[Paleopsych] Peng and Knowles: Culture, Education, and the Attribution of Physical Causality
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Culture, Education, and the Attribution of Physical Causality
Kaiping Peng and Eric D. Knowles, both University of California, Berkeley
Personality and Psychology Bulletin 29.10 (2003.10): 1272-84
Two studies investigated the impact of culturally instilled folk theories on
the perception of physical events. In Study 1, Americans and Chinese with no
formal physics education were found to emphasize different causes in their
explanations for eight physical events, with Americans attributing them more to
dispositional factors (e.g., weight) and less to contextual factors (e.g., a
medium) than did Chinese. In Study 2, Chinese Americans' identity as Asians or
as Americans was primed before having them explain the events used in Study 1.
Asian-primed participants endorsed dispositional explanations to a lesser
degree and contextual explanations to a greater degree than did American-primed
participants, although priming effects were observed only for students with
little physics education. Together, these studies suggest that culturally
instilled folk theories of physics produce cultural differences in the
perception of physical causality.
Keywords: culture; attribution; ethnic identity; physical causality
Authors' Note: Preparation of this article was supported by the Hellman Family
Faculty Fund to Kaiping Peng. The first author and Richard Nisbett reported a
portion of the data from Study 1 at the 7th Annual Conference on Culture and
Science at Kentucky State University in 1997. We are grateful to Richard
Nisbett for his generous support and sage advice concerning Study 1, to
Fernando Lopez-Royo for assistance collecting the Study 2 data, and to members
of the Culture and Cognition Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, for
their helpful suggestions. Please address correspondence to Kaiping Peng or
Eric D. Knowles, Department of Psychology, 4143 Tolman Hall, Berkeley, CA
94720; e-mail: kppeng at socrates.berkeley.edu or eknowles at socrates.berkeley.edu.
Of all the thorny issues confronted by cultural psychologists, one foundational
question has consistently furrowed researchers' brows: How should culture
itself be operationalized? Different theoretical traditions have coalesced
around different answers to this question. Two approaches in particular--the
value tradition and the "self" tradition--have come to dominate cultural
psychology. The value tradition (Hofstede, 1980; Schwartz, 1994; Triandis,
1995) sees culture as a shared set of core values that regulate behavior in a
population; Triandis's (1995) theory of individualism-collectivism is perhaps
the preeminent example of this approach. The self tradition (Heine & Lehman,
1997, 1999; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Singelis, 1994) identifies culture with
the particular type of self-conception predominant in a population; Markus and
Kitayama's (1991) theory of interdependent versus independent self-construals
is an important example of this tradition. Recently, a number of cultural
psychologists have adopted a third conception of culture--that of culture as
"knowledge structure" (Chiu, Morris, Hong, & Menon, 2000; Hong, Morris, Chiu, &
Benet-Martinez, 2000; Peng, Ames, & Knowles, 2001; Peng & Nisbett, 1999). This
approach portrays culture as a constellation of knowledge structures, or folk
theories, that embody individuals' basic beliefs about the world and guide
inferences in different domains.
Much of the research within the culture-as-theory framework (and cultural
psychology generally) has focused on cultural differences in social perception.
For example, cultural differences in dispositional bias (i.e., the tendency of
lay perceivers to overattribute observed behavior to an actor's personal
dispositions) have been traced to divergent folk theories of personal agency
(Choi, Nisbett, & Norenzayan, 1999; Knowles, Morris, Chiu, & Hong, 2001; Menon,
Morris, Chiu, & Hong, 1999; Morris, Menon, & Ames, 2001; Morris & Peng, 1994;
Norenzayan & Nisbett, 2000). The influence of culture, however, may reach
beyond social perception. In this article, we argue that different cultures
instill their members with different folk theories of physical phenomena and
that these theories produce cultural differences in the perception of physical
events. Specifically, we argue that East Asians possess a contextual folk
theory of physics emphasizing the role of external and relational factors
(e.g., gravity) in determining an object's behavior. On the other hand, we
argue that members of Western cultures, such as the United States, possess a
more dispositional physical theory emphasizing the internal causes of an
object's behavior (e.g., weight). In Study 1, we present evidence that
cross-national differences in physical attributions--specifically, between
those of American and Chinese individuals--reflect the application of
dispositional or contextual physical theories. In Study 2, we investigate the
causal impact of folk physical theories among individuals likely to possess
both dispositional and contextual folk theories-- namely, Chinese Americans.
Before describing the studies, however, we review evidence for and against the
proposition that culture affects perceptions of physical events.
CULTURE AND FOLK PHYSICS
Psychologists and other scholars have disagreed as to whether culture shapes
individuals' causal understandings of physical events. We briefly review work
supporting and refuting the impact of culture on physical attribution and then
propose a partial resolution that affirms the role of culture yet places limits
on the circumstances under which cultural differences will appear.
