This request for information (RFI) is intended to provide information relevant to a possible future IARPA investment (such as a program or grand challenge). Respondents are invited to provide comments on the content of this announcement to include suggestions for improving the scope of a possible solicitation to ensure that every effort is made to adequately address the scientific and technical challenges described below. Responses to this request may be used to support development of, and subsequently be incorporated within, a future IARPA solicitation and therefore must be available for unrestricted public distribution. Neither proprietary nor classified concepts or information should be included in the responses. The following sections of this announcement contain details of the scope of technical efforts of interest, along with instructions for the submission of responses.

Background and Scope

Can one person know what it is like to be someone else, particularly someone from a different culture? And if they could adopt that person’s perspective, would that increase their ability to understand and anticipate the other person’s behaviors?

In a world that has been characterized as instantly accessible but poorly understood, the need to effectively and accurately make sense of other people’s perspectives and worldviews is growing in importance. Whether in business, diplomacy, or intelligence, an accurate understanding of how the world is perceived by someone else, and how that view may shape their beliefs and behaviors, can mean the difference between successful interactions and unfortunate misunderstandings.

The importance of understanding others is evident in the large numbers of training and research programs focusing on “cultural awareness.” Currently, many of the existing efforts to teach and train cultural knowledge and skills share what anthropologists have called an “etic” approach:12, 3, 45 that is, they adopt an outsiders’ view of that culture, and attempt to increase one’s knowledge of others through the use of terms that can be theoretically applied across cultures in a way that some consider to be “culturally-neutral” or more “objective.” Ultimately, etic analysis reflects the perspective of a cultural “outsider” and, even as it seeks to elucidate someone else’s worldview, it does so in the observer’s own terms and from the observer’s own perspective,6 often translating native language and concepts into ones that the outsider shares with their own group, but that would be unfamiliar to the “natives” in question.

This Request for Information (RFI) seeks instead to explore new approaches or ideas that could complement these etic analyses by developing first-person cultural simulations whereby one can experience a situation or interaction as if they were someone from a different culture – or what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “from the native’s point of view.”7 This approach towards trying to understand a culture from the “inside-out” has often been associated with what cultural anthropologists call “emic”8 analysis. As compared to etic approaches, emic analysis looks at behaviors or beliefs in terms meaningful to the cultural native and attempts to convey their perspective as a cultural insider in a way that is situation-dependent, derived from a rich, multi-sensory experience of the world, and is largely derived from implicit associations.

Comparisons of etic vs emic approaches to understanding others:


  • Defining, experiencing, or interpreting other beliefs and behaviors using one’s own cultural frame, definitions, and perspective
  • Cultural beliefs and behaviors are described as if from an objective, “third-person” viewpoint (e.g. this is what someone else is like)
  • Tends to rely on explicit frameworks to model/simulate beliefs/behaviors using rules and logical relationships
  • Outcome is often measured in explicit ways: “one should do this; one shouldn’t do that”
  • Data may be used for building models to help you (consciously) understand others’ behavior


  • Defining, experiencing, or interpreting other beliefs and behaviors using the other individual’s cultural frame, definitions, and perspective
  • Beliefs and behaviors are experienced from a subjective, first-person viewpoint (e.g. this is what it is “like” to be someone else)
  • Tends to leverage context-dependent, implicit associations for “understanding” others’ beliefs and behaviors using subjective experience
  • Outcome may be more intuitive: “this feels right to me; this doesn’t feel right to me”
  • Data may be used for building models of how your own behavior may be (implicitly) understood by others

Whereas Geertz was pessimistic in 1974 about the possibility of ever truly perceiving what someone else perceives (saying that all that could be done was to “scratch surfaces…”),9 in the 35+ years since his address to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we have seen the advent of new technologies and new research that may help us move past scratching surfaces in trying to perceive the world from the “native’s point of view.” Examples include improvements in computing, massive data collection and aggregation, novel methods for data visualization, new graphic user interfaces, rich multi-sensory and immersive environments, as well as significant advances in the behavioral sciences, cultural psychology, neuroscience and psychophysiology. These advances may offer us new opportunities for developing tools that allow a non-expert to virtually (and temporarily) “embody” the perspective of another person from a different culture. This capability may allow them to more accurately grasp a native’s point of view on a particular situation, interaction, or decision – and potentially lead to a reduction in interpersonal and/or intercultural misunderstanding and miscalculation.

