But the development of a related ability - being able to connect what other people do with what they are thinking and feeling - shows no cross-cultural difference, says psychologist Mark Sabbagh, who led the international research team.
Their findings are published in the January 2006 issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the American Psychological Society.
Working with researchers from China and the U.S., Dr. Sabbagh has discovered that "executive functioning" (the ability to control our attention and behaviour) develops more rapidly in Chinese preschoolers than in North Americans. Associated with the frontal lobe of the brain, executive functioning skills allow us to focus on goals even when there are distractions.
One explanation for the cross-cultural difference may be the importance that parents in China place on their children controlling impulses and following directions, Dr. Sabbagh says. He also points to the genetic risk factor for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) that is associated with executive functioning problems. Present in 20 per cent of North American and European children, it has never been found in Chinese children.
"This suggests that in addition to the socialization of control in Chinese pre-schoolers, there may also be genetic factors that contributed to advanced executive functioning," says Dr. Sabbagh.
When tested for the development of another, related ability called "theory of mind" (understanding that people's actions are motivated by thoughts and feelings), however, Chinese pre-schoolers fare no better than those in North America. Previous research had shown that within cultures, advances in executive functioning were associated with advances in theory of mind development. However, Dr. Sabbagh's findings show that advances in executive functioning are not themselves sufficient to demonstrate theory of mind understanding.
In the study more than 100 Chinese and North American three-to-five-year-olds were tested on a set of eight executive functioning and five theory of mind tasks. On every one of the executive functioning tasks, the Chinese children scored higher. But not a single theory of mind task showed the same cultural difference.
"Our findings suggest that theory of mind and executive functioning are intrinsically linked, but it's not simply cause and effect," says Dr. Sabbagh. "The development of complex concepts like theory of mind are shaped by many factors. It could be that while Chinese pre-schoolers are advantaged on executive functioning, they may not be advantaged in other factors." A possible explanation is the one-child-per-family policy in China, he adds. "We know already that children with older siblings tend to do better at theory of mind."
Also on the research team are Drs. Fen Xu from Beijing Normal University, Stephanie Carlson from University of Washington, Louise Moses from University of Oregon, and Kang Lee from the University of Toronto (formerly from Queen's).
The study was supported by the Natural Sciences and Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
Nancy Dorrance, Queen's News & Media Services, 613.533.2869
Therese Greenwood, Queen's News & Media Services, 613.533.6907
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