Differences in Cultural Conceptions of Intelligence

There are many definitions of intelligence according to both formal and informal theories. Under formal theories, intelligence is associated to adaptation to the environment and the capability to learn. According to experts, there is an intelligence factor, referred to as g, which dictates all adaptive behaviors such as mental, verbal, creative and mechanical abilities. On the other hand, informal theories define intelligence using verbal, practical and social abilities. Conventional measurements of intelligence involve IQ (intelligence quotient) tests.
However, different cultures define and measure intelligence differently. Western and Eastern cultures see intelligence in varying perspective according to important factors in each of these two societies (Sternberg et al, 2005). Western culture, such in the United States and most parts of Europe, traditionally defines intelligence as the mental capacity for analytical and reasoning as evidenced by strong performance in practical problem solving, verbal and social skills.
Accordingly, several tests in the United States are used to gauge a person’s intelligence. Examples are the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, the Wechsler Intelligence Scales, Cognitive Abilities Test, and School and College Abilities Tests (Sternberg, 2007). Eastern cultures have an entirely different conventional view of intelligence. In China, for example, intelligence covers righteousness, benevolence, humility, self-knowledge and character as some of the traits that are associated when describing intelligence in addition to cognitive abilities.

Furthermore, in Taiwanese Chinese, there are five conceptions regarding intelligence. These are cognitive, interpersonal, intrapersonal, intellectual self-assertion, and self-effacement. With the above differences in the perception of intelligence in two representative cultures such as the Chinese (Eastern) and American (Western), comes equivalent parameters that should be remembered to measure abilities. Each has its own methods for testing linguistic, spatial and interpersonal skills (Sternberg, 2007).
For testing linguistic capabilities, it is important to take into account the use of appropriate language medium. The two cultures agree on using their native tongues for assessing intelligence of members of the said cultures. The English language is prevalently used in American schools; on the other hand, Chinese characters are common in schools in China. The use of figures and characters in the latter language gives advantage to Chinese students in their spatial abilities whereas abstract thinking and imagination is inspired in American setting.
Therefore, a glaring contrast in tests given to American and Chinese students lies in the presence or degree of creativity and spatial skills tests, respectively. As mentioned above, there is great advantage among Chinese with regards to spatial thinking skills which can be attributed to the use of characters and physical representations in their language. On the other hand, emphasis is given on the use of alphanumeric characters in Western culture which partly results in abstract reasoning. This is why there are more tests dealing with creative thinking in Western than in Chinese culture.
With regards to interpersonal skills, teamwork and collaboration is highlighted in the Western culture while in Eastern culture, the importance of excelling and being independent in order to provide or be an example to other people takes precedence. In other words the difference lies in the Eastern focus on the self as exemplified in the Taoist tradition unlike the Western’s emphasis on unity. Therefore, Eastern culture test for how best to surpass one’s successes while Western culture evaluate a person’s ability to be productive within a group (Sternberg, 2007).

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