Evidence for Cultural Variation in Folk Theories of Physics
Scholars in the humanities have long argued for the existence of fundamental
differences between Eastern and Western folk theories of physics. Joseph
Needham (1954), a historian of the science and civilization of ancient China,
argued that the ancient Chinese possessed a much richer and more "advanced"
folk understanding of physics than did ancient Westerners (e.g., the Greeks)
and that this understanding more closely resembles modern physics. According to
Needham (1954; see also Capra, 1975; Zukav, 1979), the core concepts of Eastern
folk physics, Yin and Yang, are inherently relational, contextual, and
dialectical, and thus resemble features of contemporary quantum physics. The
contextual Eastern folk theory, it is argued, emphasizes forces that act over
distance (e.g., gravity or magnetism) and forces exerted on objects by a medium
(e.g., air or water).
Kurt Lewin (1935), a founding father of modern social psychology and former
physics student, was perhaps the first psychologist to address the
dispositional nature of the Western folk understanding of physics:
The kind and direction of the physical vectors in Aristotelian dynamics are
completely determined in advance by the nature of the object concerned. In
modern physics, on the contrary, the existence of physical vectors always
depends upon the mutual relations of several physical factors, especially upon
the relation of the object to its environment. (p. 28)
Thus, in Western (i.e., Aristotelian) folk physics, the behavior of objects is
understood almost exclusively in terms of the object itself: A stone sinks when
placed in water because it is heavy, and a piece of wood floats because it
buoyant (Lewin, 1935). On this understanding, the behavior of objects is caused
by their discrete properties alone rather than by those properties in
conjunction with states of the environment.
Evidence for Universality in the Perception of Physical Causality
In contrast to the work just cited, cognitive psychologists investigating the
impact of culture on the perception of physical events have generally failed to
uncover dramatic cultural differences (Michotte, 1963; Morris, Nisbett, & Peng,
1995; Morris & Peng, 1994). For instance, Michotte (1963) and his students had
participants from Europe, Africa, and various Pacific Islands explain
mechanistic (i.e., "billiard-ball") interactions between inanimate objects,
finding no significant cultural differences. More recent cross-cultural studies
have identified seemingly universal rules guiding the interpretation of
physical phenomena. In general, if the motion of an object follows, in a
straightforward and visible way, the Newtonian law of conservation (i.e., that
objects remain at rest or in uniform motion along a straight line until acted
on by a outside force), then the motion is seen as externally caused (Stewart,
1984). Only if the motion appears to deviate from the law of conservation is it
seen as internally caused (Morris et al., 1995; Morris & Peng, 1994; Stewart,
Research in cognitive development suggests that the perception of physical
events is largely "hardwired" and innate and might therefore be resistant to
the influence of culture. Even very young infants have been shown to possess
firm and reliable expectations about objects' possible movements and
interactions (Baillargeon, 2000; Kotovsky & Baillargeon, 2000; Spelke, 2000).
Of particular relevance, infants younger than 3 years old expect objects to
behave according to the forces of gravity (an external, relational factor) and
inertia (an internal, dispositional factor) (I. Kim & Spelke, 1999). The
emergence at an early age of such physical expectations suggests that these
expectations could not be altered by experience in one's culture. However, the
early emergence of expectations concerning both contextual and dispositional
factors does not rule out the possibility that culture-specific theories
emphasize these understandings to varying degrees and thus lead individuals to
favor one type of factor over the other in their explanations for physical
The Role of Formal Physics Education
The research reviewed above reveals disagreement among scholars concerning
culture's impact on causal attributions for physical events. We propose a
partial resolution to this debate. We argue that Lewin (1935) and Needham
(1954) are correct in their portrayal of Western folk physics as dispositional
and of Eastern folk physics as more contextual. However, we propose that this
difference will only be reflected in the judgments of those with little formal
physics education. If, as we have claimed, intuitions about physical phenomena
are guided by theory-like knowledge structures, then formal education in
physics could supplant the Western folk theory with the more contextual
understanding of modern physics and thus obscure any cultural differences. The
cross-cultural similarities found in previous research might then be an
artifact of education because many of the participants in the studies of
Michotte (1963) and others were college students. Hence, it becomes important
to separate the effects of culture and physics education in studying causal
attributions in the physical domain. The studies reported here either involve
participants with no formal physics education (Study 1) or measure physics
education to examine its influence on physical judgments (Study 2).
ASSESSING THE CAUSAL IMPACT OF CULTURE-SPECIFIC FOLK THEORIES
In addition to documenting cultural differences in individuals' folk theories
of physics, it is important to show that culture-specific folk theories exert a
causal influence on individuals' perceptions of physical phenomena. In virtue
of its portrayal of culture as a constellation of knowledge structures, the
culture-as-theory approach suggests a way to investigate the causal impact of
folk theories on inferences. The technique of cultural priming makes use of the
fact that some individuals (e.g., biculturals) often possess multiple
culture-derived theories for the same domain of phenomena and that these
individuals can be experimentally induced to rely on a given theory in
If cultures are indeed associated with divergent knowledge structures, then
cultural knowledge should be subject to well-documented rules of knowledge
acquisition and use (for a review, see Higgins, 1996). Most important, it
should be possible for individuals to acquire multiple culture-derived theories
for the same domain, even if the theories contradict one another; however, only
one theory at a time can influence judgments (Hong et al., 2000). Which theory
guides cognition at a given time will depend on the relative cognitive
accessibility of the theories. According to the principle of accessibility, a
knowledge structure will affect judgments to the extent that it is available,
or activated, in the perceiver's mind (Higgins, 1996). Thus, the currently most
accessible theory for a given domain will be the one that influences judgment
in that domain.
