Cultural psychology is the study of how
psychological and behavioral tendencies are rooted in and embodied in culture.
The main tenet of cultural psychology is that mind and culture are inseparable
and mutually constitutive, meaning that people are shaped by their culture and
their culture is also shaped by them. As Richard Shweder, one of the major
proponents of the field, writes, “Cultural psychology is the study of the
way cultural traditions and social practices regulate, express, and
transform the human psyche, resulting less in psychic unity for humankind than
in ethnic divergences in mind, self, and emotion.”
Relationships with other branches of psychology
Cultural psychology is often confused with cross-cultural psychology. However,
cultural psychology is distinct from cross-cultural psychology in that the
cross-cultural psychologists generally use culture as a means of testing the
universality of psychological processes rather than determining how local
cultural practices shape psychological processes. So whereas a cross-cultural
psychologist might ask whether Jean Piaget’s stages of development are
universal across a variety of cultures, a cultural psychologist would be
interested in how the social practices of a particular set of cultures shape
the development of cognitive processes in different ways.
Cultural psychology research informs several fields within psychology,
including social psychology, cultural-historical psychology,
developmental psychology, and cognitive psychology. However, the relativist
perspective of cultural psychology, through which cultural psychologists
compare thought patterns and behaviors within and across cultures, tends to
clash with the universal perspectives common in most fields in psychology,
which seek to qualify fundamental psychological truths that are consistent
across all of humanity. Importance
=Need for expanded cultural research=According to Richard Shweder, there has
been repeated failure to replicate Western psychology laboratory findings
in non-Western settings. Therefore, a major goal of cultural psychology is to
have many and varied cultures contribute to basic psychological theories in order
to correct these theories so that they become more relevant to the predictions,
descriptions, and explanations of all human behaviors, not just Western ones.
The acronym W.E.I.R.D. describes populations that are Western, Educated,
Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. Thus far, W.E.I.R.D. populations have
been vastly overrepresented in psychological research. Findings from
psychology research utilizing primarily W.E.I.R.D. populations are often labeled
as universal theories and are inaccurately applied to other cultures.
Recent research is showing that cultures differ in many areas, such as logical
reasoning and social values. The evidence that basic cognitive and
motivational processes vary across populations has become increasingly
difficult to ignore. For example, many studies have shown that Americans,
Canadians and western Europeans rely on analytical reasoning strategies, which
separate objects from their contexts to explain and predict behavior. Social
psychologists refer to the “fundamental attribution error” or the tendency to
explain people’s behavior in terms of internal, inherent personality traits
rather than external, situational considerations. Outside W.E.I.R.D.
cultures, however, this phenomenon is less prominent, as many non-W.E.I.R.D.
populations tend to pay more attention to the context in which behavior occurs.
Asians tend to reason holistically, for example by considering people’s behavior
in terms of their situation; someone’s anger might be viewed as simply a result
of an irritating day. Yet many long-standing theories of how humans
think rely on the prominence of analytical thought.
By studying only W.E.I.R.D. populations, psychologists fail to account for a
substantial amount of diversity of the global population. Applying the findings
from W.E.I.R.D. populations to other populations can lead to a miscalculation
of psychological theories and may hinder psychologists’ abilities to isolate
fundamental cultural characteristics. Criticisms
=Stereotyping=One of the most significant themes in
recent years has been cultural differences between East Asians and
North Americans in attention, perception, cognition, and social
psychological phenomena such as the self. Some psychologists, such as
Turiel, have argued that this research is based on cultural stereotyping.
Psychologist Per Gjerde states that cultural psychology tends to “generalize
about human development across nations and continents” and assigning
characteristics to a culture promotes a disregard for heterogeneity and
minimizes the role of the individual. Gjerde argues that individuals develop
multiple perspectives about their culture, sometimes act in accord with
their culture without sharing the cultural beliefs, and sometimes outright
oppose their culture. Stereotyping thus views individuals as homogeneous
products of culture.=Faulty methodology=
Self-reporting data is one of the easiest and most accessible methods of
mass data collection, especially in cultural psychology. However,
over-emphasizing cross-cultural comparisons of self-reported attitudes
and values can lead to relatively unstable and ultimately misleading data.
