Learned Behavior as a Component of Culture: An Introduction

In our baseline definition of culture, we have said that learned behaviors represent an essential component of culture.

Learned behavior in this sense can mean almost anything, from the way we dress to the way we speak to the food we choose to eat. Whenever we brush our teeth, cross our legs, send our parents' a birthday card, kiss someone, listen to music, or go out for recreation we are practicing learned behaviors which are a part of our culture. The learned behaviors which are a part of culture include all of the following (and a whole lot more!):

Culture doesn't just reside in these behaviors, however; in fact, in many cases the behavior tells us less about a culture than the meaning which is attached to it. For example, some citizens of both Holland and the U.S. smoke marijuana; however, the significance of that behavior is much different in Holland, where marijuana is legal, than in the U.S., where it is not. Some New Yorkers hunt, but the significance of hunting to them is very different than it is for Eskimo cultures above the Arctic circle.

A good example of how similar behaviors can have different significations is related by Eduardo Galleano in The Book of Embraces:

Alastair Reid writes for the New Yorker but rarely goes to New York.

He prefers to live on a remote beach in the Dominican Republic. Christopher Columbus landed on this beach several centuries ago on one of his excursions to Japan, and nothing has changed since.

From time to time, the postman appears among the trees. The postman arrives staggering under his load. Alastair receives mountains of correspondence. From the U.S., he is bombarded with commercial offers, leaflets, catalogues, luxurious temptations from the consumer civilization that exhorts him to buy.

On one occasion, he found in the mass of paper an advertisement for a rowing machine. Alastair showed it to his neighbors, the fishermen.

"Indoors? They use it indoors?"

The fishermen couldn't believe it:

"Without water? They row without water?"

They couldn't believe it, they couldn't comprehend it:

"And without fish? And without the sun? And without the sky?"

The fishermen told Alastair that they got up every night long before dawn and put out to sea and cast their nets as the sun rose over the horizon, and that this was their life and that this life pleased them, but that rowing was the one infernal aspect of the whole business:

"Rowing is the one thing we hate," said the fishermen.

Then Alastair explained to them that the rowing machine was for exercise.

"For what?"


"Ah. And exercise--what's that?"

(Galeano 162-3)

The difference between the rowing-machine culture and the culture of the islanders lies not just in the behavior -- members of both cultures participate in some variation of rowing -- but rather in the meaning they attach to it, the place it holds in the larger systems of meanings which constitute their respective cultures. Thus, to one person the rowing can be pure recreation, while to the other it is an unpleasant means to important and rewarding ends. These meaning systems which provide the context for our learned behaviors overlap broadly with the meaning systems which constitute a society's values and beliefs; click here to visit the Values and Beliefs Gallery.

Press here to move on to the first (model) exhibit in the Learned Behaviors Gallery, an exploration of how cultural meaning systems affect our learned behavior and our understanding of learned behavior.

Return to the Learned Behaviors Gallery.
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