The current accessibility of a theory can be experimentally manipulated through
priming, in which the activation level of the construct is increased through
the presentation of a stimulus semantically related to the construct (Higgins,
1996). It follows that an experimenter can, by priming selected theories,
manipulate which of two or more conflicting folk theories will influence
judgments in a domain. In so doing, it can be shown that the primed knowledge
structures exert a causal influence on judgments.
Researchers working within the culture-as-theory framework have used cultural
symbols to prime culture- specific knowledge structures. Hong and colleagues
(2000) presented individuals who had extensive experience in both East Asian
and American culture with either East Asian cultural icons (e.g., a Chinese
flag, the Great Wall of China, a picture of Stone Monkey) or American cultural
icons (e.g., the American flag, the Capitol Building, a picture of Superman).
These researchers found that priming affected attributions for social behavior,
such that individuals exposed to East Asian primes interpreted behavior as more
externally caused than did individuals in the American prime condition.1 In our
research, we primed culture-specific folk theories using a cultural identity
prime in which Asian American participants were asked to reflect on their
identity as Asians or as Americans. These identity primes were intended to
increase the level of activation of related networks of cultural knowledge,
including East Asian and Western folk theories of physics.
The cultural priming technique used here relies on the possibility that some
individuals possess more than one culture-bound folk theory of physics.
Bicultural individuals--individuals who identify with more than one
culture--may possess multiple folk theories. There is good reason to believe
that ethnic cultures within the United States possess cultural knowledge
similar to that of their countries of origin. For instance, there is evidence
that Japanese Americans possess social attributional tendencies consistent with
the contextual theory of social behavior thought to be dominant within Japanese
culture, attributing success and failure more to situational factors than do
European Americans (Narikiyo & Kameoka, 1992; Whang & Hancock, 1994). The
congruence between the attributional tendencies of Asian Americans and members
of Asian national cultures may be due to the fact that Asian Americans possess
some of the same values and cultural knowledge prevalent in the national
cultures (U. Kim & Choi, 1994). We suggest that, as with folk theories of
social behavior, Asian Americans may possess both Asian and Western folk
theories of physics.
THE CURRENT RESEARCH
The current research had two goals. First, we sought to demonstrate that
American and Chinese national cultures are associated with different folk
theories of physics. Specifically, we hypothesized that whereas Americans have
a dispositional physical theory that locates the causes of physical phenomena
in the discrete dispositions of objects (e.g., weight), Chinese perceivers have
a contextual theory that places greater emphasis on relational
factors--specifically, forces over distance (e.g., gravity) and the influence
of mediums (e.g., air or water). Toward this end, in Study 1, we asked Chinese
and American nationals with no formal physics education to identify the causes
of a variety of physical events.
Our second goal was to investigate the causal impact of culture-specific folk
physical theories on attributions for physical events. Thus, in Study 2, we
attempted to prime dispositional (Western) or contextual (East Asian) folk
theories of physics in the minds of Asian Americans, who presumably possess
both theories. Participants were subsequently asked to identify the causes of
the same physical events as were used in Study 1. To test our hypothesis that
folk theories will affect inferences only for individuals who have had little
formal instruction in physics, we measured participants' level of physics
Fifteen American participants, all of them female, were drawn from the
Psychology Department subject pool at the University of Michigan; they
participated in return for course credit. Participants were selected who
reported having had no formal education in physics and who had declared majors
in the arts or humanities. Fifteen female spouses of visiting Chinese graduate
students at the University of Michigan were recruited and paid $10 for their
participation in this study.2 All of these participants were Chinese citizens
and, similar to their American counterparts, were college educated, reported no
formal physics education, and had majored in the arts and humanities. The mean
ages of American and Chinese participants were 19.1 and 22.7 years,
respectively. All of the Chinese participants had been in the United States for
less than a year because their visas only permitted them to remain in the
country for a short time.
PHYSICAL CAUSALITY DISPLAYS
Eight animated displays of physical events were created using Macromind
Director for Macintosh by Macromedia Software, a computer animation program.
