A unique study between the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Cambridge University compared the cognitive skills of children from Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. The study that was published earlier this year had sought to compare the effect of Eastern and Western cultures on cognitive ability.

Children in Hong Kong outperformed their UK counterparts

This study investigated the executive functions of a total of 1,428 parents and their children via tasks related to working memory, task switching, planning and inhibition. Executive function refers to a set of cognitive processes that are responsible for the cognitive control of behaviour.

"Our findings showed substantial contrast between adolescents in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong when it came to executive functions, which may help to explain substantial differences in academic success," says Michelle R. Ellefson, one of the authors of the study .

However, the performance of parents did not differ between the countries. Another notable observation was that parents that scored well on the executive function tests were more likely to have children with better performance.

Different cultures translate to different cognitive strengths

These results add to the mounting evidence of the effect of different cultures on childhood cognitive development. Differences in social goals and practices could be a contributing factor, as Asian children were found to be more likely taught the value of self-control at an early age.

Another difference in the two is that Western cultures are more likely to see things from a more individualistic perspective. Eastern cultures, on the other hand, were characterised as having a predilection for describing relationships within a larger context.

During development, a child is extremely sensitive to aspects of everyday life that may seem routine for grown adults. Environmental aspects such as patterns of behaviour and social responses to different behaviour all make an impact on each child’s ‘cognitive style’ Different cultural environments inevitably expose children to different sorts of scenarios that will ultimately dictate their cognitive development.

Home environment impacts children's development tremendously

On the other hand, a negative home environment has been linked to deleterious effects during a child’s first three years of life. Poorer language skills, mood issues such as aggression, depression and anxiety and behavioural problems later in life have all been associated with poor family environments. Family income and a better socioeconomic status are major predictors of a child’s development.

It should be noted that culture is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Furthermore, the constantly changing cultural influences mean that one region may have a population with vastly different cognitive strengths across different generations.

One should interpret data on this with caution and be wary of generalising findings from one study. Further research is necessary in this area to find out what activities and exposures are universally beneficial to ensure the continuous improvement of our future generation. MIMS

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