NEW YORK – Many people can find it takes time to adapt to a new cultural setting, particularly when they’re trying to pick up its customs so that they fit in. They have to internalize the unwritten rules of the community or society – whether it’s an employee sent to work overseas, a student studying abroad, or a teacher who finds work in a school serving an ethnic community different from his or her own. But some individuals pick up the tacit norms more easily than others – they quickly become culturally fluent. New research from Columbia Business School focuses on this characteristic for learning new cultures: implicit-cognition aptitude, a strength of the intuitive mind rather than the rational mind. The new paper explains how this characteristic can be an advantage, giving organizations insight into the type of individuals and employees who can best adapt to new cultures.
The research report, Experiential Learning of Cultural Norms: The Role of Implicit and Explicit Aptitudes, concludes that those with high implicit-cognition aptitude master unfamiliar cultural norms quicker than those with high explicit-cognition aptitude (or IQ). Columbia Business School’s Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership and his research partners measure this aptitude in people’s proclivity to detect patterns automatically (without consciously trying to). While people with higher IQs are better able to learn through conscious reasoning about evidence, those with higher implicit aptitude are better able to learn from reinforcement, giving them an advantage in learning the expected interaction patterns in an unfamiliar culture.
“Cross-cultural researchers and trainers traditionally assumed that people first learn norms as verbal rules—that conscious competence comes before unconscious competence. But the problem of learning complex rules of conduct from experiential feedback lends itself better to the implicit-cognition system than the explicit-cognition system,” said Michael Morris. “High IQ expatriates should take a cue from those with high implicit attitudes if they want to better familiarize themselves with their home.”
In a series of seven experiments, Professor Morris and the research team of Nanyang Business School Professor Krishna Savani, MIT Sloan School of Management Professor Jackson Lu, The New School Professor Katrina Fincher and Barnard College Professor Scott Barry Kaufman presented participants with a simulation of daily experience in a new culture that required social decisions such as how to greet another person or respond to a request. Although IQ predicts performance in most learning tasks, implicit aptitude better predicted performance at learning complex cultural norms. People with higher implicit aptitude were particularly better in the face of challenges such as norms that depend on multiple cues, fleeting feedback, or noisy feedback. These conditions are common in the settings that expatriates learn cultural norms.
Other key findings include:
- In trial and error learning of interpersonal norms in another country, people with higher implicit aptitude move up the learning curve more quickly.
- Under the most difficult conditions for experiential learning, higher IQ didn't help but higher implicit aptitude helped participants learn from feedback more quickly.
“Learning the unwritten rules of another culture can feel overwhelming for some,” said Morris. “But through exposing yourself repeatedly to a situation and seeking feedback from locals about your conduct, you can learn through trial-and-error how to understand and navigate diverse communities and their rich, individual cultures.”
To learn more about the cutting-edge research being conducted at Columbia Business School, please visit www.gsb.columbia.edu.
About the researcher
Michael Morris is a Chaired Professor in the Management Division at CBS and also serves as Professor in the Psychology Department of Columbia University...Read more.