All displays depicted a white object interacting in various ways with a black
object or a medium (i.e., air or water) (see Figure 1 for schematic
representations of the displays):
1. White object interacting with black object
a. "Launching" event (i.e., elastic collision). The black object collides with
the stationary white object and stops, causing the white object to move.
b. "Launching at a distance" event. This display was identical to the launching
interaction except that the black object stops short of the white object before
the white object begins moving.
c. "Entraining" event (i.e., inelastic collision). The black object collides
with the stationary white object, after which both objects move together.
d. "Balance" display depicting objects balancing on a lever. In this event, the
black and white circles are in balance at two ends of a platform resting on a
e. "Magnetic" display depicting objects' motions in a magnetic field. In this
event, the black and white circles appear to be magnetically attracted to one
another, converging slowly at first, and then more quickly as the distance
between them narrows.
2. White object interacting with a medium
a. "Hydrodynamic--floating" event. The white object bobs on the surface of a
pool of water.
b. "Hydrodynamic--dropping" event. The white object drops into the pool, rises
to the surface, and bobs for a moment.
c. "Aerodynamic" display depicting an object's motion in the air. In this
event, the white object looks like a balloon, dropping gradually while buffeted
by air currents.
The program was set to present the displays either in the order listed above or
the reverse, as determined randomly.
Figure 1 Schematic representations of displays used in Studies 1 and 2.
Participants were run one at a time. The experimenter, who was European
American and fluent in both English and Chinese, brought the participant into a
ing room and seated her in front of a computer. All instructions were given in
English for American participants and in Chinese for Chinese participants. The
experimenter introduced the study as an investigation of visual perception, in
which the participant would be shown a number of displays depicting physical
events and asked questions about her perceptions of each. Participants were
instructed to think of the physical events as independent episodes, such that
objects in one display were not the same objects as in any other display. The
experimenter then played the displays, pausing after each to ask the
participant the following physical causality question: "Please explain in your
own words why the white object moved in the way it did. Even if you don't have
a strong opinion, please take a guess." Participants were given as much time as
needed to respond to the questions. Responses were tape-recorded. The procedure
typically lasted an hour, after which the participant was debriefed and
CODING OF OPEN-ENDED RESPONSES
Participants' answers to the free-response causality question were transcribed
and content analyzed by two psychology graduate students at the University of
Michigan. Both coders were blind to the experimental hypothesis. One coder was
European American and the other Chinese American, and each was fluent in both
English and Chinese. Each coder coded all of the responses. For each open-ended
response, coders tallied dispositional explanations (e.g., weight, shape) and
contextual explanations (e.g., gravity, liquid) for the white object's movement
as well as the perceived nature of the object (e.g., ball, balloon). Table 1
shows the complete coding scheme. Interjudge reliability was assessed by
Kendall's coefficient of concordance; good reliability was achieved (W = .90, p
THE PERCEIVED NATURE OF THE EVENTS
Because the current research assesses the impact of culture on perceptions of
physical causality, we intended for participants to interpret the animated
events as physical interactions between inanimate objects. However, in light of
research showing that moving geometrical figures can give the impression of
animacy and personality (Heider, 1944; Michotte, 1963), it is possible that
some participants saw the objects as representing organisms and their movements
as social in nature. However, our coding of participants' impressions of the
nature of the objects (refer to Table 1 for the coding scheme) indicated that
all participants perceived the animated circles as balls or (in the aerodynamic
display) as a balloon, not as animals or as humans. These findings are
consistent with cross-cultural studies in judgments of animacy showing that
across cultures, people as young as 3 years old make similar judgments in
distinguishing animals from objects (Carey, 1991).
TABLE 1: Coding Scheme for Open-Ended Physical Causality Judgments in Study 1
Property Type Categories
Nature of the white object
Could not categorize
Dispositional causes of whole object's movement
Weight or mass
Internal dynamics (e.g., heat, engine)
Other disposition (e.g., size, color)
Could not categorize
Contextual causes of white object's movement
Air or wind
Liquid or current
Outside physical conditions (e.g., smoothness of surface)
Other forces (e.g., human intervention)
Other contextual cause
Could not categorize
CAUSAL EXPLANATIONS FOR THE PHYSICAL EVENTS
Having established that all participants perceived the animated displays as
physical in nature, we next compared American and Chinese participants'
preferences for dispositional and contextual explanations of the events. To
isolate the effect of nationality on participants' preferences for different
types of explanations, we sought to control for any influence of nationality on
the total number of causes cited. Thus, for each of the eight physical events,
we calculated the percentage of American and Chinese explanations that referred
to dispositional and contextual factors. For all events, we predicted that
American participants would give proportionally more dispositional explanations
than would Chinese but that Chinese participants would give proportionally more
contextual explanations than would Americans. For each display, we conducted a
z test comparing the percentage of American versus Chinese explanations that
referred to dispositional causal factors. (Note that separate z tests comparing
rates of contextual explanations would have results identical to the tests of
dispositional explanations and are thus unnecessary.) Because our hypothesis
was clearly directional, we used one-tailed tests of significance. The
differences between American and Chinese rates of dispositional and contextual
explanations were significant for the Launching, Magnetic, and Aerodynamic
displays and marginally significant for the Hydrodynamic dropping display, such
that Americans gave more dispositional explanations than did Chinese. Averaging
across all displays, the predicted effect of nationality on percentage of
dispositional explanations was marginally significant, p < .10. American and
Chinese percentages of dispositional and contextual explanations, and the
corresponding z statistics, are presented in Table 2.
