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The Construction of Intelligence in Terms of Cultural Differences between East and West

Alice Bolton

2008-01-01 00:00:00

As human beings, we live in societies that create their own systems of meanings through the process known as culture. This system of meanings is encoded in language and other symbols and maintained by a set of institutions over time (Serpell 1994).

As cultural differences continue to be an important part of life, we need to examine how different cultures make sense of the world in terms of the meanings that represent the mind, and within which the concept of intelligence is defined. First, I will explore some basic philosophical views about the conception of intelligence which I believe constitute the root of cultural constructions of the notion.

Historical conceptions of intelligence

Some scholars of the past, such as philosophers, writers and theologians, explored intelligence but did not attempt to define the nature of intelligence. For example, in the Odyssey, Homer distinguished between good looks and good thinking. He remarked that one may have a poor physical appearance but may speak in an articulate way. Another man may be handsome but lack the ability to communicate well with others. Plato made his comments regarding the nature of intelligence in Theaetetus. In the dialogue, Socrates asks Theaetetus to imagine that there exists in the mind of man a block of wax that is of different sizes in different men. The block of wax can also differ in hardness, moistness and purity. Socrates suggests that when the wax is pure and sufficiently deep, the mind will learn easily and will not be subject to confusion. Because impressions in the wax are clear, it only will think things that are true. However, when the wax is impure or very soft or very hard, there will be defects in the intellect. People whose wax is soft will be good at learning but be apt to forget. People whose wax is hard will be slow to learn but will retain what they learn. People whose wax is shaggy or gritty, or whose wax is a mixture of earth and dung will have only indistinct impressions. Those with hard wax will have the same because there will be no depth to their thoughts (Sternberg 1985).

In the Posterior Analytics Book, Aristotle conceived of intelligence in terms of “quick wit.” For example, an intelligent person seeing someone in conversation with a man of wealth might conclude quickly that the person is seeking to borrow money from the wealthy man.

Cultural conceptualization of intelligence

In recent years, researchers have found that people in Eastern and Western cultures often have fundamentally different ideas about intelligence. Richard Nisbett, in The Geography of Thought, argues that these differences are due to the different cognitive styles of both cultures, including how intelligence is understood. He suggests that people in Western countries 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 community to recognize contradiction and complexity and to play their social roles successfully.

I think, as Nisbett says these differences between Eastern and Western views of intelligence are related to differences in the basic cognitive processes of people in those cultures. In most cases, Western notions of intelligence are not shared by other cultures. For example, at the mental level, the Western emphasis on speed of mental processing (Sternberg 1981) is not shared by many cultures. In contrast, people in Eastern countries may even be suspicious of the quality of work done very quickly and emphasize depth rather than speed.

Similarly, Chen (1994) found three factors underlying Chinese conceptualizations of intelligence: nonverbal reasoning ability, verbal reasoning ability and memory. These factors differ substantially from American people’s conceptualizations of intelligence which have mostly mental attributions, such as: practical problem solving, verbal ability and social competence (Sternberg 1981).

About Eastern notions of intelligence, Das (1994) has suggested that in Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, intelligence involves waking up, noticing, recognizing, understanding, and comprehending but also includes such things like determination, mental effort, and even feelings and opinions (Sternberg and Kaufman 1998). In a related study, Yang and Sternberg reviewed Chinese philosophical conceptions of intelligence. The Confucian perspective emphasizes the characteristic of benevolence and of doing what is right. Again, Taoist culture emphasizes the importance of humility, freedom from conventional standards of judgment, and full knowledge of oneself which appears well-correlated with Plato’s “Know yourself” notion.
Differences between cultures in conceptions of intelligence have been recognized for some time. In a study, Gill and Keats (1980) reported that Australian University students value academic skills and the ability to adapt to new situations as critical to intelligence, while Malay students emphasize practical skills, such as speed and creativity, as well as both social and cognitive attributes in their conceptions of intelligence.

Studies done in Africa provide evidence of substantial differences in the notion of intelligence. Serpell (1974, 1977, and 1982) found that people in Zambia emphasize social responsibilities, cooperativeness, and obedience as important to intelligence; intelligent children are expected to be respectful of adults. In Zimbabwe, the word intelligence means to be prudent and cautious, especially in social relationships (Dasen 1984). As in many Eastern countries, service to the family and community, politeness and respect for elders are seen as the key to intelligence.

