BACKGROUND One of the earliest and most persistent inquiries in developmental psychology is that of the relative contributions of nature and nurture to human ontogeny. One way of studying this distinction is by doing cross-cultural studies, in which culture provides a powerful way to operationalize the influence of nurture. OBJECTIVE The purpose is to provide some background to the emergence of the field of cross-cultural gerontological research, as a prelude to the special series of papers on cognitive ageing and culture from the laboratory of Park and Nisbett and their colleagues. METHODS A qualitative review of theoretical notions about cross-cultural differences provides an introduction and orientation to papers dealing with aspects of cognitive ageing, including picture naming specificity, source memory, use of categorical information in free recall, and perceptions of stereotypes of older and younger adults. RESULTS Most of the research on cognitive ageing has focused on Western cultures and has assumed universality in the operation of the cognitive system. If culture makes a difference, a plausible hypothesis might be that, with ageing, any effects of culture on cognitive processes would become more apparent, due to older adults' increased exposure to their culture, and that these might be limited to the pragmatics of intelligence or crystallized abilities. The papers presented demonstrate that for some cognitive processes, i.e., source memory and free recall, cultural invariance, or universality of cognitive ageing, was observed. Further, stereotypes of both cultures shifted with advancing age from positive to increasingly negative views for mental and physical domains. A modest interaction of age and culture was observed in social and emotional domains, where stereotypes were relatively neutral, except for a small positive bias among the young Chinese participants for both older and younger adults. Marked cultural differences were seen in naming specificity and in the use of categories to structure the recall process. CONCLUSIONS Claims have been made about universals of cognitive function, particularly for basic cognitive processes. These results challenge that view. Cross-cultural research has begun to reshape the way we think about cognitive ageing.