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Time to Quit the Nature versus Nurture Discussion?

Time to Quit the Nature versus Nurture Discussion?

Human behavior is a blend of culture and cognition. We need to acknowledge the overlap between the two concepts and increase communication between culture and cognition researchers.

The most characteristic trait of the human mind is its ability to learn and adapt. A few decades ago, when twin studies were the hallmark of behavioral science, the ancient question of nature versus nurture was at the top of the agenda. These studies almost invariably found that nature and nurture both account for substantial variation in traits between identical twins separated at birth.

At this time the legitimacy of entire disciplines of behavioral, social, and cultural sciences hinged on the idea that nature or nurture alone was more important than the other. Yet, it turned out to be the case that one is incredibly difficult to separate from the other. Since then, more and more research have verified that an interaction of nature and nurture accounts for most of human behavior. New insights from biological epigenetics have demonstrated that even the expression of our genes depends on environmental factors. It seems that our most innate nature is to be shaped by our nurture.

Malleable minds

We now know that fully understanding just about any human behavior necessitates an understanding of how culture and cognition interacts. Is tooth brushing a product of cultural or cognitive processes? Are social practices or learning processes the key mechanism to explain the vast prevalence of this behavior? We have traditionally divided the academic study of human behavior into disciplines focusing on one aspect or the other; however, neither the cultural angle nor the cognitive one can alone explain something as simple as why billions of people brush their teeth every day. This applies to virtually every real-life behavior: almost everything we do is a product of an interaction between culture and cognition.

“The secret to the compulsive power of social structures is that they have an inside. They are not only external to actors but internal to them.” – Alexander 2003:4

Understanding culture-cognition interaction has become even more important with the discovery of activity-dependent neuroplasticity – the fact that the brain physically restructures synaptic connection between neurons as they are being used. This automatic and continuous restructuring of the human brain means all our experiences, everything the brain processes – from basic perceptions to thoughts, behaviors, and emotions – will contribute to physically rewiring the brain and shaping further cognition. The consequence of this plasticity in response to environmental inputs is that cultural research is now more important than ever before, as culture inevitably shapes the very mechanisms of cognition.

So what’s the problem?

Cognitive science has developed a good understanding of how cognition works and we now have highly sophisticated theories of culture, yet we still lack an integrated model of how the two interact and shape each other. The problem of integrating culture and cognition research pertains to how academic research into culture and cognition have been separated and compartmentalized into different departments with extremely little cross-disciplinary communication.

This academic compartmentalization was not always the case. In the early 20th century, many influential researchers and theorists, such as George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley studied both the mind and society at the same time. This made perfect sense to them, but then history happened.

Psychology became dominated by behaviorism, which sought a more natural-scientific -approach to human behavior, and as a consequence, a mechanistic view of the human mind prevailed in mainstream psychology. This view was so well-established that when cognitive science was born as a reaction against behaviorism, it adopted a similar reductionism. The behaviorist framework rejected the causal importance and scientific relevance of cultural concepts such as ‘meaning,’ but, in entirely different parts of academia, these were still being studied. In humanistic departments, culture was studied under the flag of cultural studies which emerged about the same time as cognitive science, and eventually became the primary source of theoretical inspiration as cultural sociology brought back culture into the social sciences.

 “When we study the social mind, we merely fix our attention on larger aspects and relations, rather than on the narrower ones of ordinary psychology.” – Charles Horton Cooley

Different frameworks, different languages

This is making a long and complicated history both short and simplified, but the take-home message is that historical circumstances led culture and cognition research to be conducted in separate settings inspired by widely different outside frameworks for understanding human behavior (one natural-scientific and one humanistic).

Because culture and cognition research has been compartmentalized for decades and built on such different theoretical frameworks, entirely different languages have evolved in relative isolation from each other, which has created a situation of mutual illiteracy between the two fields. This is in a quite literal sense; we may all speak English, but we use the very same words in entirely different ways. This mutual illiteracy is what has led culture and cognition researchers to perceive each other as irrelevant and incompatible, yet this is an illusionary irrelevance which is not due to fundamentally differing ideas or conclusions about the human mind.

