Cultural psychology explores how cultural factors influence individuals’ cognitive abilities, attitudes toward others, and values.
Cultural psychologists explore how social and cultural norms affect behaviors across genders, classes, or other categories. In studying these norms and values, scholars and professionals can gain the knowledge needed to build successful health, educational,, and other social interventions for a cultural group.
By studying cultural psychology psychologists can also obtain critical information about what shapes human nature worldwide, driving the development of more effective mental health interventions.
Cultural Psychology Case Study: Parenting Practices Worldwide
One example topic in cultural psychology is the differing approaches to parenting found across cultures worldwide. In countries such as China or Japan, families stress obedience and conformity over personal autonomy, whereas Western societies prioritize self-exploration over conformity. The significance of these differences cannot be overstated since they strongly impact people’s perceptions of themselves within society. For more, see our article on parenting styles around the world.
Definition of Cultural Psychology
Cultural psychology is a subfield of psychology that examines how cultural factors, such as a culture’s values and collective memory, shape human behavior, cognition, and emotions.
It seeks to understand how culture influences the psychological processes of individuals and groups.
According to Snibbe (2003),
“Cultural psychology is an interdisciplinary field that unites psychologists, anthropologists, linguists, and philosophers for a common pursuit: the study of how cultural meanings, practices, and institutions influence and reflect individual human psychologies.”
In cultural psychology, culture is understood as a set of beliefs, values, norms, practices, and symbols shared by members of a society or group.
These cultural elements are acquired through socialization – the process by which individuals internalize the values and practices of their cultural group.
As stated by Schwartz and colleagues (2020), cultural psychologists
“…are interested in uncovering how cultural practices or shared traditions interact to shape psychological functioning in distinctive ways” (p. 2).
Research in cultural psychology investigates how cultural factors impact cognitive processes such as perception, attention, memory, and reasoning.
For example, studies have shown that people from different cultures attend to different aspects of visual scenes and display differing degrees of holistic versus analytical thinking styles (Boduroglu et al., 2009).
Cultural psychologists also examine cultural differences in communication patterns (verbal/non-verbal), values related to self-esteem (collectivism vs. individualism), intergroup relations, and social identity formation.
Cultural psychologists believe that understanding the role of culture in shaping human thoughts and behaviors can help us better appreciate diversity among people from different cultures.
It may also provide insights into cross-cultural misunderstandings or conflicts that arise because people from different cultures approach situations with distinct beliefs or expectations (Chin et al., 2022).
Overall, cultural psychology provides a unique perspective on how societal constructs influence human thought processes, behaviors, and emotions.
10 Examples of Cultural Psychology
- Negotiations in international business: Cultural psychology has shed light on the cultural dimensions of disagreement resolution in international business negotiations. It has revealed that miscommunication, lack of team synergy, misunderstanding, and differences of opinion arising from cultural expectations are some underlying causes of corporate underperformance in multi-country businesses. By understanding these factors, corporate bodies can take steps to mitigate their effects and improve their performance in international business negotiations.
- Fortune 500 company initiating a program to enhance workplace diversity: A company could employ cultural psychologists’ insights to globalize their business by understanding the sociocultural dynamics surrounding all host communities they operate in.
- Cross-cultural training programs: Employers have started hiring experts to develop cross-cultural training programs for their employees when moving abroad or interacting with people from different cultures. This helps individuals perform more efficiently and is a source of competitive advantage concerning international business prospects.
- Immigration policies: Cultural psychology insights are heavily employed in shaping immigration policies that would alleviate the stress and struggles of immigrant assimilation into American society.
- International marketing campaigns: Companies who want to expand their business globally need cultural information to ensure they create commercials or campaigns that are culturally sensitive and appeal to local consumers. In such a way, these campaigns will not insult or offend them by projecting foreign cultural norms that may not conform to local standards, in a process we call glocalization.
- Political analysis: Cultural psychology helps analysts understand political variables like sociological indicators within African societies by analyzing key elements of race/ethnicity, traditionalism/modernity, face-saving mechanisms, group boundaries, similarity/dissimilarity perceptions, etc.
- Education system design: Cultural psychology can guide educators and policymakers in making curricular decisions regarding multicultural education initiatives to promote tolerance between groups with divergent backgrounds.
- International peace negotiations: Diplomatic agents use cultural psychology to bridge existing gaps and misunderstandings experienced during the negotiation and conflict resolution because sometimes these conflicts arise due to an intercultural lack of understanding.
