Americans are more likely to exalt the qualities of innovation, creativity, and uniqueness over traits of social conformity. Because of this, parents and teachers in the U.S. may be less likely to associate children’s conformity with intelligence than adults from other populations, according to a new study by psychologists at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin.
So while American children are often encouraged to engage in non-conformist and creative behavior, these teachings stand in contrast to other cultures in which child socialization more strongly emphasizes fostering values that emphasize social conformity, said the researchers.
For the study, the researchers looked at how adults in the U.S. view children’s behavioral conformity as an indication of their intelligence and good behavior compared to how adults in the Vanuatu — a Melanesian archipelago in the South Pacific — see these same qualities.
“Cross-cultural comparisons provide critical insight into variation in reasoning about intelligence. Examining variation in adults’ beliefs about children’s intelligence provides insight into the kinds of behavior adults value and encourage children to engage in,” said Dr. Cristine Legare, an associate professor of psychology at UT Austin.
The researchers combined methodologies from experimental psychology and comparative anthropology to examine the kinds of behaviors adults associated with intelligence in each population.
Rather than describing what makes a child intelligent, participants watched videos of an adult demonstrating a task, followed by two videos: one of a child imitating the actions exactly as they had been demonstrated; and another of a child deviating from the modeled task. Participants then indicated which child appeared the most intelligent and which child was most well-behaved.
Ni-Vanuatu adults were more likely to identify the high-conforming child as both smart and well-behaved, particularly when the child was from the same population as them; whereas U.S. adults were less likely to identify the high-conforming child as intelligent.
“Conformity is interpreted in different ways in each population — adults from Vanuatu interpret conformity as evidence of children’s competency and adults from the U.S. interpret non-conformity as evidence of children’s creativity,” Legare said.
In addition, the researchers looked at potential differences in adults’ judgments across socioeconomic status groups within the U.S. to find out whether and to what extent education level influenced their judgments of children’s conformity.
The findings show that adults with no college experience were more likely to endorse the high-conforming child on both measures than adults with higher levels of education, but still less likely than Ni-Vanuatu adults to select the high-conforming child as intelligent.
“Children’s learning environments can differ significantly between high and low socioeconomic families, including parents’ beliefs about how children should behave and the extent to which children should be self-directed and independent,” said Dr. Jennifer Clegg, the study’s lead author and UT Austin psychology alumna who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Boston University.
“Examining variation in adults’ beliefs about children’s intelligence provides insight into the kinds of behavior children are encouraged to engage in diverse populations with distinct child-rearing goals and values.”
The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
Source: University of Texas at Austin