Responses to this RFI therefore should focus on theories, techniques, tools, and metrics that would aid in building and objectively measuring capabilities that enable someone to “suspend” their own cultural perspective of a particular situation or event and instead have a rapid, accurate, and effective first-person “emic” experience of that situation or event as an individual from a different culture.

Key Questions

To explore the feasibility of developing a simulation or tool that enables someone to have a rapid, accurate, and effective first-person experience of what it is like to be someone else from another culture or background, this RFI invites interested parties to respond with novel ideas, approaches, and/or examples of data that can answer one, some, or all of the following questions:

1. Feasibility

To what extent can someone authentically experience another person's perspective? What is the feasibility of developing a tool to help a non-expert, without “native” language skills or years in the field, rapidly gain a first-person implicit perspective from someone else’s point of view in order to increase that non-expert’s cultural understanding? What theories and evidence support your assessment?

2. Relevant science

Are there new advances and findings from psychological, behavioral, engineering, social, and/or cognitive sciences (or other fields), which ought to be incorporated in an emic-based tool or simulation? If so, what are they? As an example, to what extent could (and should) an emic approach leverage insights from specific research on embodied cognition, mirror neurons, perspective-taking exercises, implicit association tests, the somatic marker hypothesis, etc.? Are there new advances in linguistics that may contribute to the feasibility and effectiveness of an emic-based tool or simulation?

3. Relevant data and assessment tools

Are there tools or techniques that can be used to assess the extent to which someone has had an "authentic" 1st person “emic” perspective? Are there specific behavioral, neural, psychological, and/or physiological data that have theoretical and empirical support for assessing such authenticity? Have there been advances in tools that might facilitate the measurement of the effectiveness of an emic-based tool or simulation for people of different ability and experience levels?

4. Real world metrics

How might someone measure and validate the real-world effectiveness of any such emic-based tool or simulation for increasing cultural understanding above and beyond current etic approaches? What tasks, tests, or scenarios might be used as performance measures to quantify emic’s effectiveness? How would we know if someone really experienced someone else’s perspective, and whether or not that mattered?

Interested parties should identify which of the above questions they are addressing in their submission. Submissions may address one, some, or all of the questions. The responses to this RFI may be used to help in the planning of an agenda and participant list for a 1.5-day workshop on emic-based tools and approaches for enhancing perspective-taking. An expected result from the workshop may be the identification of promising areas for investment through vehicles like seedlings, grand challenges, and programs. It is anticipated that this workshop will be held in late June, 2012. A separate workshop announcement may be posted with further details.

Out of Scope

As the focus of this RFI is on innovative ideas and tools that specifically speak to the emic approach, and in order to distinguish emic from more conventional etic approaches, the following topics are considered out-of-scope and are discouraged from being submitted:

  • Approaches or tools that require a subject matter expert to "validate" the authenticity of the first-person experience;
  • Approaches or tools that involve someone maintaining their own native perspective while attempting to understand another's, including:
    • First-person simulations or teaching tools that allow an individual to remain subjectively themselves, and do not require them to take another person's perspective to achieve the teaching objectives (e.g. most first-person video games or immersive environments in which the subject remains consciously themselves while “pretending” to be someone else in a superficial manner, rather than the subject experiencing another person’s perspective by being immersed in someone else’s experience);
    • Simulations that simply “switch” the character one is playing within a game or simulation (e.g. controlling a “native” character, while the person is still making decisions based on their own calculus and perspective)
    • The use of tools or techniques that teach someone how to interact with, or understand, someone from a different culture, rather than what it is like to be someone from that culture;
    • Translation of another's cultural terms, worldview, or patterns of behavior into one's own terms, worldview, or behaviors (e.g. approaches that do not represent and require adopting someone else’s mental model of the environment); or,
    • Use of large datasets or models to create computational simulations or predictions of others' behavior from a "third-person" or “etic” perspective (e.g. the Human Social Culture Behavior Modeling Program).10