In his study. The Geography of Thought, researcher Nisbett, compares the Greeks and the Chinese in order toshow the different cognitive styles of East and West, which in turn causes different conceptions of intelligence. The Ancient Greeks were known for their strong sense of agency, the ability to exercise free will, while the Chinese found their belief system in harmony. The Greeks also had a curiosity about the nature of the world. They were not satisfied just to make systematic observations about the world; they were also interested in the underlying principles of their observations. Debate and confrontation were discouraged in Chinese society, whereas they were encouraged in Greece. The Eastern way of life is based on the principle that the life is ever-changing and filled with contradictions. It was interrelationships that defined the Chinese; who they were with would define who they were and what roles they were to fulfill. The sense of identity was defined by social context, by individual attributes while in Greece, objects and people would be analyzed separately. These fundamental differences in thought patterns have implications that extend to all aspects of life.

At this point, the differences seen in the individualistic culture of the West and the collectivistic (Petersen 2004) culture of the East need more attention to provide a better picture of the notion of intelligence in terms of its cultural construction.

Different thinking styles of East and West

There are some assumptions which are thought to be true by most Westerners. That is, they are individuals with characteristics that make them distinctive; moreover, we want to be unique. Westerners are in control of their own behavior and feel better when they believe that they can choose and control the outcomes of their actions. They are goal-oriented and success-driven (Nisbett 2004), and relationships can sometimes interfere with attaining success. Personal success and feeling positive about oneself are important for the sense of well-being.

Conversely, Easterners are less concerned with personal success; they are far more group driven (Nisbett 2004). Their sense of well-being is related to their being in harmony with those around them; moreover, rules that apply to relationships are not universal, instead relationships are dictated by the context and are unique to the roles each holds in that context. This collective sense of the East extends also to language. For example, in the Japanese language, there are many words for “I,” each dependent on the situation. Who “I” am is different when I am with a boss, co-worker, family member, or friend. In my home country, in Turkey which has strong Eastern roots; there is still the tradition of using “We” instead of ‘I’ in an effort to be humble and avoid egocentric ownership of success. In contrast, Americans rarely take context into account when asked for self descriptions. Moreover, Americans are more likely to overestimate their personal attributes (Nisbett 2004). On the other hand, it is the goal of harmony and fulfilling one’s role in social life to achieve collective success that prevails in Eastern culture.

Another notion of Eastern culture that has a substantial effect on its cultural conceptions of true intelligence and progress is self -criticism which is regarded as part of learning. Self-criticism is taught to Japanese children to help them learn how to solve problems and improve relationships with others. Again, in Turkey, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and some other Islamic scholars affect people’s conceptualizations of progress and success, such as, “Happy are those whose own faults preoccupy them too much to think of the faults of others” and “The strongest among you is the one who controls his anger.”

Differences in culture start early in life and continue throughout life. Western parents encourage their children to be independent. Generally they do this by focusing attention on objects. In Eastern cultures, parents focus attention on social relationships and feelings. When children grow up, the differences can be seen in experiments, for example, that Easterners’ have a superior ability to be aware of the emotions of groups of others (Peterson 2004). One theory that accounts for this difference is communication styles. In the West, it is the communicator who is responsible for making the information clear to the listener. In the East, it is the responsibility of the hearers to understand what they are told. The implication of these two contrasting styles can leave Americans feeling that Easterners are difficult to “read” because of their subtle and indirect communication styles. Conversely, Easterners may feel Americans are so direct that they may even be thought to be rude (Nisbett 2004).

Not surprisingly, the East and West have very different styles of dealing with conflict. As in ancient China, debate is still uncommon in the East. Because argument and debate pose a threat to group harmony, what Westerners consider controversial topics would not be brought up in conversation in the East (Becker 1986). Moreover, while debate is part of the rhetoric of science in the West, a skill Westerners are taught throughout their education, it is new to many Easterners that come to the West to pursue a scientific career.
Easterners and Westerners also differ in their perception of control. In Western culture, feeling in control promotes a feeling of well-being to a much greater extent than it does for Easterners (Nisbett 2004). On the other hand, Westerners have more difficulty tolerating ambiguous situations than Easterners. Westerners tend to believe that if things are going to change, it will be in the same direction and at the same level, whereas Easterners see the world as a complex dynamic system (Peterson 2004).

It is at this point that researchers (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, Norenzayan 2001) comment that Easterners appear to think more holistically, paying greater attention to relationship and context, relying more on experience-based knowledge than abstract logic and showing more tolerance for contradiction. Westerners are more analytic in their thinking, tending to separate objects from their context, to avoid contradictions and to rely more heavily on formal logic.


Taken all together, it is certain that people who grow up in different cultures do not just think about different things but they think differently. Thus, the connotations of the word intelligence do not only include a particular set of mental functions but also some value-based conceptions of appropriateness, such as competence, helpfulness, and so on. So, for example, when someone tells a parent that their child is very intelligent, they may be talking about child’s education, or their good relations with others, and sometimes their being a good listener, or lots of other meanings which all depend on the context of the culture in which people live.


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