Study 1 provides partial evidence that members of different cultures possess
divergent folk theories of physical causality. In their open-ended explanations
for the physical events, American participants exhibited a greater preference
for dispositional explanations than did Chinese participants on three of the
eight displays, whereas Chinese participants emphasized contextual explanations
more than did Americans. This suggests that, as argued by Needham (1954), Capra
(1975), and Zukav (1979), the Eastern folk theory of physics places more
importance on contextual factors (such as other objects, forces over distance,
and mediums) and less importance on dispositional causes (such as shape and
weight) than does the American folk theory of physical causality.
For all the displays, cultural differences were in the predicted
direction--with Chinese being more contextual than Americans in their
explanations of physical motions. Nonetheless, the cultural difference was
statistically significant only for the Launching, Magnetic, and Aerodynamic
displays and marginal for the Hydrodynamic dropping display. Although this
discrepancy could be a result of the small sample size, it is interesting to
note that cultural differences were stronger for displays that depicted salient
energy transitions from one object to another object or a medium (Launching,
Hydrodynamic dropping, Magnetic, and Aerodynamic) than for displays in which
the energy transition is less salient (Balance, Launching at a distance,
Hydrodynamic floating, and Entraining). We had no a priori reason to expect
cultural differences to be limited to displays depicting salient energy
transitions, and further research should examine the reliability of this
Inspection of Table 2 suggests a possible alternative framing of our findings.
The analyses reported above examined the effect of culture on participants'
tendency to give dispositional versus contextual explanations for the physical
displays. However, the data also can be analyzed by comparing differences in
dispositional and contextual explanation within culture. It is clear that
Chinese participants favored contextual explanations over dispositional
explanations; however, Americans showed a relatively small preference for
dispositional explanations. Therefore, it is possible that whereas Chinese
possess a markedly contextual folk physical theory, Americans have a more or
less evenhanded theory emphasizing the importance of both types of explanation.
This alternative interpretation should be viewed with caution, however.
Americans' unexpectedly high reliance on contextual explanations is driven
largely by responses on only two of the eight physical displays, Hydrodynamic
dropping and Hydrodynamic floating, in which there is a visible medium that
exerts an obvious influence on the behavior of the white object. Thus,
interpretation of property use within culture is vulnerable to idiosyncrasies
of the particular displays participants were shown, some of which demanded
mention of important contextual causes.
TABLE 2: Percentage of American and Chinese Explanations Coded as Dispositional
or Contextual in Study 1 [dropped]
Having found evidence in Study 1 that American and Chinese cultures are
associated with divergent folk theories of physics, we next sought to
demonstrate a causal connection between culture-specific knowledge structures
and patterns of physical attribution. If culture-specific lay theories are
indeed responsible for the cultural differences observed in Study 1, then it
should be possible to temporarily increase the cognitive accessibility of
different theories and thus increase their influence on attributions. In Study
2, we tapped a population likely to possess both Asian and Western lay
theories--specifically, Chinese Americans--and attempted to influence their
attributions by priming one or other of these theories. We primed Chinese
Americans' identity either as Asians or as Americans before having them explain
the same series of physical events used in Study 1. We predicted that
participants receiving the Asian identity prime would prefer dispositional
causes to a lesser degree, and contextual causes to a greater degree, than
would participants receiving the American prime.
The results of Study 1 may be seen to conflict with findings in cognitive
psychology revealing no effects of culture on perceptions of physical causality
(e.g., Michotte, 1963). We argued earlier that formal physics education may
sometimes supplant or obscure folk theories and thus prevent cultural
differences from emerging. In Study 1, we were careful to choose participants
with no formal education in physics--and thus whose inferences are likely to be
based on their folk physical theories--allowing the observed cultural
difference to emerge.
In addition to examining the causal influence of folk physical theories, Study
2 was intended as a more direct test of the idea that formal physics education
may supplant or obscure individuals' folk theories of physical phenomena.
Participants in Study 2 reported the amount of physics instruction they have
received and rated their physics expertise. We predicted that the effect of
cultural identity priming on attributions would be qualified by an interaction
with participants' amount of physics education such that only participants with
little physics background would be affected by the identity prime. Participants
high in physics education, who presumably rely on a formally inculcated theory
of physics rather than a culture-specific folk theory, should not be affected
by the identity prime.
Sixty-five students (44 women) at the University of California, Berkeley,
participated in fulfillment of psychology course requirements. The mean age of
the participants was 19.7 years. Participants were selected who had reported
their ethnicity to be Chinese American during a mass data collection at the
beginning of the semester.