Preparation Instructions to Respondents

IARPA solicits respondents to submit ideas related to this topic for use by the Government in formulating a potential program. IARPA requests that submittals briefly and clearly describe the potential approach or concept, outline critical technical issues, and comment on the expected performance, robustness, and estimated cost of the proposed approach. This announcement contains all of the information required to submit a response. No additional forms, kits, or other materials are needed.

IARPA appreciates responses from all capable and qualified sources from within and outside of the U.S. Because IARPA is interested in an integrated approach, responses from teams with complementary areas of expertise are encouraged. Responses have the following formatting requirements:

  1. A one page cover sheet that identifies the title, organization(s), respondent's technical and administrative points of contact - including names, addresses, phone and fax numbers, and email addresses of all co-authors, and clearly indicating its association with IARPA-RFI-12-03;
  2. A substantive, focused, one-half page executive summary;
  3. A description (limited to 5 pages in minimum 12 point Times New Roman font, appropriate for single-sided, single-spaced 8.5 by 11 inch paper, with 1-inch margins) of the technical challenges and suggested approach(es);
  4. A list of citations (any significant claims or reports of success must be accompanied by citations, and reference material MUST be attached);
  5. Optionally, a single overview briefing chart graphically depicting the key ideas.

Disclaimers and Important Notes

This is an RFI issued solely for information and new investment planning purposes and does not constitute a solicitation. Respondents are advised that IARPA is under no obligation to acknowledge receipt of the information received, or provide feedback to respondents with respect to any information submitted under this RFI.

Responses to this notice are not offers and cannot be accepted by the Government to form a binding contract. Respondents are solely responsible for all expenses associated with responding to this RFI. It is the respondents' responsibility to ensure that the submitted material has been approved for public release by the organization that funded whatever research is referred to in the response.

The Government does not intend to award a contract on the basis of this RFI or to otherwise pay for the information solicited, nor is the Government obligated to issue a solicitation based on responses received. Neither proprietary nor classified concepts or information should be included in the submittal. Input on technical aspects of the responses may be solicited by IARPA from non-Government consultants/experts who are bound by appropriate non-disclosure requirements.


1. E.g. http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/02/new-pentagon-sim-teaches-troops-to-play-nice/
2. E.g Lane, H. and Ogan. A. (2009) Virtual environments for cultural learning. In Second Workshop on Culturally-Aware Tutoring Systems in AIED 2009 Workshops Proceedings, 25–34.
3. E.g Defense Language Institute, the Immersion Language Office (http://www.dliflc.edu/immersion.html) http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=66671
4. E.g. Miles, D. (2012, Jan. 12) ‘Afpak Hands’ Program Pays Dividends in Afghanistan, Pakistan. American Forces Press Service. Retrieved Jan. 18, 2012 from http://www.defense.gov/news.
5. E.g. Human Social Culture Behavior Modeling Program, Focus 2011 (http://www.dtic.mil/biosys/docs/HSCB-news-spring-2011.pdf)
6. E.g. Beidel, E. (February 2012) Avatars Invade Military Training Systems. National Defense on the web. Retrieved Feb. 1, 2012 from http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org.
7. "From the Native's Point of View": On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding, in: Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, vol. 28 no. 1 (1974), pp. 26-45.
8. Emic: of, relating to, or involving analysis of cultural phenomena from the perspective of one who participates in the culture being studied. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/emic
9. "From the Native's Point of View": On the Nature of Anthropological Understanding, in: Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, vol. 28 no. 1 (1974), pp. 26-45.
10. E.g. http://www.onr.navy.mil/Science-Technology/Departments/Code-30/All-Programs/Human-Behavioral-Sciences.aspx

For information contact:



Posted Date: April 26, 2012
Responses Due: June 11, 2012