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Similarities and differences in concepts of mental life among adults and children in five cultures

Abstract

How do concepts of mental life vary across cultures? By asking simple questions about humans, animals and other entities – for example, ‘Do beetles get hungry? Remember things? Feel love?’ – we reconstructed concepts of mental life from the bottom up among adults (N = 711) and children (ages 6–12 years, N = 693) in the USA, Ghana, Thailand, China and Vanuatu. This revealed a cross-cultural and developmental continuity: in all sites, among both adults and children, cognitive abilities travelled separately from bodily sensations, suggesting that a mind–body distinction is common across diverse cultures and present by middle childhood. Yet there were substantial cultural and developmental differences in the status of social–emotional abilities – as part of the body, part of the mind or a third category unto themselves. Such differences may have far-reaching social consequences, whereas the similarities identify aspects of human understanding that may be universal.

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Fig. 1: Factor loadings from EFAs among adults and children in five field sites, organized by similarity to the ‘body’, ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ factors among US adults.
Fig. 2: Vector cosines (rc) between all pairs of factors in the EFA solutions presented in Fig. 1, indicating how similar each factor is to every other factor.
Fig. 3: Cultural comparisons of adults across sites.
Fig. 4: Developmental comparisons within each site.

Data availability

The behavioural data that support the findings of this study, along with analysis code and study materials, have been deposited in Open Science Framework with the identifier https://doi.org/10.17605/osf.io/8s36e (https://osf.io/8s36e)81.

Code availability

The analysis code that generated the results and visualizations that support the findings of this study is available on GitHub at https://github.com/kgweisman/mental-life-culture-development (and linked to the OSF project provided in the previous section).

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to the research teams in each field site; to Ellen Markman and Carol Dweck for wise advice on these studies; and to Bertram Malle and two anonymous reviewers for thoughtful feedback on an earlier version of this manuscript. See Supplementary Information for extended acknowledgements. This material is based on work supported by the John Templeton Foundation under Grant No. 55427 to T.M.L., by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. DGE-114747 to K.W., and by a William R. & Sara Hart Kimball Stanford Graduate Fellowship to K.W. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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K.W. developed the study concept. K.W. and N.R.-Z. curated the data. K.W. carried out formal analysis of the data. T.M.L. and C.H.L. acquired funding for the study. F.A., J.D.B., J.C.D., E.N., N.R.-Z. and R.E.S. undertook the study investigation. K.W., C.H.L., T.M.L., F.A., J.D.B., J.C.D., V.A.D., E.N., N.R.-Z. and R.E.S. developed the study methodology. T.M.L. and N.R.-Z. administered the project. T.M.L., K.W., F.A., J.C.D., E.N., N.R.-Z. and R.E.S. supervised the study. K.W. undertook data validation and visualization. K.W. wrote the original draft of the manuscript. All authors reviewed and edited the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kara Weisman.

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Peer review information Nature Human Behaviour thanks Bertram Malle and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods and results, extended acknowledgements, Supplementary Figures 1–18, Tables 1–6, and captions for Supplementary Data 1–10.

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Supplementary Data 1–10

Data from all samples of adults and all samples of children.

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Weisman, K., Legare, C.H., Smith, R.E. et al. Similarities and differences in concepts of mental life among adults and children in five cultures. Nat Hum Behav 5, 1358–1368 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01184-8

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