My reactions to David Brooks' August 11 column "Harmony and the Dream" led me to look again at three books by prominent psychologists: Richard E. Nisbett's 2003 The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why; and James R. Flynn's 2007 What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect; and Alexander Luria's 1976 Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations.
I looked at Nisbett's book because it's the intellectual foundation of Brooks' column; and at the Flynn and Luria books because… well, you'll see.
There's no reference to Flynn in Nisbett's book; and Nisbett is not in Flynn's book either. Yet both are crucially concerned with how people in different places, times and social contexts interpret similarities, especially as judged by certain kinds of psychological test instruments. And both books draw important ideas, with attribution, from the same place: the research of a couple of Soviet psychologists, Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria, who studied the cognitive effects of modernization in Uzbekistan and Kirghizia (now the Kyrgyz Republic) in the 1930s.
Given Nisbett and Flynn's well-deserved prominence, and the importance of the various phenomena at issue, and the similarity (and common origin) of their ideas, I'm curious about the mutual lack of reference. But in this post, I'm not going to say anything more about this odd lack of explicit discussion of a strong implicit connection. Instead, I'll limit myself to a sort of catalogue of quotations from various relevant sources.
James R. Flynn's 2007 book What is intelligence? tries to understand and explain the "Flynn effect", which is a name for the fact that "the twentieth century saw massive IQ gains from one generation to another". Malcolm Gladwell's review in the New Yorker summarizes Flynn's conclusion this way:
The best way to understand why I.Q.s rise, Flynn argues, is to look at one of the most widely used I.Q. tests, the so-called WISC (for Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children). The WISC is composed of ten subtests, each of which measures a different aspect of I.Q. Flynn points out that scores in some of the categories—those measuring general knowledge, say, or vocabulary or the ability to do basic arithmetic—have risen only modestly over time. The big gains on the WISC are largely in the category known as “similarities,” where you get questions such as “In what way are ‘dogs’ and ‘rabbits’ alike?” Today, we tend to give what, for the purposes of I.Q. tests, is the right answer: dogs and rabbits are both mammals. A nineteenth-century American would have said that “you use dogs to hunt rabbits.”
“If the everyday world is your cognitive home, it is not natural to detach abstractions and logic and the hypothetical from their concrete referents,” Flynn writes. Our great-grandparents may have been perfectly intelligent. But they would have done poorly on I.Q. tests because they did not participate in the twentieth century’s great cognitive revolution, in which we learned to sort experience according to a new set of abstract categories. In Flynn’s phrase, we have now had to put on “scientific spectacles,” which enable us to make sense of the WISC questions about similarities. To say that Dutch I.Q. scores rose substantially between 1952 and 1982 was another way of saying that the Netherlands in 1982 was, in at least certain respects, much more cognitively demanding than the Netherlands in 1952. An I.Q., in other words, measures not so much how smart we are as how modern we are.
Flynn himself grounds these ideas in an extended paraphrase of Luria (pp. 26-27 of What is intelligence?):
Today we have no difficulty freeing logic from concrete referents and reasoning about purely hypothetical situations. People were not always thus. Christopher Hallpike (1979) and Nick Mackintosh (2006) have drawn my attention to the seminal book on the social foundations of cognitive development by Luria (1976). His interviews with peasants in remote areas of the Soviet Union offer some wonderful examples. The dialogues paraphrased run as follows:
White bears and Novaya Zemlya (pp. 108-109):
Q: All bears are white where there is always snow; in Zovaya Zemlya there is always snow; what color are the bears there?
A: I have seen only black bears and I do not talk of what I have not seen.
Q: What what do my words imply?
A: If a person has not been there he can not say anything on the basis of words. If a man was 60 or 80 and had seen a white bear there and told me about it, he could be believed.
Camels and Germany (p. 112):
Q: There are no camels in Germany; the city of B is in Germany; are there camels there or not?
A: I don't know, I have never seen German villages. If is a large city, there should be camels there.
Q: But what if there aren't any in all of Germany?
A: If B is a village, there is probably no room for camels.
