Cultural Psychology

Cultural Psychology

Cultural Psychology

Cultural psychology is the study of how cultures reflect and shape the psychological processes of their members.

The main tenet of cultural psychology has been and, in most cases, still 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.

A common question asked is ‘Does culture indeed act as some kind of agent?’ It is the most pressing problem in this field of research: is culture just a label, sometimes an excuse, and then merely a metaphor? Or does it really ‘do’ something, influencing people’s behavior for example? Gerd Baumann has argued: “Culture is not a real thing, but an abstract and purely analytical notion. In itself «it» does not «cause» behavior, but denotes an abstraction from it, and is thus neither normative nor predictive but a heuristic means towards explaining how people understand and act upon the world.” More on this issue in section 9.

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 constructivist perspective of cultural psychology, through which cultural psychologists study 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. This goal is shared by many of the scholars who promote the indigenous psychology approach. In an attempt to show the interrelated interests of cultural and indigenous psychology, cultural psychologist Pradeep Chakkarath emphasizes that international mainstream psychology, as it has been exported to most regions of the world by the so-called West, is only one among many indigenous psychologies and therefore may not have enough intercultural expertise to claim, as it frequently does, that its theories have universal validity.

Accordingly, cultural groups have diverse ways of defining emotional problems, as well as distinguishing between physical and mental distress. For example, Arthur Kleinman has shown how the notion of depression in Chinese culture has been associated with physiological problems, before becoming acknowledged more recently as an emotional concern. Furthermore, the type of therapy people pursue is influenced by cultural conceptions of privacy and shame, as well as the stigmas associated with specific problems.

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.

Recent research is showing that cultures differ in many areas, such as logical reasoning and social values. Yet many long-standing theories of how humans think rely on the prominence of analytical thought.

While cultural psychology is reliant on this model, societies often fail to recognize this. Despite the overwhelming acceptance that people affect culture and culture affects people, societal systems tend to minimize the effect that people form on their communities. For example, mission statements of businesses, schools, and foundations attempt to make promises regarding the environment and values that their establishment holds.

However, these promises cannot be made in accordance with the mutually consisting theory without being upheld by all participants. The mission statement for the employees of Southwest Airlines, for example, makes the claim that, “…We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth”.

While the company can ensure the “equal opportunity for learning and personal growth”, the aforementioned message cannot be promised. The work environment that Southwest provides includes paying consumers. While rules can be enforced to ensure safety on their aircraft, customers will not be removed due to attitude or a lack of courtesy. This therefore contradicts the promise of a “stable work environment”. On the contrary, some establishments do ensure that their mission statements agree with the mutually consisting model. For example, Yale University promises within its mission statement that:


Instead of making promises that depend on all of their students and faculty, they make statements that can refer to only a part of their student/ faculty body. The statement focuses more on what they offer, and how they uphold these promises. By providing evidence they provide readers with an example as to how their school community members participate in the environment they promise, accepting the community’s role in their school culture.

Past research has been conducted by middle-class North Americans analyzing culturally different societies by means of comparison mostly involving middle-class North Americans and/or aforementioned W.E.I.R.D. societies. What has been characterized as Euro-American centrism, resulted in a great volume of research for this specific selection of humans. It has also allowed us to divert from the idea that certain psychological processes can be considered basic or universal, and recognize humans’ remarkable capacity to create cultures and then be shaped by them.

Although cultural psychology has internalized the mutually constituting model, further implementation in our society is necessary. Being aware of this model promotes taking responsibility for one’s actions and the effect that their actions have on their community. Through acceptance of ones responsibilities and conscious application, communities have opportunity for improvement which in turn supports the individuals within the community. These ideas can be found in the journal article “Cultures and Selves: A Cycle of Mutual Constitution” by Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama which are also represented in the graphic provided.



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.


Cultural psychologist, Richard Shweder argues that the psyche and culture are mutually constructed and inseparable. 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.


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, such as “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 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.

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”.

Many researchers have expanded upon the Whiting model,

Culture and motivation

Self-enhancement vs. self-improvement

While self-enhancement is a person’s motivation to view themselves positively, self-improvement is a person’s motivation to have others view themselves positively. The distinction between the two modes of life is most evident between independent and collectivistic cultures. Cultures with independent self-views often emphasize self-esteem, confidence in one’s own worth and abilities. With self-esteem seen as a main source of happiness in Western cultures, the motivation to self-enhance generally follows as a way to maintain one’s positive view about oneself.

Some strategies employed when self-enhancing often include downward social comparison, compensatory self-enhancement, discounting, external attributions and basking in reflected glory. In contrast, collectivistic cultures often emphasize self-improvement as a leading motivating factor in their lives. This motivation is often derived from a desire to not lose face and to appear positively among social groups.

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.

cultural psychology

This can be seen in a study involving an animation of fish, wherein Western viewers interpreted the scene of a fish swimming away from a school as an expression of individualism and independence, while Eastern individuals wondered what was wrong with the singular fish and concluded that the school had kicked it out. Another study showed that in coverage of the same instance of violent crime, Western news focused on innate character flaws and the failings of the individual while Chinese news pointed out the lack of relationships of the perpetrator in a foreign environment and the failings of society.

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. Eysenck 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


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. For more on intercultural competence, see intercultural competence.

The Nijmegen school of cultural psychology

Already in 1956 the department of cultural psychology and psychology of religion was founded at the Radboud University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands. One of its aims was to study culture and religion as psychological phenomena. In 1986 the department was split up in a section Psychology of Religion and a section Cultural Psychology.

The research aim of the latter was to study culture as a behavior regulating system, which in fact implied that culture was no longer seen as an explanatory concept, but as something to be explained. Instead of viewing culture as a domain in its own right, as something separate from individual human beings, culture was seen as the product of human interaction leading to patterned behavior characteristic of human groups.

It looks so self-evident, but this shift has wide-reaching implications. The expression: “culture of….” – and one can fill in whatever nation or group – can no longer be used to explain behaviors. One has to look for other determinants of behavior than the ones associated with ‘culture’.

Expressions like: ‘it is our culture to put women in a dependent position and men above them’ can no longer be used. Such a way of reasoning obscures the real determinants of the behavioral patterning that causes this sex and gender related state of affairs.

The main publication in the department in which this view is elaborated is the book Culture as Embodiment. The social tuning of behavior, written by Paul Voestermans; Theo Verheggen. Oxford, Blackwell, 2014.

In this book a tool kit is presented, which can be helpful in replacing the idea of culture as an explanatory variable with concepts and research instruments by means of which the behavioral patterning can be understood much better.

In 2020 an empirical program was launched by Ernst Graamans in his book Beyond the Idea of Culture: Understanding and Changing Cultural Practices in Business and Life Matters  This dissertation at the Amsterdam Free University Business School of Economics explores so called ‘cultural change’ and related practices in business boardrooms, institutions of care, but also in the customs of female sexual mutilation in African communities. The defence of these practices in terms of: “it is our culture” is cogently criticised. In cases of communal female circumcision practices this empirical program makes the replacement of these practices by alternative rituals more viable.


Schwartz SJ, Szabó à, Meca A, Ward C, Martinez CR Jr, Cobb CL, Benet-Martínez V, Unger JB and Pantea N (2020) The Convergence Between Cultural Psychology and Developmental Science: Acculturation as an Exemplar. Front. Psychol. 11:887.

Bowman, N. A., Kitayama, S., & Nisbett, R. E. (2009). Social Class Differences in Self, Attribution, and Attention: Socially Expansive Individualism of Middle-Class Americans. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35(7), 880–893.

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