Titles and abstracts

Conference: Folk psychology, folk epistemology, and cultural transmission

Early social cognition in three cultural contexts

Tara Callaghan (Psychology, St Francis Xavier University)

To be capable of communicating with others in the culture using shared symbol systems, children must be born with a number of social-cognitive skills, or be able to construct these skills early in life. They must be able to do such things as understand and imitate the intentional actions of others, locate and identify the attentional focus of others, direct the attention of others to outside entities in a communicative way, and to collaborate with others.

In the research presented in this talk we explore the nature of the developmental processes by which human infants and young children acquire the basic social-cognitive skills needed for joining into symbolic communication with others in the cultural group. To date, a number of researchers have extensively explored the social-cognitive foundations of symbolic development, but most of this research has been conducted with children from middle -lass Western cultural contexts.

Although there have been cross-cultural explorations of cognitive development, most of this research focuses on older, school aged children. We know very little about the ways that the particular social and cultural contexts of infants and young children influence their earliest developing social cognitive skills, those that serve as a foundation for symbolic development emerging between two to three years of age.

In the current study we attempted to fill this gap in our knowledge of the impact of culture on early social cognition by investigating, across three very different cultural contexts, the development of several milestones of social cognition in the first three years of life.

In this research we identified four sets of social cognitive foundations and two early symbolic skills for investigation across the three distinct cultures. The foundations explored were:

  1. Gaze following

  2. Pointing

  3. Imitation and intentional understanding

  4. Collaboration with others

The symbolic skills included comprehension and production measures for drawing and pretense.

Three distinct cultural contexts were included in the study. The Canadian context was the same context upon which the majority of research in the literature is based. In addition, we included two village samples, one from agriculturally based villages along a river valley outside of Vijayawada, India. The other sample came from highland Andean villages outside of Huancayo, Peru.

In order to measure the social cognitive foundations across cultural contexts we developed a standard methodology that was based on existing procedures in the literature. Likewise, we measured the early comprehension and production of pictorial and pretend symbols using standard procedures found in the literature.

In all cases, the tasks were presented to infants and young children in the natural manner of play with a friendly adult who was fluent in the language of the child. We present evidence to suggest that the milestones of early social cognition develop along a similar trajectory across the three cultural contexts, but that development of symbolic skills differs depending on the extent to which parents engage in the symbolic systems with their children.

Thus, we conclude that although basic social cognitive foundations must be in place for children to function in the symbolic systems of their culture, the foundations alone cannot ensure symbolic fluency. In addition, support from others in the culture who use the symbols with infants and young children - fully engaging with them using symbols - is a necessary component of full symbolic development.

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Surviving time: Suicide and the persistence of individual and group identities in the face of radical cultural and developmental change. Searching for essentialism where the enlightenment is brightest.

Michael Chandler (Psychology, University of British Columbia)

The relation between time and existence is a shop-worn paradox. On the one hand, 'things', if they are to exist at all, must do so 'in time.' On the other hand, time only ever manifests itself as things changing, a fact that threatens to render the previous existential criteria for persistence (individual or cultural persistence) impossible to attain. Time, in short, simultaneously constitutes and undermines existence. As a result, we must somehow 'manage' this paradox of sameness and change at two levels.

In the first instance, individual or personal persistence (the stuff out of which social responsibility is necessarily fashioned) automatically presupposes that you and I somehow personally endure despite the inevitability of change. Similarly, and at a broader cultural level, everything entailed in there being something like a 'persistent people' likewise presupposes that we have somehow collectively endured. You will not be surprised to learn that there are non-coincidental similarities between what individual persons and whole cultural communities rely upon as solutions to these common problems of temporal persistence.

The work to be presented takes as its text an ongoing program of cross-cultural, developmental research aimed at explicating the nature and consequences of those persistent identities (both individual and cultural) standardly adopted by Canada's culturally mainstream and Aboriginal youth.

At the individual level, key findings include demonstrations: a) that the risks routinely occasioned by disruptions to the process of personal identity development often place adolescents at special risk to futureless acts, including suicide; and b) that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth ordinarily follow different developmental pathways en route to a mature sense of personal persistence.

At the group or 'cultural' level, these data show that whole Aboriginal 'tribes' or 'bands' that succeed in welding connections to their traditional past, and that accomplish a measure of community control over their own civic futures, experience dramatically reduced levels of public distress, again including youth suicide.

As a way of backing these claims two decades of research will be summarised that link suicidal behaviours to failures in the maintenance of personal and cultural identity.

The program of developmental and cross-cultural research to be presented explores the course of identity development in Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth by focusing attention on the different cultural and ontogenetic routes by means of which adolescent members of these distinctive cultures differently come to some workable understanding of their own personal or cultural persistence in time. A special aim of this work is to come to some better understanding of how Indigenous youth accomplish a sense of self and cultural continuity in a post-colonial world that discounts the validity of traditional Aboriginal ways of knowing.

The broad hypothesis explored in this work is that, on threat of otherwise ceasing to be anything that could be recognised as a self or a people, all of us must somehow come to a form of self-understanding that allows us to integrate our present and future with some construction of our personal and collective past.

In the absence of any such coherent temporal horizon, I will argue, all notions of moral responsibility, and all ideas of commitment to an as yet unrealised future would become nonsensical. As such, persistence (both personal and cultural persistence) is not an elective "feature" of selves or cultures, but a "constitutive condition" of their coming into being. One of the outcome measure that I have adopted as a metric of personal and cultural continuity gone wrong is youth suicide.

