or nothing of it in their psychology education.

Much the same could be said for the psychological traditions in many other countries. We cheat ourselves by not learning about and from them. And we can learn not just from psychologists, but from laypeople as well.

In our own work, we have discovered again and again that findings that we may assume are rock-solid are anything but solid when tested across cultures. For example, in a study we did in rural Kenya (Sternberg et al., 2001), we administered tests of conventional (academic) intelligence and of practical intelligence to children between the ages of 12 and 15. Parasitic infections are endemic among this population. Among the children we tested, more than 95 percent were infected with intestinal worms. Because of the prevalence of these parasitic illnesses, we used as a measure of practical intelligence the children's knowledge of natural herbal medicines used (effectively) to treat parasitic and other illnesses.

We also administered conventional tests of intelligence (fluid and crystallized abilities) and of achievement in English and mathematics. It is usually believed that there is a "general" factor among tests of cognitive abilities, which requires that all cognitive tests intercorrelate positively with each other (the so-called "positive manifold").

We found, in contrast, negative correlations between the academic and practical tests. Why should the correlations be negative? In our society, many of us believe that excellence in educational performance is a ticket to success in life. In the villages where we worked, however, the "smart" children spent their time learning a trade so that they could make a living; the children who were not so smart, in contrast, studied harder in school. American children who wish to be professional musicians, artists, actors, athletes, plumbers, carpenters and many other things may find the same!

We seriously need to understand other cultures, which means working with local collaborators, as we did, to find or devise instruments appropriate to assessing them and programs appropriate for teaching them. Western assessments do not always mean the same thing abroad that they do here.

In overgeneralizing our findings from the West, we risk being accused of the same kind of arrogance and cultural imperialism of which our government is sometimes accused. The problem is not just one of research. A frequent complaint I hear in my travels abroad is that scholars from foreign countries have a great deal of difficulty publishing in American journals. Their styles of research, writing and even thinking may differ from ours, and therefore may be discounted.

In our own research on styles of thinking, we have found that when teachers evaluate students, they tend to:

  • Overestimate the extent to which students think the way they do.

  • More highly value students who think like themselves (Sternberg, 1997; Sternberg & Grigorenko, 1995).

In our treatment of people from abroad, perhaps we do the same--view them as thinking more the way we do than they really do, and then value more highly those who think more as we do.

I remember going to a conference in Venezuela that was scheduled to start at 8:30 a.m. At 8:30, the only ones there were the few North Americans at the conference. Some of them became furious. When the Venezuelans finally arrived an hour or so later, they were surprised that the North Americans would have shown up at the hour stated in the program. Unfortunately, I have had similar experiences at other conferences, where Americans have lost patience with those who do things not poorly, but simply differently.

We have as much to learn from people in other cultures as they do from us. But the first step to learning is the desire to learn, and the realization of just how much one does not know.

Further Reading

  • Sternberg, R.J. (1997). Thinking styles. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Sternberg, R.J., Nokes, K., Geissler, P.W., Prince, R., Okatcha, F., Bundy, D.A., & Grigorenko, E.L. (2001). The relationship between academic and practical intelligence: A case study in Kenya. Intelligence, 29, 401-418.

  • Sternberg, R.J., Grigorenko, E.L. (1995). Styles of thinking in school. European Journal for High Ability, 6(2), 201-219.