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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Morality when the mind is opaque : intent vs. outcome across the lifespan in Yasawa, Fiji McNamara, Rita Anne


The ability to infer the presence and contents of other minds is one of the most powerful cognitive tools humans use to navigate our social worlds. Culture is an essential part of these social worlds. But how do mind and culture influence each other? Does culture merely shape the social situations that people navigate in the course of daily life, or does culture fundamentally alter the way that we perceive each other as we move through these social worlds? This dissertation examines how culture shapes mind through the specific example of people living in Yasawa, Fiji. Yasawan culture includes social norms that prohibit discussing others’ actions in terms of mental states – part of a wider phenomenon known as Opacity of Mind, documented in small-scale Indigenous societies and especially prevalent around the Pacific. This culturally-transmitted approach to thinking about minds offers an interesting contrast to the North American focus on minds and internal dispositions as the source of all behaviour. Across five studies, the research presented in this dissertation documents cross-cultural differences in how adults think about beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and social situations. This research also examines how underlying differences in everyday thinking about minds can be applied to social situations, resulting in different emphases on intent or outcome in moral judgments. These differences in intent vs. outcome focus are further shown to be more influenced by culture later in life; children in both cultures show similar degrees of intent focus while North American adults show greater intent focus and Yasawan adults show lower intent focus. This suggests that mental state inference and intentionality reasoning may be a part of core human cognition that is modulated by cultural influences – both increasing and decreasing mentalizing focus – into adulthood. More importantly, this work demonstrates the need to take cultural differences documented outside of urban laboratory research as a serious part of the research process. Cultural differences in adult psychological processing should not be considered as variation around an ideal prototype (conveniently documented in Western samples), but as reactions to specific socio-ecological pressures and historical influences that shape individuals into enculturated beings.

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