Chat with us, powered by LiveChat Read over the following articles and describe how a different cultural context might play a role in attribution (we will discuss this topic much more in the coming weeks).? Write a 3-pag |

Read over the following articles and describe how a different cultural context might play a role in attribution (we will discuss this topic much more in the coming weeks).? Write a 3-pag

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Current Directions in Psychological Science

Culture and Causal Cognition Ara Norenzayan and Richard E. Nisbett

Current Directions in Psychological Science 2000 9: 132 DOI: 10.1111/1467-8721.00077

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Psychologists within the cogni- tive science tradition have long be- lieved that fundamental reasoning processes such as causal attribution are the same in all cultures (Gard- ner, 1985). Although recognizing that the content of causal beliefs can differ widely across cultures, psychologists have assumed that the ways in which people come to make their causal judgments are

essentially the same, and therefore that they tend to make the same sorts of inferential errors. A case in point is the fundamental attribu- tion error, or FAE (Ross, 1977), a phenomenon that is of central im- portance to social psychology and until recently was held to be invari- able across cultures. The FAE refers to people’s incli-

nation to see behavior as the result of dispositions corresponding to the apparent nature of the behav- ior. This tendency often results in error when there are obvious situ- ational constraints that leave little or no role for dispositions in pro- ducing the behavior. The classic ex- ample of the FAE was demon- strated in a study by Jones and Harris (1967) in which participants read a speech or essay that a target person had allegedly been required to produce by a debate coach or psychology experimenter. The speech or essay favored a particu- lar position on an issue, for ex- ample, the legalization of mari- juana. Participants’ estimates of the target’s actual views on the issue reflected to a substantial extent the views expressed in the speech or essay, even when they knew that the target had been explicitly in- structed to defend a particular po- sition. Thus, participants inferred an attitude that corresponded to the target person’s apparent behav- ior, without taking into account the situational constraints operating on the behavior. Since that classic study, the FAE has been found in myriad studies in innumerable ex- perimental and naturalistic con- texts, and it has been a major focus of theorizing and a continuing

source of instructive pedagogy for psychology students.

It turns out, however, that the FAE is much harder to demon- strate with Asian populations than with European-American popula- tions (Choi, Nisbett, & Noren- zayan, 1999). Miller (1984) showed that Hindu Indians preferred to ex- plain ordinary life events in terms of the situational context in which they occurred, whereas Americans were much more inclined to ex- plain similar events in terms of pre- sumed dispositions. Morris and Peng (1994) found that Chinese newspapers and Chinese students living in the United States tended to explain murders (by both Chi- nese and American perpetrators) in terms of the situation and even the societal context confronting the murderers, whereas American newspapers and American stu- dents were more likely to explain the murders in terms of presumed dispositions of the perpetrators. Recently Jones and Harris’s

(1967) experiment was repeated with Korean and American partici- pants (Choi et al., 1999). Like Americans, the Koreans tended to assume that the target person held the position he was advocating. But the two groups responded quite differently if they were placed in the same situation them- selves before they made judgments about the target. When observers were required to write an essay, us- ing four arguments specified by the experimenter, the Americans were unaffected, but the Koreans were greatly affected. That is, the Ameri- cans’ judgments about the target’s attitudes were just as much influ- enced by the target’s essay as if they themselves had never experi- enced the constraints inherent in the situation, whereas the Koreans

Culture and Causal Cognition Ara Norenzayan and Richard E. Nisbett1

Centre de Récherche en Epistemologie Appliquée, Ecole Polytechnique, Paris, France (A.N.), and Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan (R.E.N.)

Published by Blackwell Publishers Inc.


Abstract East Asian and American

causal reasoning differs signifi- cantly. East Asians understand behavior in terms of complex interactions between disposi- tions of the person or other ob- ject and contextual factors, whereas Americans often view social behavior primarily as the direct unfolding of disposi- tions. These culturally differ- ing causal theories seem to be rooted in more pervasive, cul- ture-specific mentalities in East Asia and the West. The West- ern mentality is analytic, focus- ing attention on the object, cat- egorizing it by reference to its attributes, and ascribing cau- sality based on rules about it. The East Asian mentality is ho- listic, focusing attention on the field in which the object is lo- cated and ascribing causality by reference to the relationship between the object and the field.

