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Culture forms how we learn to reason?

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  Culture forms how we learn to reason?
Children were shown that either identical pairs of blocks or improper pairs of blocks enabled a toy to play music. They were then asked to choose which novel couple would do the trick. Credit: Carstensen et al PNAS .

If you made any plans for next week, congratulations! You have shown a key function to be human: be able to think beyond here and now ̵

1; or think abstractly. But when children learn different types of abstract thought, and how, it is still warmly discussed by psychologists. Now, new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the cultural environment can play a role.

The paper entitled "Context Shapes Early Diversity in Abstract Thought" describes three experiments involving nearly 400 children in the United States and China aged 18 to 48 months old.

The children were tested on their "relational reasoning" Competence. Specifically, they were tested for their ability to assume the abstract concepts of "same" and "different" from pairs of blocks that either matched or not.

The youngest children in the United States and China seem to have similar successes. At the age of 3, the Chinese children agree with their American counterparts, the research shows.

The under-3 set does comparatively well to recognize the relationship between block pairs, whether they are equal or different, if the composition or difference of these blocks is responsible for activating a musical toy. But then the competence in the two cultures differs for a while. When one also has to choose between favoring an object-based solution (concrete thinking) and a relationship-based solution (abstract), American 3-year-olds enjoy the former while Chinese 3-year-olds on the other hand go for the latter.

Why? Why does the development curve for American children look like a "U", with relational reasoning skills emerging around 3 years until they pick up later – while Chinese children do not show such a dip in the middle, and their development seems to follow a linear path?

The red causes may be linguistic, the author's authors suggest, or they may be cultural, environmental or a combination of these. Anything that seems to be at work is a "learned bias", with children in US learning, for a while to focus on objects to the detriment of relationships.

Papers first author is Alexandra Carstensen, now a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University and a visiting researcher at the University of California San Diego. The author of the paper is Caren Walker, professor of psychology at UC San Diego and head of the University's Early Learning and Cognition Lab.

Carstensen and Walker started working with the idea when both were doctoral students at UC Berkeley. Walker had previously shown that children begin to reason abstractly much younger than previously thought (as in the United States they lose the opportunity for a while). This work inspired Carstensen to wonder about the language's possible role.

Both Carstensen and Walker are doing follow-up work to expand the research.

Carstensen and Walker are trying to figure out with academics and undergraduate education in Hungary Germany, Italy, United Kingdom and Pakistan, which cultural features may be most relevant to relational reasoning and the learned prejudice against it.

Meanwhile, Walker and her lab are also doing a number of projects to investigate ways to get preschool children in the US to think more abstractly.

"It doesn't have to be as big as language or cultural context that makes a deep difference," Walker said. "It can be as small as changing some features of the learning environment – or just changing a handful of simple learning settings."

Three months old infants can learn abstract relationships before language comprehension

More information:
Alexandra Carstensen et al., "Context shapes early diversity in abstract thought" PNAS (2019). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1818365116

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University of California – San Diego

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Culture forms how we learn to reason? (2019, June 24)
June 25, 2019
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