Methods Cultural psychologist, Richard Shweder
argues that the psyche and culture are mutually constructed and inseparable.
The failure of replicating many psychology findings in other regions of
the world supported the idea that mind and environment are interdependent, and
different throughout the world. Some criticisms state that using self-report
maybe a relatively unreliable method, and could be misleading especially in
different cultural context. Regardless that self-report is an important way to
obtain mass data, it is not the only way.
In fact, cultural psychologists utilized multiple measurements and resources no
different from other scientific researches – observation, experiment,
data analysis etc. For example, Nisbett & Cohen investigated the relation
between historical cultural background and regional aggression difference in
the U.S.A. In this study, researchers designed laboratory experiment to
observe participants’ aggression, and crime rate, demographic statistics were
analyzed. The experiment results supported the culture of honor theory
that the aggression is a defense mechanism which is rooted in the herding
cultural origin for most the southerners. In laboratory observations,
Heine and his colleagues found that Japanese students spend more time than
American students on tasks that they did poorly on, and the finding presents a
self-improvement motivation often seen in East Asian that failure and success
is interconvertible with effort. In terms of cognition styles, Chinese tend
to perceive image using a holistic view compared to American.
Quantitative statistics of cultural products revealed that public media in
western countries promote more individualistic components than
East-Asian countries. These statistics are objective because it does not
involve having people fill out questionnaire, instead, psychologists
use physical measurements to quantitatively collect data about
culture products, such as painting and photos. These statistics data can also
be national records, for example, Chiao & Blizinsky revealed that cultures of
high collectivism is associated with lower prevalence of mood/anxiety
disorders in study involving 29 countries. In addition to the
experimental and statistics data, evidence from neuro-imaging studies,
also help strengthen the reliability of cultural psychology research. For
example, when thinking of mother, the brain region related to self-concept
showed significant activation in Chinese, whereas no activation observed
in Westerners. Cultural models
“One way we organize and understand our social world is through the use of
cultural models or culturally shaped mental maps. These consist of culturally
derived ideas and practices that are embodied, enacted, or instituted in
everyday life.” Cultural psychologists develop models to categorize cultural
phenomena.=The 4 I’s culture cycle=
The 4 I’s cultural model was developed by Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner in
their book Clash! 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are. In it, they
refer to the mutually constitutive nature of culture and individual as a
“culture cycle.” The culture cycle consists of four layers of cultural
influence that help to explain the interaction between self and culture.
Individuals The first “I” concerns how an individual
thinks about and expresses itself. Studies show that in the United States,
individuals are more likely think of him or herself as “independent,” “equal,”
and “individualistic.” Individuals have characteristics that are consistent
across time and situation. When asked to describe themselves, Americans are
likely to use adjectives to describe their personalities like, “energetic,”
“friendly,” or “hard-working.” In Japan, studies show that individuals are more
likely to think of themselves as “obligated to society,”
“interdependent,” and “considerate.” The self is adaptable to the situation.
Japanese individuals are therefore more likely to describe themselves in
relation to others, such as “I try not to upset anyone,” or “I am a father, a
son, and a brother.” Interactions
Interactions with other people and products reinforce cultural behaviors on
a daily basis. Stories, songs, architecture, and advertisements are all
methods of interaction that guide individuals in a culture to promote
certain values and teach them how to behave. For example, in Japan,
no-smoking signs emphasize the impact that smoke has on others by illustrating
the path of smoke as it affects surrounding people. In the US,
no-smoking signs focus on individual action by simply saying “No Smoking.”