Keywords causal attribution; culture; at- tention; reasoning


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almost never inferred that the tar- get person had the attitude ex- pressed in the essay. This is not to say that Asians do

not use dispositions in causal anal- ysis or are not occasionally suscep- tible to the FAE. Growing evidence indicates that when situational cues are not salient, Asians rely on dispositions or manifest the FAE to the same extent as Westerners (Choi et al., 1999; Norenzayan, Choi, & Nisbett, 1999). The cultural difference seems to originate pri- marily from a stronger East Asian tendency to recognize the causal power of situations. The cultural differences in the

FAE seem to be supported by dif- ferent folk theories about the causes of human behavior. In one study (Norenzayan et al., 1999), we asked participants how much they agreed with paragraph descrip- tions of three different philoso- phies about why people behave as they do: (a) a strongly disposition- ist philosophy holding that “how people behave is mostly deter- mined by their personality,” (b) a strongly situationist view holding that behavior “is mostly deter- mined by the situation” in which people find themselves, and (c) an interactionist view holding that be- havior “is always jointly deter- mined by personality and the situ- ation.” Korean and American participants endorsed the first po- sition to the same degree, but Ko- reans endorsed the situationist and interactionist views more strongly than did Americans. These causal theories are consis-

tent with cultural conceptions of personality as well. In the same study (Norenzayan et al., 1999), we administered a scale designed to measure agreement with two different theories of personality: entity theory, or the belief that be- havior is due to relatively fixed dis- positions such as traits, intelli- gence, and moral character, and incremental theory, or the belief

that behavior is conditioned on the situation and that any relevant dis- positions are subject to change (Dweck, Hong, & Chiu, 1993). Ko- reans for the most part rejected en- tity theory, whereas Americans were equally likely to endorse en- tity theory and incremental theory.

The cultural differences in cau- sal cognition go beyond interpreta- tions of human behavior. Morris and Peng (1994) showed cartoons of an individual fish moving in a variety of configurations in relation to a group of fish and asked par- ticipants why they thought the ac- tions had occurred. Chinese par- ticipants were inclined to attribute the behavior of the individual fish to factors external to the fish (i.e., the group), whereas American par- ticipants were more inclined to at- tribute the behavior of the fish to internal factors. In studies by Peng and Nisbett (reported in Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, in press), Chinese participants were shown to interpret even the behav- ior of schematically drawn, am- biguous physical events—such as a round object dropping through a surface and returning to the sur- face—as being due to the relation between the object and the pre- sumed medium (e.g., water), whereas Americans tended to in- terpret the behavior as being due to the properties of the object alone.

The Intellectual Histories of East Asia and Europe

Why should Asians and Ameri- cans perceive causality so differ- ently? Scholars in many fields, in- cluding ethnography, history, and philosophy of science, hold that, at least since the 6th century B.C.,

there has been a very different in- tellectual tradition in the West than in the East (especially China and those cultures, like the Korean and Japanese, that were heavily influ- enced by China; Nisbett et al., in press). The ancient Greeks had an analytic stance: The focus was on categorizing the object with refer- ence to its attributes and explaining its behavior using rules about its category memberships. The an- cient Chinese had a holistic stance, meaning that there was an orienta- tion toward the field in which the object was found and a tendency to explain the behavior of the object in terms of its relations with the field. In support of these propositions,

there is substantial evidence that early Greek and Chinese science and mathematics were quite differ- ent in their strengths and weak- nesses. Greek science looked for universal rules to explain events and was concerned with categoriz- ing objects with respect to their es- sences. Chinese science (some people would say it was a technol- ogy only, though a technology vastly superior to that of the Greeks) was more pragmatic and concrete and was not concerned with foundations or universal laws. The difference between the Greek and Chinese orientations is well captured by Aristotle’s phys- ics, which explained the behavior of an object without reference to the field in which it occurs. Thus, a stone sinks into water because it has the property of gravity, and a piece of wood floats because it has the property of levity. In contrast, the principle that events always oc- cur in some context or field of forces was understood early on in China. Some writers have suggested

that the mentality of East Asians remains more holistic than that of Westerners (e.g., Nakamura, 1960/ 1988). Thus, modern East Asian laypeople, like the ancient Chinese intelligentsia, are attuned to the