The peasants are entirely correct. They understand the difference between analytic and synthetic propositions: pure logic cannot tell us anything about facts: only experience can. But this will do them no good on current IQ tests. As for the effect of attachment to the concrete on classification, the kind of thing required in the Similarities subtest, Luria (1976) serves to drive the point home:
Dogs and chickens (pp. 81-82):
Q: What do a chicken and a dog have in common?
A: They are not alike. A chicken has two legs, a dog has four. A chicken has wings but a dog doesn't. A dog has big ears and a chicken's are small.
Q: Is there one word you could use for them both?
A: No, of course not.
Q: Would the word "animal" fit?
Fish and crows (p. 82)
Q: What do a fish and a crow have in common?
A: A fish — it lives in water. A crow flies. If the fish just lies on top of the water, the crow could peck at it. A crow can eat a fish but a fish can't eat a crow.
Q: Could you use one word for them both?
A: If you call them "animals", that wouldn't be right. A fish isn't an animal and a crow isn't either. A crow can eat a fish but a fish can't eat a bird. A person can eat fish but not a crow.
Note that even after an abstract term is suggested, that kind of answer is still alien. Today we are so familiar with the categories of science that it seems obvous that the most important attribute things have in comon is that they are both animate, or mammals, or chemical compounds. However, people attached to the concrete will not find those categories natural at all. First, they will be far more reluctant to classify. Second, when they do classify, they will have a strong preference for concrete similarities (two things look alike, two animals are functionally related, for example, one eats the other) over a similarity in terms of abstract categories.
(For more on the ways and means of discoursing about unseen white bears, see the passage from Tristram Shandy quoted and discussed here.)
Luria (1976) is the book Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations, which was published in English translation in 1976. The author was Alexander R. Luria (1902-1977), a Soviet psychologist who made contributions in a wide variety of fields, from physiological psychology to clinical neurology. The research in question is described in the Wikipedia as follows:
In 1924, Luria met Lev Vygotsky, who would influence him greatly. Along with Alexei Nikolaevich Leont'ev, these three psychologists launched a project of developing a psychology of a radically new kind. This approach fused "cultural," "historical," and "instrumental" psychology and is most commonly referred to presently as cultural-historical psychology. It emphasizes the mediatory role of culture, particularly language, in the development of higher mental functions in ontogeny and phylogeny.
Luria's work continued in the 1930s with his psychological expeditions to Central Asia. Under the supervision of Vygotsky, Luria investigated various psychological changes (including perception, problem solving, and memory) that take place as a result of cultural development of undereducated minorities
[For more on the political and intellectual context of the Vygotsky/Luria research in Central Asia, see Cosma Shalizi on "The Neuropsychology of Praxis", 3/30/2007.]
Luria's work was also featured in Walter J. Ong's Orality and Literacy, pp. 50-51:
[In their research in Uzbekistan and Kirghizia in the 1930s] Luria and his associates gathered data in the course of long conversations with subjects in the relaxed atmosphere of a tea house, introducing the questions for the survey itself informally, as something like riddles, with which the subjects were familiar. Thus every effort was made to adapt the questions to the subjects in their own milieu. […] Among Luria's findings the following may be noted as of special interest here.
(1) Illiterate (oral) subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares, etc. A circle would be called a plate, sieve, bucket, watch, or moon; a square would be called a mirror, door, house, apricot, drying-board. Luria's subjects identified the designs as representations of real things they knew. They never dealt with abstract circles or squares but rather with concrete objects. Teachers' school students on the other hand, moderately literate, identified geometrical figures by categorical geometric names: circles, squares, triangles, and so on (1976, pp. 32-9). They had been trained to give school-room answers, not real-life responses.
