Perception and…

Culture?  Language?  Genetics?

Alison Gopnik, writing in the WSJ, discusses an interesting experiment on problem solving in very young children which was run by two researchers at UC San Diego, following on to research in which Gopnik was herself involved.  Children of various ages were shown a machine that lights up when you put a block of a certain color or shape on it.  “Even toddlers can easily figure out that a green block makes the machine go while a blue block doesn’t.”

The researchers wondered:  what if the test was of the relationship between objects..say, two square blocks of the same color made the machine light up, but not two blocks of different colors?

For American children, 18-month-old children had no trouble figuring out that the relationship between the objects was the key thing.  But older American children, 3-year-olds, did worse at the relationship test than did their younger counterparts.  For Chinese children, however, the fall-off in relationship-assessing performance between 18 months and 3 years old did not happen.

Here’s a reasonably decent summary of the paper’s main points, and here’s the paper itself.

Why the fall-off for American kids?  (A temporary fall-off, it seems…the researchers say that the American kids recover their relationship-assessing skills between the ages of  4-6 years.)  One hypothesis is language….possibly the “noun spurt” that is said to characterize early-English learning has something to do with it.  Or perhaps there are broader cultural factors:  “In particular, there are well-documented differ- ences in holistic and analytic processing (and relatedly, collectivist and individualist cognitive styles) across cultures, which may simi- larly result in an emphasis on relationships between entities or on characteristics of individual entities. More broadly, environmental variation across these learning contexts (e.g., socioeconomic status, number of siblings, and pedagogical and child- rearing practices) may differentially affect general cognitive skills that are known to influence relational reasoning, like executive function.”  (quoted from the paper)

Or, perhaps, could there be a genetic explanation?…Would children of Chinese ancestry, raised in the US in English-speaking homes, show more often the Chinese  pattern or the American pattern in these experiments?  While a genetic explanation seems unlikely to me, I would think it should at least be considered.

Most likely, to me, seems the language explanation.  The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which has also been dubbed ‘linguistic relativity’, holds that the language we speak has a major impact on how we perceive the world…it fell into some disrepute after WWII because of its appropriation by the Nazis to make claims of cultural superiority and also because of some apparent errors in Whorf’s reporting, concerning for example the Inuit words for ‘snow’…it does make sense, however, that language has a significant impact on what thoughts can be most easily expressed and hence on what thoughts are most likely to be conceived.

10 thoughts on “Perception and…”

  1. I am very, very skeptical about the reproducibility of pretty much all social science studies at this point, given well documented problems with that.
    In addition, the paper says that they collected no demographic information about the children involved, which to me is a huge flashing red light that there is no way to draw broad conclusions about what could possibly account for the alleged observation. Children’s home and daycare/preschool situations vary massively and I would think would have to be accounted for–I’ve been amazed at the number of kids I’ve seen in the past decade enter kindergarten with my kids who can’t write or even recognize a single letter or number.

  2. Skepticism is good re these studies. They did suggest that the home/daycare situations might play a role in this. Hopefully, they will be doing further work on this.

  3. I am also deeply skeptical of social science studies, and for that matter, of many biomedical studies as well. PubMed features a number of papers on what has been termed the replication crisis on the latter.

    The Wikipedia entry on the “replication crisis” is a useful summary of the problem.

    Before I would take papers in either area seriously I’d want to review the researchers’ methodology carefully indeed, because all too often it is grievously flawed.

  4. I have wondered for years if speaking a tonal language like Mandarin or Cantonese preserves the perfect pitch of babies. There are a lot of very good classical musicians in China and I wonder if it is a factor.

    I have also read quite a bit of Stephen Pinker’s work on language and how children develop grammar in English. For example, they regularize verbs. I go— I goed I’ve gone. The irregular verb , “went” is an archaic past tense of “wend” as in Gray’s Elegy.

    I took a class in Mandarin but had to drop out after only a few sessions. I don’t know how his theory would apply to Chinese languages.

  5. From time to time, there are papers published in which actual trained statisticians analyze published reports in respected medical journals like the Lancet — and conclude that the majority of the conclusions drawn (on which treatment protocols are then based) are not supported by the evidence. It does not take long to learn how to click a button on an Excel spreadsheet, but that can be dangerous in the hands of those of us who do not really understand statistics — which is most of us! So YES! Great skepticism is in order about this and many other studies.

    On the other hand, George Orwell’s message in 1984 was that language controls thought, so it seems plausible that people with different languages might have differences in how they see the world.

  6. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is more than in disrepute. It has no evidence to support it, just the repeated idea that it seems like it should be true. It doesn’t seem to be a liberal-conservative or libertarian-communitarian divide that I can see. It just looks attractive and intuitively sensible to many people. Perhaps the power of Orwell’s thinking has driven that somewhat. There was a big deal three years ago because some experimental evidence showed that in a tribe of people who had different words for limited shades of blue and green actually perceived them slightly differently. AFAIK, no further evidence has been added to that, despite many people trying. It’s not very much.

    I am glad that possible genetic solutions occurred to you as at least possible. Seeing that everything we can measure is turning out to be genetic (I exaggerate only slightly), but all experiments seem to exclude that possibility a priori, it encourages me. I think a genetic explanation much more likely. While cultures differ from each other, the upbringings of children within each culture also vary greatly. If it were something environmental, some other clues in the data would be likely. Your imagined experiment of Chinese children raised in American homes would be a good experiment, but we are no longer adopting from China, so that’s out. It is hard to get funding for any experiment that might show any cognitive difference between races anyway. In every culture, there is science one is not allowed to do.

    I apologise for not posting for some time. I will look over the last month and see if there are things I should have cross-posted.

  7. AVI….using the analogy of computer languages, it is certainly much easier to express certain programs in some languages than in others…one *can* express any program in any properly-complete language, but the amount of effort to do so can be highly different.

    It’s hard to understand why the same wouldn’t be true of human languages.

  8. I am of the opinion that it’s self-evident that our language shapes our thinking, if not to exclusion then certainly in its exploration of ideas.

    One reason English has so many words as well as euphemistic phrases is because we don’t hesitate to invent words all the time, and push them into usage. The purpose of this is to enable faster thought — we tend to verbalize our thoughts, to think as though in a silent monologue or dialogue with oneself. Having a word for a gestalt enables quicker manipulation of concepts. It’s a form of mental algebra.

    “In all major socializing forces you will find an underlying movement to
    gain and maintain power through the use of words. From witch doctor to
    bureaucrat it is all the same. A governed populace must be conditioned to
    accept power-words as actual things, to confuse the symbolized system with
    the tangible universe. In the maintenance of such a power structure,
    certain symbols are kept out of reach of common understanding – symbols
    such as those dealing with economic manipulation or those which define the
    local definition of sanity. Symbol-secrecy of this form leads to the
    development of fragmented sub-languages, each being a signal that its users
    are accumulating some form of power.”

    – ‘Children of Dune’ –

  9. The paradox of the indoor voice and the outdoor voice is that the animistic finds commons in an echo chamber.
    Language is never abstracted from realtime feedback.
    Hang out with some magpies and watch it look like instinct.
    Monkey see. And do.

  10. As I said, lots of people just intuitively think it should be true.

    So go and find evidence that it’s true. There are some serious linguists who believe that it is true and have reasons why, and some experimental evidence that you might accept if you squint really hard. Yet even that is only that speakers of a language might sorta tend to think more in fashion A than fashion B, not that there is any clear division. And I find none of that compelling anyway.

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