Copyright © 2000 American Psychological Society



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field and the overall context in de- termining events. Western civiliza- tion was profoundly shaped by an- cient Greece, so one would expect the Greek intellectual stance of ob- ject focus to be widespread in the West.

Attention to the Field Versus the Object

If East Asians tend to believe that causality lies in the field, they would be expected to attend to the field. If Westerners are more in- clined to believe that causality in- heres in the object, they might be expected to pay relatively more at- tention to the object than to the field. There is substantial evidence that this is the case. Attention to the field as a whole

on the part of East Asians suggests that they might find it relatively difficult to separate the object from the field. This notion rests on the concept of field dependence (Witkin, Dyk, Faterson, Goodenough, & Karp, 1974). Field dependence re- fers to a relative difficulty in sepa- rating objects from the context in which they are located. One way of measuring field dependence is by means of the rod-and-frame test. In this test, participants look into a long rectangular box at the end of which is a rod. The rod and the box frame can be rotated indepen- dently of one another, and partici- pants are asked to state when the rod is vertical. Field dependence is indicated by the extent to which the orientation of the frame influ- ences judgments of the verticality of the rod. The judgments of East Asian (mostly Chinese) partici- pants have been shown to be more field dependent than those of American participants (Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, in press). In a direct test of whether East

Asians pay more attention to the field than Westerners do (Masuda & Nisbett, 1999), Japanese and

American participants saw under- water scenes that included one or more focal fish (i.e., fish that were larger and faster moving than other objects in the scene) among many other objects, including smaller fish, small animals, plants, rocks, and coral. When asked to re- call what they had just viewed, the Japanese and American partici- pants reported equivalent amounts of detail about the focal fish, but the Japanese reported far more de- tail about almost everything else in the background and made many more references to interactions be- tween focal fish and background objects. After watching the scenes, the participants were shown a focal fish either on the original back- ground or on a new one. The abil- ity of the Japanese to recognize a particular focal fish was impaired if the fish was shown on the “wrong” background. Americans’ recognition was uninfluenced by this manipulation.

Most of the cross-cultural com- parisons we have reviewed com- pared participants who were highly similar with respect to key demographic variables, namely, age, gender, socioeconomic status, and educational level. Differences in cognitive abilities were con- trolled for or ruled out as potential explanations for the data in studies involving a task (e.g., the rod-and- frame test) that might be affected by such abilities. Moreover, the predicted differences emerged re- gardless of whether the East Asians were tested in their native lan- guages in East Asian countries or tested in English in the United States. Thus, the lack of obvious al- ternative explanations, combined with positive evidence from intel-

lectual history and the convergence of the data across a diverse set of studies (conducted in laboratory as well as naturalistic contexts), points to culturally shared causal theories as the most likely explanation for the group differences. But why might ancient societies

have differed in the causal theories they produced and passed down to their contemporary successor cul- tures? Attempts to answer such questions must, of course, be high- ly speculative because they involve complex historical and sociological issues. Elsewhere, we have sum- marized the views of scholars who have suggested that fundamental differences between societies may result from ecological and eco- nomic factors (Nisbett et al., in press). In China, people engaged in intensive farming many centuries before Europeans did. Farmers need to be cooperative with one an- other, and their societies tend to be collectivist in nature. A focus on the social field may generalize to a holistic understanding of the world. Greece is a land where the mountains descend to the sea and large-scale agriculture is not pos- sible. People earned a living by keeping animals, fishing, and trad- ing. These occupations do not re- quire so much intensive coopera- tion, and the Greeks were in fact highly individualistic. Individual- ism in turn encourages attending only to the object and one’s goals with regard to it. The social field can be ignored with relative impu- nity, and causal perception can fo- cus, often mistakenly, solely on the object. We speculate that contem- porary societies continue to display these mentalities because the social psychological factors that gave rise to them persist to this day. Several findings by Witkin and

