Cross-Cultural Differences in Mental Representations of Time: Evidence From an Implicit Nonlinguistic Task


  • Writing direction;
  • Space;
  • Time;
  • Language;
  • Culture


Across cultures people construct spatial representations of time. However, the particular spatial layouts created to represent time may differ across cultures. This paper examines whether people automatically access and use culturally specific spatial representations when reasoning about time. In Experiment 1, we asked Hebrew and English speakers to arrange pictures depicting temporal sequences of natural events, and to point to the hypothesized location of events relative to a reference point. In both tasks, English speakers (who read left to right) arranged temporal sequences to progress from left to right, whereas Hebrew speakers (who read right to left) arranged them from right to left, replicating previous work. In Experiments 2 and 3, we asked the participants to make rapid temporal order judgments about pairs of pictures presented one after the other (i.e., to decide whether the second picture showed a conceptually earlier or later time-point of an event than the first picture). Participants made responses using two adjacent keyboard keys. English speakers were faster to make “earlier” judgments when the “earlier” response needed to be made with the left response key than with the right response key. Hebrew speakers showed exactly the reverse pattern. Asking participants to use a space-time mapping inconsistent with the one suggested by writing direction in their language created interference, suggesting that participants were automatically creating writing-direction consistent spatial representations in the course of their normal temporal reasoning. It appears that people automatically access culturally specific spatial representations when making temporal judgments even in nonlinguistic tasks.

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