Cultural identity primes. Primes of Asian and of American identity consisted of
a short questionnaire asking participants to reflect, in writing, on several
aspects of their ethnic identity. First, participants were asked to "recall an
experience you had that made your identity as an American [Asian] apparent to
you." (Brackets indicate wording in the Asian prime condition.) Participants
then answered the following questions about the experience: "When did you have
this experience?" "How old were you when you had this experience?" "Briefly
describe the experience, " and "Why do you think the experience made your
American [Asian] identity apparent?"
Physical displays. Study 2 employed the same eight physical displays as did
Study 1 (Launching, Launching at a distance, Entraining, Hydrodynamic floating,
Hydrodynamic dropping, Balance, Magnetic, and Aerodynamic) (see Figure 1).
Displays were presented using Flash by Macromedia Software, a computer
Rating packets. Participants made their ratings of the physical displays in a
packet containing Likert-type questions corresponding to several causal
factors. For each of the eight displays, participants rated the extent to which
the white object's movement was due to five dispositional factors of the white
object (shape, weight, composition, buoyancy, and inertia) and four contextual
factors acting on the white object (gravity, friction, air/wind, and water).
All ratings were made on a 5-point scale from 1 (not at all responsible) to 5
Ratings of physics background. A short questionnaire was created to gauge
different aspects of participants' background in physics. As a measure of
formal instruction in physics, participants reported the total number of
physics classes they had taken in high school and college. As a measure of
physics expertise, participants rated their current physics expertise on a
5-point scale from 1 (none) to 5 (expert).
Participants were run in groups of 5 to 10 in a large testing room outfitted
with computers. As each participant entered the testing room, he or she was
handed an Asian or American identity prime from an alternating stack, thus
randomizing assignment of participants to the Asian and American prime
conditions. Participants were then seated at computers and asked to spend 3
minutes filling out the identity primes, after which the primes were collected.
Next, participants viewed each of the eight physical events in random order.
The computer displayed each event twice, after which participants were referred
to the appropriate page in their rating packets where they rated the degree to
which each causal factor was responsible for the event. After completing
ratings for all eight displays, participants completed the questionnaire
gauging the amount of physics instruction they had received and their
self-reported physics expertise.
The entire procedure typically lasted an hour, after which participants were
debriefed and dismissed.
DERIVATION OF AGGREGATE ATTRIBUTION SCORES
For use in the analyses reported below, we created aggregate measures of
dispositional and contextual attribution across all physical displays. Each
participant's aggregate dispositional attribution score was calculated by
averaging his or her endorsement of dispositional causal factors (i.e., shape,
weight, composition, buoyancy, and inertia); aggregate contextual attributions
were calculated by averaging each participant's endorsement of contextual
causal factors (i.e., black object, gravity, friction, air/wind, and water).
EFFECTS OF IDENTITY PRIMING AND PHYSICS EDUCATION
We tested two hypotheses in this study. First, we predicted that the identity
priming manipulation would influence Chinese American participants'
attributions for the physical events, such the participants receiving the Asian
prime would attribute the physical events more to contextual causes, and less
to dispositional causes, than would participants receiving the American prime.
Second, we predicted that priming effects would occur only for participants
with little formal education in physics. To test these hypotheses, we followed
Aiken and West's (1991) procedure for testing Categorical × Continuous
interactions using multiple regression. Unlike analysis of variance (ANOVA),
the regression method has the advantage of not requiring a split (such as a
median split) to be performed on the continuous variable, which discards useful
variance. We began by standardizing the dummy-coded prime condition variable,
the measure of physics education (i.e., number of physics classes taken), and
self-reported physics expertise to create three main effect terms (see Table 3
for the correlations between these variables and aggregate dispositional and
contextual attribution scores). Next, we multiplied the main effect terms
together to create interaction terms for each two-and three-way interaction
(i.e., Prime × Physics Classes, Prime × Physics Expertise, Physics Classes ×
Physics Expertise, and Prime × Physics Classes × Physics Expertise). We then
performed two simultaneous multiple regression analyses, one to test the
influence of these main effect and interaction terms on dispositional
attribution and one to test effects on the contextual attribution. Because
dispositional and contextual attributions were highly correlated, r = .68, p <
.01, 3 we controlled for this relationship by adding standardized contextual
attribution score as a predictor in the analysis of dispositional attributions
and standardized dispositional attributions scores as a predictor in the
analysis of contextual attributions. Tables 4 and 5 summarize the regressions
TABLE 3: Pearson Correlations Between Variables in Study 2 (N = 65) [dropped]
Identity priming. As can be seen in the first row of Table 4, participants
receiving the Asian prime made significantly less extreme dispositional
attributions for the physical events than did participants receiving the
American prime. Moreover, whereas the Asian prime decreased dispositional
attribution among Chinese Americans, it increased contextual attribution (see
Table 5, first row).
Physics education. As shown in the fourth row of Table 4, the effect of
identity priming was qualified by a marginally significant interaction with the
number of physics classes, such that the influence of priming on dispositionism
decreased as physics instruction increased. Likewise, the effect of identity
priming on contextualism decreased as physics instruction increased (see Table
5, fourth row).