his colleagues (e.g., Witkin et al., 1974), at different levels of analysis, support this historical argument that holistic and analytic cognition originated in collectivist and indi-

Published by Blackwell Publishers Inc.



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vidualist orientations, respectively. Contemporary farmers are more field dependent than hunters and industrialized peoples; American ethnic groups that operate under tighter social constraints are more field dependent than other groups; and individuals who are attuned to social relationships are more field dependent than those who are less focused on social relationships.

A number of questions seem particularly interesting for further inquiry. Should educational prac- tices take into account the differing attentional foci and causal theories of members of different cultural groups? Can the cognitive skills characteristic of one cultural group be transferred to another group? To what extent can economic changes transform the sort of cul- tural-cognitive system we have de- scribed? These and other questions about causal cognition will provide fertile ground for research in the years to come.


1. Address correspondence to Rich- ard E. Nisbett, Department of Psychol- ogy, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109; e-mail: [email protected]edu.


Choi, I., Nisbett, R.E., & Norenzayan, A. (1999). Causal attribution across cultures: Variation and universality. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 47–63.

Dweck, C.S., Hong, Y.-Y., & Chiu, C.-Y. (1993). Implicit theories: Individual differences in the likelihood and meaning of dispositional infer- ence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19, 644–656.

Gardner, H. (1985). The mind’s new science. New York: Basic Books.

Ji, L., Peng, K., & Nisbett, R.E. (in press). Culture, control, and perception of relationships in the environment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Jones, E.E., & Harris, V.A. (1967). The attribution of attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psy- chology, 3, 1–24.

Masuda, T., & Nisbett, R.E. (1999). Culture and at- tention to object vs. field. Unpublished manu- script, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Miller, J.G. (1984). Culture and the development of everyday social explanation. Journal of Person- ality and Social Psychology, 46, 961–978.

Morris, M.W., & Peng, K. (1994). Culture and cause: American and Chinese attributions for social and physical events. Journal of Personal- ity and Social Psychology, 67, 949–971.

Nakamura, H. (1988). The ways of thinking of eastern peoples. New York: Greenwood Press. (Origi- nal work published 1960)

Nisbett, R.E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (in press). Culture and systems of thought: Holistic vs. analytic cognition. Psychological Re- view.

Norenzayan, A., Choi, I., & Nisbett, R.E. (1999). Eastern and Western folk psychology and the pre- diction of behavior. Unpublished manuscript, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 173–220). New York: Academic Press.

Witkin, H.A., Dyk, R.B., Faterson, H.F., Good- enough, D.R., & Karp, S.A. (1974). Psychological differentiation. Potomac, MD: Erlbaum.

Copyright © 2000 American Psychological Society



Recommended Reading

Choi, I., Nisbett, R.E., & Noren- zayan, A. (1999). (See References)

Fiske, A., Kitayama, S., Markus, H.R., & Nisbett, R.E. (1998). The cultural matrix of social psychol- ogy. In D.T. Gilbert, S.T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 915–981). Boston: McGraw- Hill.

Lloyd, G.E.R. (1996). Science in an- tiquity: The Greek and Chinese cases and their relevance to prob- lems of culture and cognition. In D.R. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), Modes of thought: Explorations in culture and cognition (pp. 15–33). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Nisbett, R.E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (in press). (See References)

Sperber, D., Premack, D., & Prem- ack, A.J. (Eds.). (1995). Causal cog- nition: A multidisciplinary debate. Oxford, England: Oxford Univer- sity Press.

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