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Cultural aspects of intelligence

In this step, we look at limits to human intelligence and different cultural understandings of it.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

Another factor that may contribute to bias is the fact that the term ‘intelligence’ can mean different things in different cultures.

This step, therefore, considers if there is a difference in how intelligence is perceived in different cultures; the oriental (East) vs occidental (West), north vs south, traditional vs progressive and urban vs rural. These differences are closely linked to the field of cognitive science which concerns the ability to reason, solve problems, learn, plan and communicate.

Human limitations

In 1956, the cognitive scientist, George Miller, presented a paper on the capacity of humans to transmit information. He posited the view that there is, in fact, a limit to the intellectual capacity of humans. He stated that there is a limit to how much information humans can receive, process and remember and this limit is built into us through our nervous systems, our capacity for learning, ‘span of immediate memory’ and ‘span of absolute judgement’.

How are these limitations reflected across cultures?

So do different cultures buy into the view that there is a limit to human intelligence and do they perceive it in the same way? Gardner et al. (1996) classify ‘cultural societies’ as hunter-gatherers, nomadic herders, fishing communities and agricultural.

In industrialised societies, such as North America, intelligence is often equated with ‘speedy answers’. In societies where formal schooling is rare, however, intelligence is required to provide subsistence, food and shelter for the family/clan and this is reflected in cultural attitudes. For example, behaviours that are ‘patient and sensible’ and ‘in line with social norms’ are seen as more characteristic of intelligence in these cultures (Gardner at al. 1996: 7). By way of example, Gardner et al. (1996: 6-7) cites the Puluwat Islanders of Micronesia and certain African tribes such as the Baganda of Uganda, the Mashona of Zimbabwe and the Kispsigis of Kenya who value the ‘ability to deal wisely with others’ and ‘exercising prudence and caution, especially in social interaction’ which can be summed up as ‘social responsibility’ (Gardner et al. 1996: 7).

Your task

In industrialised societies, literacy and numeracy skills are often seen as features of intelligence, whereas in traditional hunter-gathering cultures this is the case with subsistence practices.
What is your view on this and what do you think are the implications for the development of AI?


Gardner, H., Kornhaber, M. L. and Wake, W. K. (1996). Intelligence: Multiple Perspectives. Harcourt Brace College Publishers

Miller, G. (1956). The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Limits on Our Capacity for Processing. The Psychological Review, 63(2)

© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
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Artificial Intelligence: Distinguishing Between Fact and Fiction

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