App to test cultural differences in thinking styles

How do our individual thinking styles evolve and change? Aided by a downloadable app, a new study explores the different values and frames of thinking around the world

We often think style as how something looks, its appearance, but a new smartphone app, ‘Global Village: Discover Your Thinking Style’, explores the factors in varying thinking styles, how the frames of our thinking style is shaped by different factors and how these frames change. The team comprises researchers at Durham University and Queen Mary University of London, across Anthropology, Linguistics, Computer Science, and Hispanic, Cultural and Migration Studies. It’s lead by Dr Alex Mesoudi formerly a member of the Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution Research team at Durham, now Associate Professor in Cultural Evolution, Department of Biosciences at Exeter University. 

One inspiration behind the Thinking Syles project came from a realization that most studies conducted in psychology were conducted on Western, usually British, American or Canadian College students. Participants, he explains, ‘of a certain age, of a certain socio-economic background, and pretty much the whole foundation of psychological theory is based on this rather narrow participant sample. So maybe 10 years ago, psychologists started testing the same kind of things that they been testing on these Western college students on non-Western college students, on non-Western non-college students, and finding that you often get quite dramatic differences.’ 

Many of the studies were carried out in North America and Japan, and comparing North America to East Asian participants reveals contrasts in the value people attach to the idea of ‘individualism’ or the ‘group’. Western people, particularly Americans, says Dr Mesoudi, ‘report their motivations are to be the best they individually can be, to beat the competition. Whereas the same personality-style questionnaires in East Asian countries, particularly in Japan find that people value being part of a group, and value the performance of their group.’

At least as interesting is the extent to which people in the West base categories around abstract rules for example, whereas as in East Asia people categorise around ‘relationships’. Dr Mesoudi explains that ‘if you show people a horse a saddle and a goat, then in the West we group the horse and the goat together because they’re both animals. We use a rule that farmyard animals go together. Whereas in East Asia they might categorise by grouping the horse and the saddle, because saddles go on horses, and grouping cows and grass because cows eat grass, so it’s all about relationships.’ 

Variation in thinking

When Dr Mesoudi was teaching at Queen Mary, University of London in Mile End in East London, many of the students he was teaching were second generation British Bangladeshi, so he began research using similar kinds of measures to the previous studies. They began discovering interesting findings both similar and different to the East Asia/ North America research and this developed into the broader thinking styles app project. 

They are hoping that the data being generated will also provide both a window on migrants to the West, and on Western migrants to non-western countries, and therefore throw a light on what maintains global variation in thinking. ‘Is it something in the home, something that parents transmit to the kids through imitation?’ asks Dr Mesoudi, or ‘mass media? Schooling methods? Family size, different family relationships? Social structures? Religion?’ 

After you have downloaded the app it asks you to input the country in which you grew up, which, Dr Mesoudi explains, cultural psychologists tend to benchmark age 14 as a cut-off period for some measures. If you think of dialect for instance, ‘wherever you grew up until the age of 14 you tend to have a dialect from that area.’ The questions it asks seek to get a sense of your cultural background, then delivers five tasks taken from the psychology literature that shows variance in thinking style between North America and East Asia, around how the categorizations are made, individualism, collectivism, and questions seeking to elucidate how we see ourselves in relation to our ‘group’. 

‘You’re asked to estimate the proportion of your society that are better than you, or that you are better than, on various dimensions,’ explains Dr Mesoudi. ‘What percentage of the population are you more attractive than? Or more intelligent than? Or more competent than? Westerners tend to read themselves as above-average on everything which is statistically impossible, everyone is above average intelligence and above average in attractiveness, whereas East Asian participants tend to be way more realistic, an average is an average – 50% say they are above average and 50% saying that they are below-average.’ 

Learning 

Finally, in an age when the flow of education runs both ways from East to West, and increasingly across all age groups, they are looking at differences in styles of learning, which is intrinsically connected to how we think. A fishing game, whose process echoes the earlier research around tool-making in the US, looks at whether people use trial-and-error to make the fishing rod, or whether they choose to copy the most successful fishers in the group. It’s looking at social versus individual learning. ‘Research suggests that people in the West tend to be more likely to use individual learning, whereas in East Asia people tend to engage more in social learning,’ Dr Mesoudi explains. There’s been many studies around how in the West, educators, ‘tend to teach their students to think creatively, to value independent thinking whereas most East Asian schooling systems is much more about rote learning, repeating what the teacher says. Learning your times tables by heart, learning facts off by heart which encourages social learning more.’

Dr Mesoudi points out the study isn’t endorsing one particular thinking style over another, but exploring some of the values that frame thinking in different parts of the world, and looking at the factors which change these underlying frameworks when people migrate.