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Cambridge University Science Magazine
affect how likely it is that you will to buy something, or your output

in a reasoning test? Think again. This is the main conclusion found in a

series of experiments recently published at the Journal Social Cognition.

In this study lead author Daphna

Oyserman and colleagues exposed people to different situations, some of

which were culturally common, and some of which were not. For example,

people were either shown ‘normal’ wedding pictures (bride in a white

dress, groom in a black tuxedo, a tiered cake), or pictures of a

‘strange’ wedding (bride wearing green, groom in a purple tuxedo, a cake

decorated with gears). Surprisingly, what type of pictures people had

seen strongly influenced their performance on a reasoning task taken


Those who saw normal pictures were more

likely to choose an intuitive but wrong answer on this task. They were

also more prone to buy random items than those who saw the strange


The pictures influenced people's reasoning

The pictures influenced people's reasoning

Furthermore, the researchers found

similar results across independent experiments, which were performed in

different countries, with subjects of different ages, and carried out in

different social contexts. The results are consistent: cultural shocks

affect our reasoning.

How can this be? There seems to be a

dichotomy in the way our brain thinks and processes information. This

dual-process theory was first proposed in the late 1800s, and has

received lots of experimental support ever since. The idea is that there

are two distinct systems underlying reasoning. System one is fast,

automatic and intuitive. It is happy to give quick answers to problems,

and will most likely stay in control as long as the situation is

pleasant and at ease. Unlike system one, system two is slow, analytical

and logical. Difficult cognitive tasks can only be performed by system

two. But because system two demands lots of cognitive capacity, it is

also lazy. So it will only take charge when really needed. These results

suggest that cultural fluency (seeing everything as expected) keeps

system one happy and in charge, whereas a cultural shock serves as an

alarm call for our lazy system two to wake up, take charge, and pay

attention to details. This is one of many studies showing the great

advantages that cultural diversity can have.

DOI: 10.1521/soco.2015.33.4.308

More information on dual-process theory and cognitive biases can be found in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Written by Ornela De Gasperin.