These signs reflect underlying cultural norms and values, and when people see
them they are encouraged to behave in accordance with the greater cultural
The next layer of culture is made up of the institutions in which everyday
interactions take place. These determine and enforce the rules for a society and
include legal, government, economic, scientific, philosophical, and religious
bodies. Institutions encourage certain practices and products while
discouraging others. In Japanese kindergartens, children learn about
important cultural values such as teamwork, group harmony, and
cooperation. During “birthday month celebration,” for example, the class
celebrates all the children who have birthdays that month. This institutional
practice underscores the importance of a group over an individual. In US
kindergartens, children learn their personal value when they celebrate their
birthdays one by one, enforcing the cultural value of uniqueness and
individualism. Everyday institutional practices such as classroom birthday
celebrations propagate prominent cultural themes.
=Whiting Model=Drs. John and Beatrice Whiting, along
with their research students at Harvard University, developed the “Whiting
Model” for child development during the 1970s and 1980s, which specifically
focused on how culture influences development.
The Whitings coined the term “cultural learning environment,” to describe the
surroundings that influence a child during development. Beatrice Whiting
defined a child’s environmental contexts as being “characterized by an activity
in progress, a physically defined space, a characteristic group of people, and
norms of behavior.” This environment is composed of several layers. A child’s
geographical context influences the history/anthropology of their greater
community. This results in maintenance systems that form a cultural learning
environment. These factors inform learned behavior, or progressive
expressive systems that take the form of religion, magic beliefs, ritual and
ceremony, art, recreation, games and play, or crime rates.
Many researchers have expanded upon the Whiting model, and the Whiting model’s
influence is clear in both modern psychology and anthropology. According
to an article by Thomas Weisner in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology,
“All these [more recent] approaches share a common intellectual project: to
take culture and context deeply and seriously into account in studies of
human development.” Culture and Empathy
=Cultural Orientation: Collectivistic and Individualistic=
A main distinction to understand when looking at psychology and culture is the
difference between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. People from an
individualistic culture typically demonstrate an independent view of the
self; the focus is usually on personal achievement. Members of a collectivistic
society have more of a focus on the group, usually focusing on things that
will benefit the group. Research has shown such differences of the self when
comparing collectivistic and individualistic cultures: The
Fundamental Attribution Error has been shown to be more common in America as
compared to in India. Along these same lines, the self-serving bias was again
shown as more common among Americans than Japanese individuals. This is not
to imply that collectivism and individualism are completely
dichotomous, but these two cultural orientations are to be understood more
so as a spectrum. Each representation is at either end; thus, some members of
individualistic cultures may hold collectivistic values, and some
collectivistic individual may hold some individualist values. The concepts of
collectivism and individualism show a general idea of the values of a specific
ethnic culture but should not be juxtaposed in competition.
=Empathy Across Cultures=These differences in values across
cultures suggests that understanding and expressing empathy may be manifested
differently throughout varying cultures. Duan and Hill first discussed empathy in
subcategories of intellectual empathy: taking on someone’s
thoughts/perspective, also known as cognitive empathy and emotional empathy:
taking on someone’s feeling/experience. Duan, Wei, and Wang furthered this idea
to include empathy in terms of being either dispositional or experiential.
This created four types of empathy to further examine: 1) dispositional
intellectual empathy; 2) dispositional empathic emotion; 3) experienced
intellectual empathy; and 4) experienced empathic emotion. These four branches
allowed researchers to examine empathic proclivities among individuals of
different cultures. While individualism was not shown to correlate with either
types of dispositional empathy, collectivism was shown to have a direct
correlation with both types of dispositional empathy, possibly
suggesting that by having less focus on the self, there is more capacity towards
noticing the needs of others. More so, individualism predicted experienced
intellectual empathy, and collectivism predicted experienced empathic emotion.
