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

Nat Hum Behav. 2021 Oct;5(10):1358-1368. doi: 10.1038/s41562-021-01184-8. Epub 2021 Aug 26.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Cognition*
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Emotional Intelligence*
  • Ethnopsychology
  • Female
  • Human Development
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations
  • Male
  • Mind-Body Relations, Metaphysical
  • Perception*
  • Sensation*
  • Social Behavior