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[edit]

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[edit]

According to Richard Schweder, 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[edit]

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 models[edit]

"One way we organize and understand our social world is through the use of cultural models or culturally shaped mental maps. Cultural models are made up of culturally derived ideas and practices that are embodied, enacted, or instituted in everyday life." Cultural psychologists develop models to categorize cultural phenomena.[22]

The 4 I’s culture cycle[edit]

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. Markus and Conner 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.[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 themselves 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.”[23]


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 individuals 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. Institutions 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][23]

Whiting Model[edit]

The work of Dr. John Whiting and Dr. Beatrice Blyth Whiting is widely recognized and respected within the domains of psychology and anthropology. The pair, 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.[24]

The Whitings coined the term “cultural learning environment,” to describe the surroundings that influence a child during development.[25] 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." [25] This environment is composed of several layers. The child's environment (climate, flora, fauna) influence the greater community’s history (migrations, borrowings, inventions) that result in maintenance systems (settlement patterns, law and social control, division of labor) 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.[26]

Many researchers have expanded upon the Whiting model,[24] 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.”[27]

Research institutions[edit]


  1. ^ Heine, S. J. (2011). Cultural Psychology. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  2. ^ Fiske, A.; Kitayama, S.; Markus, H.R.; & Nisbett, R.E. (1998). The cultural matrix of social psychology. In D. Gilbert & S. Fiske & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology (4th ed., pp. 915–81). San Francisco: McGraw-Hill.
  3. ^ a b Shweder, Richard (1991). Thinking Through Cultures. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-88415-9.
  4. ^ Heine, S., & Ruby, M. B. (2010). Cultural Psychology. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cogntitive Science, 1(2). doi: 10.1002/wcs.7
  5. ^ Markus, H.R.; Kitayama, S. (2003). "Culture, Self, and the Reality of the Social". Psychological Inquiry 14 (3): 277–83. doi:10.1207/S15327965PLI1403&4_17 .
  6. ^ Shweder, R.A.; & Levine, R.A. (Eds., 1984). Culture theory: Essays on mind, self, and emotion. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  7. ^ Arnett, J. J. (2008). The neglected 95%: Why American psychology needs to become less American. American Psychologist, 63(7), 602-614.
  8. ^ a b Henrich, J., Heine, S. J., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, 61-135. doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X
  9. ^ a b c Henrich, Joseph (2010). “Most people are not WEIRD.” Nature 466 (5): 29. doi:10.1038/466029a.
  10. ^ Jones, D. (2010). “A WEIRD View of Human Nature.” Science 328(25): 1627.
  11. ^ Nisbett, R.; Miyamoto, Y. (2005). "The influence of culture: holistic versus analytic perception". TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences 9 (10): 467–473. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2005.08.004. CiteSeerX: 
  12. ^ a b Masuda, T.; Nisbett, R.A. (2001). "Attending holistically versus analytically: Comparing the context sensitivity of Japanese and Americans". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81 (5): 922–34. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.81.5.922.
  13. ^ Kitayama, S.; Duffy, S.; Kawamura, T.; Larsen, J.T. (2003). "Perceiving an object and its context in different cultures: A cultural look at new look". Psychological Science 14 (3): 201–06. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.02432. PMID 12741741.
  14. ^ Cole, M. (1998). Cultural Psychology: A Once and Future Discipline. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  15. ^ Nisbett, R.E.; & Cohen, D. (1996). Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Denver, CO: Westview Press.
  16. ^ Turiel, Elliott (2002). The Culture of Morality: Social Development, Context, and Conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  17. ^ McNulty, Jennifer (2004, July 26). “Emphasis on ‘culture’ in psychology fuels stereotypes, scholar says.” University of California: Santa Cruz.
  18. ^ Wainryb, C. (2004). “The Study of Diversity in Human Development: Culture, Urgencies, and Perils.” Human Development 47, 131-137. doi: 10.1159/000077986
  19. ^ a b c d Kitayama, S. (2002). Culture and basic psychological processes—Toward a system view of culture: Comment on Oyserman et al". Psychological Bulletin 128 (1): 89–96. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.128.1.89. PMID 11843550.
  20. ^ Heine, S.J.; Lehman, D.R.; Peng, K.; Greenholtz, J. (2002). "What's wrong with cross-cultural comparisons of subjective Likert scales: The reference-group problem". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82 (6): 903–18. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.82.6.903.
  21. ^ Peng, K.; Nisbett, R.E.; Wong, N. (1997). "Validity problems of cross-cultural value comparison and possible solutions". Psychological Methods 2 (4): 329–41. doi:10.1037/1082-989X.2.4.329.
  22. ^ Fryberg, S.A., & Markus, H.R. (2007). Cultural models of education in American Indian, Asian America, and European American contexts. Social Psychology of Education, 10, 1381-2890. doi:10.1007%2Fs11218-007-9017-z
  23. ^ a b Heine, S. (2011). Cultural Psychology. San Francisco: W. W. Norton & Co.
  24. ^ a b Worthman, C. M. (2010). “The Ecology of Human Development: Evolving Models for Cultural Psychology.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 41: 546-562. doi: 10.1177/0022022110362627
  25. ^ a b Edwards, Carolyn P. and Bloch, M. (2010). "The Whitings’ Concepts of Culture and How They Have Fared in Contemporary Psychology and Anthropology." Faculty Publications, Department of Psychology.Paper 501.
  26. ^ John W. Berry, Ype H. Poortinga, Marshall H. Segall, Pierre R. Dasen, Cambridge University Press , 1992,Cross-Cultural Psychology: Research and Applications: Second Edition
  27. ^ Weisner, T.S. (2010). “John and Beatrice Whiting’s Contributions to the Cross-Cultural Study of Human Development: Their Values, Goals, Norms, and Practices.” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 41: 499-509. doi: 10.1177/0022022110362720

Further reading[edit]