To visualize the interactions between physics education and identity priming,
we plotted the interactions according to the procedure recommended by Aiken and
West (1991), with levels of dispositionism and contextualism predicted based on
the regression equations. Figure 2 represents the predicted effects of the
priming manipulation on dispositional attribution among participants one
standard deviation above and below the mean on physics education. Similarly,
Figure 3 represents the predicted effects of priming on contextual attributions
for participants high and low in physics education.
Self-reported physics expertise. An unexpected finding emerged involving
participants' self-reported physics knowledge. Specifically, we observed a
significant Prime × Physics Knowledge interaction in our analysis of
dispositional attributions, such that the American prime increased
dispositional attribution among participants who self-reported a great deal of
physics knowledge, but not among self-rated nonexperts (see Table 4, fifth
The results of Study 2 provide evidence for our hypotheses concerning the
causal impact of folk physical theories on attributions of physical causality.
Chinese American participants who received the Asian identity prime, which was
theorized to activate a contextual folk theory of physics, endorsed
dispositional causes to a lesser extent, and contextual causes to a greater
extent, than did participants receiving the American identity prime. The
success of our priming manipulation supports the notion that the interpretation
of physical phenomena is guided by knowledge structures acquired through
experience in one's culture. Contributing further support to the
knowledge-structure account, we found that priming only affected attributions
for participants with little formal instruction in physics (see Figures 2 and
3). If physical attribution is guided by learned, culture-specific knowledge
structures, then it should be possible to supplant these folk theories with
formal scientific theories acquired through education.
TABLE 4: Summary of Simultaneous Multiple Regression Analysis 4 of Aggregate
Dispositional Attribution in Study 2 (N = 65) [dropped]
Figure 2 Level of dispositional attribution for physical events as a function
of identity prime condition and physics education in Study 2.
Figure 3 Level of contextual attribution for physical events as a function of
identity prime condition and physics education in Study 2.
An unexpected finding emerged, such that identity priming had an effect for
individuals rating themselves as relatively expert in physics but not for
individuals self- reporting little physics knowledge. Given that we had
intended self-reported physics expertise, like physics education, to gauge the
extent to which participants have internalized formal physics theories, this
finding seems to contradict the observed Prime × Physics Classes interaction.
However, we believe that this finding may have arisen because self-rated
physics expertise is a less- pure measure of an individual's actual physics
knowledge than is the number of physics classes he or she has taken.
Specifically, we believe that the self-rated expertise measure may have been
confounded with individuals' motivation to self-enhance (i.e., to portray
themselves in a positive light); self-enhancement motivation, in turn, may have
been negatively related to participants' level of identification as Asians.
Because East Asians tend to self-enhance to a lesser degree than do European
Americans (Heine & Lehman, 1997), it may be that self- rated physics nonexperts
were less American-identified than were self-rated experts. If this is so, then
it may make sense that self-rated nonexperts, being not very American
identified--and thus less likely to possess a dispositional folk physical
theory--would not have been susceptible to the American prime. It follows from
priming theory (Higgins, 1996) that one cannot prime a knowledge structure that
an individual does not possess.
The current research employed the knowledge- structure conception of culture in
an examination of cultural influences on perceptions of physical events. First,
we argued that different cultures instill their members with different folk
theories of physics. Study 1 provided evidence for this claim: American and
Chinese individuals were found to differ in their explanations for a number of
physical events, with Americans favoring dispositional explanations compared to
Chinese. Second, we argued that folk theories exert a causal influence on
physical attributions. We tested this claim in Study 2 using a procedure
designed to temporarily increase the accessibility of dispositional or
contextual theories in individuals presumed to possess both (i.e., Chinese
Americans). Chinese Americans whose Asian identity was primed were found to
endorse dispositional explanations for physical events to a lesser extent, and
contextual explanations to a greater extent, than did Chinese Americans whose
American identity was primed.
Our findings concerning the role of formal instruction in physics help to
reconcile the current results with previous psychological research in which no
cultural differences in physical attribution were found (e.g., Michotte, 1963).
In keeping with the folk theories approach, formal education might supplant or
obscure the operation of folk theories and thus prevent the cultural difference
from manifesting itself. In Study 1, we argued that cultural differences in
folk physical theories emerged in part due to the fact that participants had no
formal physics education. In Study 2, participants' background in physics was
measured, consistent with the idea that physics instruction blocks the
operation of folk physical theories, priming effects were found only for
individuals who had taken few physics classes.
Continuity of Cultural Differences in Social Attribution and Physical
The present research provides evidence for a cultural difference in physical
attribution analogous to a known cultural difference in social attribution. The
dispositional- contextual (or internal-external) distinction, used here to
distinguish between different kinds of attributions for objects' physical
behavior, has a long history in the study of attributions for individuals'
social behavior. Researchers studying social explanation often distinguish
between internal attributions, which trace behavior to personal dispositions
(e.g., personality traits or attitudes), and external attributions, which trace
behavior to forces in the social environment (e.g., pressure from peers or
authorities) (Gilbert & Malone, 1995).
