richard_nisbett's picture
Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished University Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan; Author, Thinking: A Memoir
How different could minds be?


Plato believed that human knowledge was inborn. Kant and Peirce agreed that much of knowledge had to exist prior to birth or it would be impossible to understand or learn anything. Until quite lately, psychologists were almost uniformly opposed to this notion, insisting that only process not content could be part of our native equipment. Piaget was typical (and highly influential) in asserting that only learning skills and inferential procedures such as deductive rules and schemes for induction and causal analysis were native. He also maintained that these were identical for all people with undamaged minds, and that development of such processes ended with adolescence. Content could be almost infinitely variable because these processes operate on different inputs for different people in different situations and cultures.

But recent work by psychologists provides evidence that some content is universal and native. Theories of mechanics are present by the age of three months and highly elaborated theories of mind and make their appearance before the age of four, are universal, and may also be native. Some anthropologists maintain that schemes for understanding the biological world and even some for understanding the social world are universal and native, as are some knowledge structures for representing the spirit world.

Psychologists ­ and philosophers in this case as well ­ may turn out to be wrong in assuming that all mental processes are universal, native and unalterable. Though early in the 20th century there were claims by Soviet psychologists Vygotsky and Luria that cognitive processes were historically rooted, differentiated by culture, and alterable by education, they were largely ignored. But findings have cropped up from time to time that fit these assertions. Deductive rules may be a trick learned in the process of Western-style education; rational choice procedures may be applied primarily by economists and only in very limited domains by lay people; statistical rules (Piaget's "probability schema") may be used only to a very slight extent by non-Western peoples.

Authors of this year's questions have asked how radical the differences among universes, mathematical systems, and kinds of life might be. How radical could the differences among humans be in basic knowledge structures and inferential procedures? What has to be shared or even inborn? What can be allowed to vary?