Cognitive processes differ markedly between children from different cultures, with best evidence for attention to visual scenes and the activities of others. Children from urban Western cultures tend to focus on focal objects, whereas children from urban East-Asian cultures rather attend to contextual elements of a visual scene. Regarding the attention to others’ activities, children from subsistence-based farming communities often observe several activities simultaneously, while children from urban Western contexts focus on activities sequentially. Here we assessed 144 5-year-old children from three prototypical cultural contexts (urban Germany, rural Cameroon, urban Japan) to investigate variations in attention across a variety of tasks. Attention to the elements of a visual scene was assessed in an optical illusion task, in picture descriptions and an eye-tracking paradigm. Attention to and learning from others’ activities was assessed in a parallel action task and a rule-based game. Some tasks indicated higher context-sensitive attention in urban Japan, while other findings indicated higher context-sensitive attention in urban Germany. Levels of parallel attention and learning from others’ activities were lower in rural Cameroonian children compared to the urban samples. Across tasks, the visual attention measures were unrelated. These findings substantiate that culture has a profound influence on early cognitive development, already in the preschool years. Furthermore, they raise critical questions about the early origins of cultural specificities in attention and the generalizability of attention phenomena beyond specific tasks and populations.
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