Researchers studying social attribution have argued for the existence of robust
biases in social explanation. For instance, lay perceivers often have been
observed to favor internal (dispositional) explanations for others' behavior
over situational explanations--an inferential tendency known as the
"correspondence bias" or the "fundamental attribution error" (Ross & Nisbett,
1991). Although this tendency was once seen as a universal bias in social
judgment (Heider, 1958; Ichheiser, 1949; Ross, 1977), more recent work in
cultural psychology has recast dispositional bias as a culture-bound phenomenon
(e.g., Miller, 1984; for a review, see Peng et al., 2001). Cross-cultural
research suggests dispositional bias is less marked in East Asian cultures than
in Western cultures, where most social psychological research has been
conducted. A growing body of research using a variety of methods has
demonstrated that East Asians are less apt to attribute behavior to an actor's
personal dispositions, and more apt to attribute behavior to the situational
context, than are members of Western cultures (Kitayama & Masuda, 1997; Knowles
et al., 2001; Lee, Hallahan, & Herzog, 1996; Morris & Peng, 1994).
Analogous to this Asian-Western cultural difference in social attribution, the
current research suggests that Americans favor internal/dispositional
explanations for nonsocial events more than do Chinese, whereas Chinese prefer
external/contextual explanations more than do Americans. Whether the parallel
between cultural differences in social and physical perception reflect the
operation of domain-general cognitive factors-- such as dialectical versus
linear (Peng & Nisbett, 1999) or holistic versus analytic (Nisbett, Peng, Choi,
& Norenzayan, 2001) modes of thought--is an important question for future
Reconciling Developmental and Cultural Models of Causal Understanding
At first blush, the current studies might seem at odds with research into the
development of physical understanding, which points to the existence of
universal constraints guiding individuals' perceptions of physical events from
a very early age (Carey & Spelke, 1994; Spelke, 1990). We argue, however, that
no inherent tension exists between these developmental and cultural
perspectives. First, the existence of cultural differences among adults in no
way rules out the existence of universals among infants. Indeed, models of the
development of social-causal explanation have explicitly included both early
universals and later cultural differences. For instance, Miller (1984) argued
that whereas early social inference may be constrained by universal cognitive
processes, the influence of culture--as carried by folk theories--increases as
individuals mature within their culture (Miller, 1984). The development of
physical understanding might follow a similar pattern, in which cultural
differences emerge only relatively late in development.
Second, as the influence of folk theories on physical perceptions increases
over development, it need not be the case that universal perceptual and
cognitive mechanisms stop operating. Indeed, there is no inherent contradiction
between the types of cognitive constraints identified by developmental
psychologists (e.g., the innate understanding, observed by Spelke, 1994, that
two objects cannot occupy the same volume of space) and the types of divergent
beliefs embodied in folk physical theories (i.e., that the behavior of objects
is attributable primarily to their dispositions or to forces impinging on them
from without). In other words, dispositional and contextual folk physics are
equally consistent with the sorts of basic perceptual constraints identified by
The current research contributes to our understanding of how development within
a particular social milieu (i.e., a culture) molds an individual's perceptions
of his or her environment. Past research in the culture-astheory tradition
(e.g., Hong et al., 2000; Morris & Peng, 1994) suggests that culture--both
national and ethnic-- may profitably be construed as a constellation of folk
theories governing one's basic understanding of the social world. The current
research suggests that the influence of culturally instilled folk theories may
extend further-- specifically, to one's causal understanding of nonsocial
(i.e., physical) events. At the same time, the current studies place caveats on
when folk theories can and cannot be expected to exert influence on causal
attributions. When formal theories in a domain are acquired, the influence folk
understandings may wane.
1. It should be noted that priming techniques have not been limited to research
in the culture-as-theory tradition. Working within the self approach, Brewer
and Gardner (1996; Gardner, Gabriel, & Lee, 1999) used linguistic cues to prime
personal, relational, or collective self-definitions. Value theorists, in turn,
have primed different cultural values using value-related cues (e.g., Trafimow,
Triandis, & Goto, 1991).
2. Female spouses of Chinese students were selected due to the difficulty of
finding Chinese students with no formal education in physics.
3. We see two possible artifactual reasons for the strong positive correlation
between dispositional and contextual attribution scores. First, participants
may have differed in the degree to which they saw the physical displays as
requiring explanation; that is, some participants may have seen many causal
factors at work in the displays (leading to relatively high ratings for all
causes), whereas other participants saw only a few factors at work (leading to
relatively low ratings for all causes). Second, participants may have differed
in terms of acquiescence bias, leading them to favor either high ratings or low
ratings across all causal factors. Thus, the positive association between
dispositional and contextual attribution scores does not invalidate our claim
that these modes of explanation are distinguishable and independent.
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Received March 1, 2002 Revision accepted October 15, 2002
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