These results are congruent with the values of collectivistic and
individualistic societies. The self-centered identity and egoistic
motives prevalent in individualistic cultures, perhaps acts as a hindrance in
being open to experiencing empathy.=Intercultural and Ethnocultural
Empathy=Cultural empathy became broadly
understood as concurrent understanding and acceptance of a culture different
from one’s own. This idea has been further developed with the concept of
ethnocultural empathy. This moves beyond merely accepting and understanding
another culture, and also includes acknowledging how the values of a
culture may affect empathy. This idea is meant to foster cultural empathy as well
as engender cultural competence. One of the greatest barriers of empathy between
cultures is people’s tendency to operate from an ethnocentric point of view.
Eysneck conceptualized ethnocentrism as using one’s own culture to understand
the rest of the world, while holding one’s own values as correct. Concomitant
with this barrier to intercultural empathy, Rasoal, Eklund, and Hansen
posit five hindrances of intercultural empathy; these include:
Paucity of: • knowledge outside one’s own culture
• experience with other cultures outside one’s own
• knowledge regarding other people’s cultures
• experiences regarding other people’s cultures
And: • inability to bridge different cultures
by understanding the commonalities and dissimilarities
These five points elucidate lack of both depth and breadth as hindrances in
developing and practicing intercultural empathy.
Another barrier to intercultural empathy is that there is often a power dynamic
between different cultures. Bridging an oppressed culture with their oppressor
is a goal of intercultural empathy. One approach to this barrier is to attempt
to acknowledge one’s personal oppression. While this may be minimal in
comparison to other people’s oppression, it will still help with realizing that
other people have been oppressed. The goal of bridging the gap should focus on
building an alliance by finding the core commonalities of the human experience;
this shows empathy to be a relational experience, not an independent one.
Through this, the goal is that intercultural empathy can lend toward
broader intercultural understanding across cultures and societies. Four
important facets of cultural empathy are:
• Taking the perspective of someone from a different culture
• Understanding the verbal/behavioral expression that occurs during
ethnocultural empathy • Being cognizant of how different
cultures are treated by larger entities such as the job market and the media
• Accepting differences in cultural choices regarding language, clothing
preference, food choice, etc. These four aspects may be especially
helpful for practicing cultural competence in a clinical setting. Given
that most psychological practices were founded on the parochial ideals of
Euro-American psychologists, cultural competence was not considered much of a
necessity until said psychologists increasingly began seeing clients with
different ethnic backgrounds. Many of the problems that contribute to therapy
not being beneficial for people of color include: therapy having an individual
focus, an emphasis on expressiveness, and an emphasis on openness. For more on
intercultural competence see Intercultural Competence.
Research institutions Institute of Cultural Psychology and
Qualitative Social Research Institute of Psychology, Sigmund Freud
University Vienna Laboratory of Comparative Human
Cognition Culture and Cognition, University of
Michigan Centre for Cultural Psychology at
Aalborg University Hans Kilian and Lotte Köhler Center for
Cultural Psychology and Historical Anthropology
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Further reading Kitayama, Shinobu, & Cohen, Dov.
Handbook of Cultural Psychology. Guilford.
Turiel, Elliot. The Culture of Morality. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Cole, Michael. Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. The Belknap
Press of Harvard University Press: Cambridge.
Matsumoto, D. The Handbook of Culture & Psychology. Oxford University Press: New
York. Shweder, R.A.; & Levine, R.A.. Culture
theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion. New York: Cambridge University
Press. Triandis, H.C.. “The self and social
behavior in differing cultural contexts”. Psychological Review 96:
506–20. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.96.3.506. Bruner, Jerome. Acts of Meaning. Harvard
University Press. ISBN 0-674-00360-8. Markus, H.R.; Kitayama, S.. “Culture and
the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation”. Psychological
Review 98: 224–53. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.98.2.224.
Shore, B.. Culture in mind: Cognition, culture and the problem of meaning. New
York: Oxford University Press. Nisbett, R.E.; Peng, K.; Choi, I.;
Norenzayan, A.. “Culture and systems of thought: Holistic vs. analytic
cognition”. Psychological Review 108: 291–310.
doi:10.1037/0033-295X.108.2.291. Nisbett, R.E.. The Geography of Thought.
New York: Free Press.