Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

17.7: Cultural Effects on Learning

  • Page ID
    12291
  • As shown above, Dollard and Miller regularly incorporated interesting cultural examples in their work relating learning theory to psychodynamic processes. Though it may not be obvious, Skinner’s radical behaviorism is as intercultural as any theory. A detailed analysis of environmental influences on behavior, including past contingencies and present cues, must incorporate an examination of the unique cultural factors that are part and parcel of those contingencies in different cultural groups. In addition, of course, some psychologists today continue to study relationships between culture and learning.

    Tweed and Lehman (2002) compared Western and Chinese learning styles by using two extraordinary teachers from ancient times as examples of these potentially different styles: Confucius and Socrates. Their article begins with an attempt to address the likely controversy that accompanies such a study. They carefully and thoughtfully point out that one can easily misunderstand any contrast between cultures that are difficult to define. For example, what does “Western” mean? Does it really mean European-Americans, or does that leave out Canadians, Australians, and non-European Westerners? So, Tweed and Lehman prefer the terms culturally Western and culturally Chinese, openly admitting that another important issue is that some Western people may be culturally Chinese and vice versa. They also point out their study was meant to be descriptive, not judgmental. Having presented such caveats, they proceeded with their study, and yet received some criticism nonetheless (Gurung, 2003; Li, 2003; see also the response to these critiques by Tweed & Lehman, 2003).

    Tweed and Lehman offer the following generalizations about culturally Western and culturally Chinese learning: culturally Western learning focuses on overt and private questioning, expressing personal hypotheses, and a desire for self-directed tasks, whereas culturally Chinese learning emphasizes effort-focused learning, pragmatic orientations, and acceptance of behavior reform as an academic goal (Tweed & Lehman, 2002). In keeping with their non-judgmental attitude, they suggest that these disparate approaches both have their place in education, and that the ideal situation for students would be one that is academically bicultural, an environment that offers the opportunity for the strengths of each approach to learning to come out:

    …These students would be in a sense academically bicultural and could operate adaptively within environments requiring Confucian or Socratic approaches…Educators…would encourage both thoughtful acquisition (Confucian) and inquiry (Socratic) such that students acquire knowledge and thinking skills that become fully understood, active, and elicited in many domains beyond the academic context. (pg. 97; Tweed & Lehman, 2002)

    One of the individuals who commented on Tweed and Lehman’s article, Jin Li, has focused more directly on how cultural factors influence learning itself. As essential difference between culturally Western and culturally Chinese learning is that Socrates proposed that the best learners develop and use their minds to inquire into the world, whereas the great Chinese tutor Mencius taught that becoming a better, more virtuous person is the most essential quality for a learner (Li, 2005). This perspective is reminiscent of Wober’s study on intelligence amongst the Baganda people in Africa. They consider intelligence to be something closer to what we would call wisdom, and their educational system is focused on an individual’s ability to succeed by conforming to the expectations of society, rather than on the ability to solve new and independent problems (Wober, 1974). Since cultural attitudes and beliefs develop early in life (Ferraro, 2006a; Matsumoto & Juang, 2004), a valuable educational objective would be to emphasize the strengths of each approach to learning as early as possible in the school years (or even during the preschool years).

    In addition to broad-based effects of culture on learning in general, culture also comes into play for many of the aspects of learning we have examined in this chapter. Henrich et al. (2006) recently demonstrated that a wide variety of societies are willing to participate in costly punishment in order to encourage cooperation among groups. In other words, each party to an agreement is motivated to abide by the agreement because the consequences of breaking it are severe. This study involved fifteen different cultural groups from Africa, North America, South America, Asia, and Oceania, suggesting that willingness to cooperate as a function of severe punishment is universal. Language, which Skinner believed is learned just like any other behavior, appears to be essential for the development of autobiographical memory, which serves primarily social and cultural functions and is intimately related to social and cultural development (Fivush & Nelson, 2004). Presenting an interesting perspective on conflict, Eidelson and Eidelson (2003) have identified five belief domains that propel groups toward conflict. When individuals experience feelings of superiority, injustice, vulnerability, distrust, or helplessness, there is a good chance they will feel frustrated. When their individual-level core beliefs parallel the group-level worldview, the situation may trigger or constrain conflict or, possibly, trigger violent struggle (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2003). In such situations, the worldview of the larger group may be serving as a discriminative stimulus that it is acceptable to act out on one’s individual frustration, since the society in which one lives is likely to reinforce any subsequent aggression (since they share the individual’s frustration). In the next two chapters, we take a closer look at how the social environment and cognitive processes contribute to the development of our personality.