What ties the notion of personal and cultural persistence to the problem of youth suicide is that without some means of counting oneself and one's culture as continuous in time there would be no reason to show appropriate care and concern for one's own future well-being. The research to be reported explores this proposed relation between individual and collective efforts to achieve a workable sense of personal and cultural persistence, on the one hand, and suicidal and other high-risk behaviours as they occur in both culturally mainstream and Aboriginal youth, on the other.

The strong conclusion supported by the evidence to be presented is that the frequency with which the young people end up killing themselves, or otherwise acting as if there is no tomorrow, is a direct function of their own and their community's success in solving the problem of persistence in a changing world, and securing a individual and collective sense of continuity in time.

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Why imitation is not rational: The role of rationality, resonance, and relevance in imitative learning

György Gergely (Psychology, Central European University)

In this talk I shall re-visit the recent fate of 'rational imitation theory' (Gergely, Bekkering, and Kiraly, 2002, Nature) and compare the different theoretical and empirical reasons that led its original proponents to abandon their own brainchild. In particular, recently Harold Bekkering and his collaborators (Paullus et al., 2009, under review) proposed that the original finding of selective imitation is not due to inferential evaluation of the rationality of the means action within its context, but can be accounted for in lower-level non-inferential processes of motor resonance.

I'll present new evidence to show that Paullus et al.'s empirical basis for their claim is flawed arguing that motor resonance theory cannot account for the original demonstration of imitative learning being selective and inferential (neither for the numerous independent studies that have replicated the effect in different paradigms). I'll then present our own (Gergely and Csibra, 2006; Csibra and Gergely, 2009) - entirely different - reasons for abandoning the original version of the theory.

I'll argue and present evidence to show that 'imitative learning' in ostensive communicative contexts is best accounted for in terms of Natural Pedagogy theory that conceives social communicative cultural learning as a process of 'relevance-guided emulation' that is neither 'rational', nor 'imitative'.

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Domain specific mechanisms in theory of mind: Just how dedicated are they?

Tamsin German (Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara)

Evidence from a variety of sources suggests that everyday belief-desire reasoning might depend at least in part on dedicated "domain specific" cognitive systems. These systems might be specialised because they are the outcome of reliably developing core cognitive learning mechanisms, or the outcome of gradual processes of individual learning and 'expertise' with social interactions. In this talk I will discuss evidence based on studies with adult populations on the possible extent (and limitation) of domain specificity for belief desire reasoning.

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Folk psychology and epistemology of human responses to high mortality epidemics (Ebola) and infant care among hunter-gatherers

Barry Hewlett (Anthropology, Washington State University)

The presentation examines folk psychology and epistemology in two central African contexts. First, human responses to Ebola outbreaks in Uganda and Congo (ROC) are examined-how did local people first explain the outbreaks (sorcery), what kinds of information emerged that led local people to shift their cultural explanation of the outbreak, and how did their alternative indigenous cultural model help to control the outbreak?

Second, infant care among Aka hunter-gatherers is considered. Aka foundational schema are introduced and linked to cultural models of infant care and the subsequent patterns of care, including holding, allomaternal care, allomaternal nursing, co-sleeping and weaning.

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Pedagogy without teaching

David Lancy (Anthropology, Utah State University)

Among the Western intelligentsia, parenting is synonymous with teaching. We are cajoled into beginning our child's education in the womb and feel guilty whenever a 'teaching moment' is squandered. This paper will argue that this reliance on teaching, generally, and especially on parents as teachers is quite recent historically and localised culturally.

The majority of the world’s people follow a laissez faire attitude towards development that relies heavily on children's natural curiosity and motivation to emulate those who are more expert. Peers are often seen as the preferred role models and mentors for younger children. The paper will discuss the implication of prevailing folk pedagogy for children's adaptation to modern forms of schooling.

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Cultural processes and psychological distance

Douglas Medin (Psychology, Northwestern University)

This talk will focus on the charcter and consequences of psychological distance between humans and the rest of nature. We describe cultural differences between rural Native-Americans and their European-American counterparts in the subjectibe proximity of nature and trace their implications for inter-group conflict over natural resources and for science education.

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Interactions between language and theory of mind: Evidence from learners of an emerging sign language in Nicaragua

Jennie Pyers (Psychology, Wellesley University)

Some aspects of understanding others' mental states are dependent on language while other elements of theory of mind develop independently of language ability. Learners of an emerging sign language in Nicaragua provide a key test case of the role that language plays in the development of a theory of mind.

Here, I present several studies demonstrating that mature false-belief understanding depends on the acquisition of language, while the understanding of the relationship between perception and knowledge may develop independently of language. I further consider how language emergence may be shaped by theory of mind development.

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Eco-cultural basis of cognition: Evidence from farmers, herders, and fishermen in the Black Sea region of Turkey

Ayse Uskul (Psychology, Essex University)

It has been hypothesised that interdependent (versus independent) social orientations breed more holistic (versus analytic) cognitions. If so, farming and small-scale fishing, which require a greater degree of cooperation and, thus, represent a more interdependent mode of subsistence than does herding, may encourage a more holistic mode of cognition.

To test this hypothesis we compared responses to cognitive tasks measuring categorisation, reasoning, and attention by members of herding, fishing, and farming communities at the Turkish Black Sea coast. In all tasks, farmers and fishermen showed higher levels of holistic cognition than did herders.

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