The miscommunication between culture and cognition researchers applies to even our most basic concepts. Cultural sociologists tend to rely on a layman’s definition of cognition, as something akin to “the act of thinking.” Thinking here implies rational, conscious, or propositional thought. This very narrow conceptualization has led sociologists to talk about things such as “non-cognitive skills” (i.e. tacit learning) and to distinguish between cognition and emotions.

“To be a sociologist is often to engage in, implicitly or explicitly, a more or less immense, more or less manic denial of the internal world, and attempt to avoid an inner reality” – Ian Craib 1989:196

Similarly, cognitive scientists often use a narrow layman’s definition of culture as a set of ethnic or national traditions, including “the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time” (Merriam Webster 2015). This narrow view of culture only defines certain types of practices or ideas as cultural (such as theater or holiday traditions), and associates culture only with certain societal-level groups (a person or a nation). Using this definition, it is understandable that a cognitive scientist interested in decision making would deem research on arts or tradition irrelevant.

Everything is culture; everything is cognition

Both culture and cognition encompasses almost everything that people do and thus largely overlap in any given human behavior, given the broad definitions of culture and cognition employed by the researchers who spent decades studying one or the other. There is hardly a thought, perception, emotion or behavior that is not to some extent socially learned.

But not only is culture and cognition research extremely relevant to each other, their respective frameworks are also much more compatible than most researchers believe. Looking closer at the insights of cognitive science and cultural sociology, one finds that more often than not, they support and verify each other (see DiMaggio 1997, Cerulo 2010 or Vaisey 2010). Even such notions from cultural sociology as the self-being “a social construct” is in fact highly compatible with mainstream ideas from cognitive science about how the mind actively derives working models of oneself from input cues, including cues from social interaction (Strandell 2016 and forthcoming)

And what’s the solution?

In order to begin developing integrated synergic models of human behavior, we need to increase communication and exchange between culture and cognition researchers, and possibly even re-structure academia (some already speak of a post-disciplinary social science).

A necessary precondition for communication and exchange is, however, that we develop a joint base vocabulary which makes sense to people on both sides of the fence so that they can read and understand each other’s work without having to learn an entire disciplinary language from scratch. To do this, we need to move away from disciplinary jargon and towards building more accessible, inclusive and non-reductive conceptual frameworks.

“Pluralism is great as long as those on different sides of the barricades can (and are interested to) talk to each other.” – Szelenyi 2015

For example, instead of talking about discourses, practices, or frames when referring to different kinds of cultural patterns, we should develop an umbrella concept which is highly accessible to cognitive scientists but also backward compatible as to integrate all the research we already have about discourses, practices, and frames.

Bridging concepts

The key here is to develop bridging concepts – or ‘conceptual adapters’ – that can both maintain compatibility and are non-reductive, while at the same time allow easy access and comprehension without having to learn all that disciplinary jargon. A suggestion for such a bridging concept is the notion of ‘cultural schemas’ which can be used to subsume many different cultural conceptualizations while offering a semantic and conceptual structure highly similar to that of ‘cognitive schemas’ – a concept already used as a base concept in the cognitive sciences (Strandell, forthcoming).

Good science is ultimately about efficient knowledge production – about producing as much and as good knowledge as possible out of our limited resources. The future of social science, therefore, requires us to become increasingly cross-disciplinary, cumulative and collaborative. The only way to do so, and to efficiently gain complete knowledge of real-life human behavior, is to move towards a much closer integration of culture and cognition research.


Find more about Jacob Strandell’s work here. [ResearchGate] [Academia]

Jacob’s Dissertation: Strandell (2017). Culture-Cognition Interaction: Bridging Cognitive Science and Cultural Sociology. Doctoral dissertation, University of Copenhagen. Copenhagen: Academic books.

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Jacob Strandell
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