A new joint study from researchers at the University of Alberta and the University of Wisconsin looks at how cultural differences affect the way children of different backgrounds perceive the world around them. The research compared the descriptive tendencies of Canadian and Japanese children aged four to nine in order to track differences in perception and cognition based on cultural influence. And, not surprisingly, it turns out that parents play a dominant role in perpetuating culture-based frameworks for taking in and describing the world.
Researchers have known for some time that culture affects how we observe and even what we pay attention to. One fundamental difference stems from whether the focus of attention is centralized or contextual – for example, when American and Japanese undergraduates were asked to describe a short video sequence depicting an underwater scene, the American students had a greater tendency to talk about the large fish in the centre of the frame whereas the Japanese students had a greater tendency to talk about the context of the scene itself (the water, the environment surrounding the fish, etc.)
Another difference hinges on the stories we come up with to explain events -one study showed that Indian children were found to more often refer to external factors such as social constraints as causes whereas American children more often referred to internal factors such as an individual’s personality.
Canadian 7- to 9-year-olds were more likely than Japanese children to discuss focal objects, while Japanese 7- to 9-year-olds were more likely than Canadian children to discuss contextual information.
And researchers in developmental psychology know that as children grow and develop, these cultural variations in attention get built up over time. The current study gives insight into how and when this process occurs, by looking at interactions between parents and children and how children mimic parents’ observations and explanations.
“Our main goal was to investigate how parents communicate to their children in culturally dominant modes of attention before their children demonstrate a stabilized internalization of such culturally unique patterns of attention,” said the study’s authors.
The study recruited 70 Canadian children from Edmonton, Alberta, and 71 children from Kyoto and Tokyo and asked them to describe scenes on video terminals, first on their own and then with the help of their parent(s). The results showed that when working independently, the children did not show marked cultural differences in how they described the scenes but that when accompanied by their parents, the children produced more culturally varied scene descriptions.
Further, these differences became more pronounced as the age of the child increased between four to nine.
“Mirroring their parents’ guidance,” the study’s authors said, “Canadian 7- to 9-year-olds were more likely than Japanese children to discuss focal objects, while Japanese 7- to 9-year-olds were more likely than Canadian children to discuss contextual information.”
The authors see this as a form of cultural transmission and say that future studies should focus on identifying sources of transmission other than parents, such as peer groups, teachers and siblings.
The study was published this month online in the journal PLoS One.