Cultural IQ

Organization and classification are two fundamental activities when it comes to critical thinking. But we seldom give much thought to the organizational criteria we are using. In fact, the criteria we use often seem to be a ‘given.’ In other words, there’s a degree of automatic, culturally-dictated thinking in our organizational choices.

Different cultures use different methods of organization. We tend to be blind to those differences because we only see our own culture’s methods. The exercise below helps you become a little more flexible when considering appropriate methods of classification and helps you to see that there’s more than one way to organize things.

Most IQ tests are built upon culturally shared notions of what things should be grouped together. In part, they test what you know about cultural classification systems. Here is a hypothetical “test” of your aptitude and intelligence. Some examples are ethnographic; some are hypothetical. In each case, choose the most different item that doesn’t “belong” in the set. Discussion follows below.

Set 1. Auto, turtle, basket, bird

Set 2. Laundry, beer, clothing

Set 3. A chair, a spear, a couch

Set 4. A pig, a goat, a snake

           OR a cow, a pig, a chicken

           OR a horse, a cow, a pig


Set 1. In general, Americans tend to select auto or basket using the culturally familiar categorizing device of machines vs. non-machines or movement vs. non-movement. At least a few non-western cultural groups, however, would see birds as most different because their culture emphasizes shape, and birds are relatively angular rather than rounded in shape. Western culture tends to emphasize use or functionality. Thus correctness in this case is culture-dependent. Are there sub-cultures in the US that use ‘different’ organizational methods?

Set 2. Generally, and with great assurance, people from Western cultures select beer as most different. Functionality places clothing and washing machines together. Yet, at least one culture views clothing as the different item because laundry and beer are both “foamy.” Visual appearance is most salient. US slang for beer (“suds”) also recognizes the attribute of foaminess.

Set 3. Again most Westerners select the “wrong” answer—at least from the perspective of traditional West African cultures. US Americans tend to emphasize use, thus placing couch and chair together as types of sitting devices (i.e.“furniture”). The Ashanti people apparently would see the “couch” as the most different because both a chair and a spear can symbolize authority.

Set 4. This hypothetical example helps us understand the use of alternative classifying devices. One can use “edible” vs. “inedible” animals—i.e. which are “food” and which are not, although it depends on which culture. Some Hindus (but perhaps not in Nepal) would find a goat edible but not a pig. US Christians might see cows-pigs as different from a horse. Most of our culinary choices are culturally dictated. In other words, our taste preferences are learned responses and not necessarily something we’re born with. See if you can think of other alternative responses and what cultural values they might reflect.

Material drawn from How Real Is Race? A Sourcebook on Race, Culture, and Biology, (2007), pp 116-117, by Carol Mukhopadhyay, Rosemary Henze and Yolanda Moses, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group Books. © 2007 American Anthropological Association.

Author: Craig Butcher

Craig Butcher is an award-winning educator who has taught critical thinking skills for more than two decades. In addition, he has worked on Capitol Hill as a congressional staffer and has been a top-rated broadcaster.