(2) Subjects were presented with drawings of four objects, three belonging to one category and the fourth to another, and were asked to group together those that were similar or could be placed in one group or designated by one word. One series consisted of drawings of the objects hammer, saw, log, hatchet. Illiterate subjects consistently thought of the group not in categorical terms (three tools, the log not a tool) but in terms of practical situations — 'situational thinking' — without adverting at all to the classification 'tool' as applying to all but the log. If you are a workman with tools and see a log, you think of applying the tool to it, not of keeping the tool away from what it was made for — in some weird intellectual game. A 25-year-old illiterate peasant: 'They're all alike. The saw will saw the log and the hatchet will chop it into small pieces, If one of these has to go, I'd throw out the hatchet. It doesn't do as a god a job as a saw' (1976, p. 56). Told that the hammer, saw and hatchet are all tools, he discounts the categorical class and persists in situational thinking: 'Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood — otherwise we can't build anything' (ibid.). […]
… A barely literate worker, aged 56, mingled situational grouping and categorical grouping, though the the latter predominated. Given the series axe, hatchet, sickle to complete from the series saw, ear of grain, log, he completed the series with the saw — 'They are all farming tools' — but then reconsidered and added about the grain, 'You could reap it with the sickle'. […]
At points in his discussions Luria undertook to teach illiterate subjects some principles of abstract classification. But their grasp was never firm, and when they actually returned to working out a problem for themselves, they would revert to situational rather than categorical thinking. They were convinced that thinking other than operational thinking that is, categorical thinking, was not important, uninteresting, trivializing.
Ong emphasizes the role of literacy, but Luria was interested in "the sociohistorical evolutionary of mental processes" construed more broadly, and in an explicitly Marxist framework. As he says in the first chapter of Cognitive Development:
Soviet Psychology, using the notion of consciousness as “conscious existence” (das bewusste Sein) as a starting point, has rejected the view that consciousness represents an “intrinsic property of mental life,” invariably present in every mental state and independent of historical development. In line with Marx and Lenin, Soviet psychology maintains that consciousness is the highest form of reflection of reality; it is, moreover, not given in advance, unchanging and passive, but shaped by activity and used by human beings to orient themselves to their environment, not only in adapting to conditions but in restructuring them.
It has become a basic principle of materialistic psychology that mental processes depend on active life forms in an appropriate environment. Such a psychology also assumes that human action changes the environment so that human mental life is a product of continually new activities manifest in social practice.
The way in which the historically established forms of human mental life correlate with reality has come to depend more and more on complex social practices. The tools that human beings in society use to manipulate that environment, as well as the products of previous generations which help shape the mind of the growing child, also affect these mental forms. In his development, the child's first social relations and his first exposure to a linguistic system (of special significance) determine the forms of his mental activity. All these environmental factors are decisive for the sociohistorical development of consciousness. New motives for action appear under extremely complex patterns of social practice. Thus are created new problems, new modes of behavior, new methods of taking in information, and new systems of reflecting reality.
Nisbett's book doesn't discuss Vygotsky and Luria as extensively as Flynn's did, but on p. 85 of The Geography of Thought Nisbett writes that "the school of psychology that I find myself belatedly belonging to is the historical-cultural one established by the Russian psychologists Lev Vygotsky and Alexander Luria".
For the relevance of the methods as well as the ideas, you can look at some of the papers surveyed in my earlier post ("David Brooks, social psychologist", 8/13/2008), or read e.g. Richard E. Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda, "Culture and Point of View", PNAS 100(19): 11163-11170.
Summarizing briefly: We have a single type of psychological testing method — asking which things do or don't belong together — where subjects might answer on the basis of abstract taxonomic categories, or on the basis of more concrete functional relationships. This single situation has at least three very different interpretations. The developers of intelligence tests saw shared taxonomic categories as the correct choice, and used an individual's propensity to answer that way as a measure of intrinsic mental ability. Vygotsky and Luria interpreted similarity judgments based on abstract taxonomic categories, as opposed to concrete functional relationships, as a psychological correlate of social modernization. Flynn agrees with them, and sees the last century's secular trend in IQ scores as a consequence. But Nisbett and his colleagues interpret similar differences as reflecting an enduring cultural distinction between the West and the East.
I guess these interpretations could all be correct. But I wonder.
If Flynn is right about the reasons for the Flynn effect, and if Nisbett is right about the enduring difference between East and West in affinity for abstract categorization, then Asians should have a systematic disadvantage in IQ testing. Which doesn't seem to be true.
And if Vygotsky, Luria and Flynn are right about the role of modernization in changing the salience of abstract taxonomies as opposed to concrete functional interrelationships, then you'd expect to see changes over time in the East/West differences that Nisbett and colleagues observe. They explicitly deny this, though some of their results seem to me to point in that direction.