Cultural psychology

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Cultural psychology is the study of how psychological and behavioral tendencies are rooted in and embodied in culture.[1] 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.[2] 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."[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.


Need for expanded cultural research

According to Richard Shweder, there has been repeated failure to replicate Western psychology laboratory findings in non-Western settings.[3] 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.[6]

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.[7][8] 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.[9]

Recent research is showing that cultures differ in many areas, such as logical reasoning and social values.[8][9] 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 (e.g. attributing an instance of angry behavior to an angry personality). 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.[10][11] Yet many long-standing theories of how humans think rely on the prominence of analytical thought.[9]

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.



One of the most significant themes in recent years has been cultural differences between East Asians and North Americans in attention,[12] perception,[13] cognition,[14] and social psychological phenomena such as the self.[15] Some psychologists, such as Turiel, have argued that this research is based on cultural stereotyping.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

Faulty methodology

Self-reporting data is one of the easiest and most accessible methods of mass data collection, especially in cultural psychology.[12][19] However, over-emphasizing cross-cultural comparisons of self-reported attitudes and values can lead to relatively unstable and ultimately misleading data.[20][21]


Cultural psychologist, Richard Shweder argues that the psyche and culture are mutually constructed and inseparable.[3] 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 (1996) 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.[15] 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.[22] In terms of cognition styles, Chinese tend to perceive image using a holistic view compared to American.[23]

Quantitative statistics of cultural products revealed that public media in western countries promote more individualistic components than East-Asian countries.[24] 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 (2010) revealed that cultures of high collectivism is associated with lower prevalence of mood/anxiety disorders in study involving 29 countries.[25] 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.[26]

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.[27]

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 (Individuals, Interactions, Institutions, Ideas) of cultural influence that help to explain the interaction between self and culture.[19]


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.”[28]


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.[19] 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 values.


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.[19][28]

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.[29]

The Whitings coined the term “cultural learning environment,” to describe the surroundings that influence a child during development.[30] 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." [30] 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 (i.e., sociological characteristics) 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.[31]

Many researchers have expanded upon the Whiting model,[29] 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.”[32]

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.[33] Members of a collectivistic society have more of a focus on the group (interdependent view of self), usually focusing on things that will benefit the group.[34] 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 (individualistic) as compared to in India (collectivistic).[35] Along these same lines, the self-serving bias was again shown as more common among Americans than Japanese individuals.[36] 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.[37]

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[38] first discussed empathy in subcategories of intellectual empathy: taking on someone’s thoughts/perspective, also known as cognitive empathy[39] and emotional empathy: taking on someone’s feeling/experience. Duan, Wei, and Wang [40] furthered this idea to include empathy in terms of being either dispositional (capacity for noticing/understanding empathy) or experiential (specific to a certain context or situation, observing the person and empathizing). 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 (fully) experiencing empathy.[41]

Intercultural and Ethnocultural Empathy

Cultural empathy became broadly understood as concurrent understanding and acceptance of a culture different from one’s own.[42] This idea has been further developed with the concept of ethnocultural empathy.[43] 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.[43][44] One of the greatest barriers of empathy between cultures is people’s tendency to operate from an ethnocentric point of view. Eysneck [45] 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 [46] posit five hindrances of intercultural empathy; these include:

Paucity of:

• (general) knowledge outside one’s own culture

• (general) experience with other cultures outside one’s own

• (specific) knowledge regarding other people’s cultures

• (specific) experiences regarding other people’s cultures


• 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 (upper-echelon) oppressor is a goal of intercultural empathy. One approach to this barrier is to attempt to acknowledge one’s personal oppression.[47] While this may be minimal in comparison to other people’s oppression, it will still help with realizing that other people have been oppressed.[47] 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:[43]

• 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.[44] 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.[48] For more on intercultural competence see Intercultural Competence.

Research institutions


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Further reading