- Legal proceedings involving ethnic minorities: Racial profiling occurs when discrimination is practiced against certain races because it is seen as a norm in a particular setting. Cultural psychology offers an analysis to vindicate individuals who have suffered wrongful accusations predicated on corrupt beliefs attributed to culture.
- Interventions targeted at psychological disorders among immigrants living in foreign countries where socialization differences exist (e.g., refugees): Culture-specific therapies have been used more and more frequently in the cultural psychology arena to address mental health issues particularly susceptible to trauma from war or displacement.
Origins of Cultural Psychology
The origins of cultural psychology can be traced back to the early 20th century when anthropologists began to apply insights from psychology to their own field.
Anthropologist Franz Boas rejected the idea that different races had inherent differences in their mental abilities and instead argued that culture shaped individual differences (Seiferle-Valencia, 2017).
Boas’ student, Ruth Benedict, further developed these ideas in her book Patterns of Culture (1934). Benedict (1934) argued that cultural patterns were learned and transmitted from generation to generation, shaping people’s experiences, perceptions, and behavior.
Later, psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky emphasized how social factors influenced cognitive development.
Vygotsky’s theory of sociocultural development posited that children internalize knowledge through interactions with others who transmit cultural practices, beliefs, and values (Pathan et al., 2018).
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz also contributed to the development of cultural psychology by arguing that humans interpret their worlds through shared symbolic systems.
In 1976, psychologist Harry Triandis introduced the concept of “cultural psychology” to explain how culture shapes psychological processes.
He argued that people within a culture share a set of beliefs or values that influence their perception of the world around them (Landis & Bhawuk, 2021).
Since then, researchers in cultural psychology have advanced this line of thinking by examining how culture moderates attentional processes, cognitive styles, socialization practices, emotions experienced across cultures, etc.
Models Applied in Cultural Psychology
While various models are used in cultural psychology, some of the most commonly applied ones include the 4 I’s Culture Cycle by Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner and Whiting Model by John and Beatrice Whiting.
Here is a brief overview of each:
1. The 4 I’s Culture Cycle by Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner
This model starts by emphasizing the role of culture in shaping individual identity. It suggests that individuals develop their sense of self through interactions with others who share cultural values and practices (Markus & Conner, 2014).
The cycle consists of four stages:
- Institutions: This stage refers to the broader social, political, economic, and religious institutions that shape our everyday experiences.
- Interdependence: Within each culture, there are unique interdependent ways of being that affect the relationships between individuals within that society.
- Identities: Our identities are often largely defined by our cultural background and involvement in social groups and communicate shared attitudes and norms expected among those constituting a particular group or community.
- Individual differences: Our unique life experiences can differ greatly from others due to factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.
2. Whiting Model by John and Beatrice Whiting
Whitings’ model focuses on how cultural values differ across societies.
This framework considers all the sociocultural institutions that enforce prescribed behaviors vital to daily living as key components dictating human psychology, including one’s personality inclinations (Pope Edwards & Bloch, 2010).
Their model challenges traditional correlation studies because different cultures have distinct criteria for observation, despite similar types of existence reflected in societal systems of beliefs or practices.
They explain the developmental milestones achieved by young people within these cultures, using complex analogies and specific language terms known only to members of a given culture.
They highlight how culturally influenced manifestations influence behavior at different stages of development, such as infancy, childhood, and adolescence (Pope Edwards & Bloch, 2010).
For instance, in Japan, children learn early on to delay gratification through daily routines such as eating family meals together and familial health reinforcement procedures like bathing before retiring at night.
These practices aim to cultivate an independent sense of self-esteem, emphasizing the importance of interpersonal relationships rather than “go-it-alone” personalities typical among Westerners raised with “self-made” upbringing ideals.
Importance of Cultural Psychology
The importance of cultural psychology lies in its ability to help us gain insight into our own culture and the cultures of others.
By understanding how cultural beliefs and values shape individual behavior, we can better understand our own lives and the lives of others.
Here are some examples of why cultural psychology is important:
Cultural psychology is important for several reasons:
1. Understanding Human Diversity
Cultural psychology recognizes the importance of variation across cultures and the need to construct diverse psychological models that are applicable beyond Western societal understandings and ideals.
Cultural studies help people appreciate and value differences among individuals from various cultures and avoid practices that lead to cultural stereotyping or intolerance.
2. Explaining Human Behavior
Cultural factors can shape human thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, etc., in different ways specific to each society.
Therefore, cultural psychology offers a framework to explain how individuals conceive the environments they interact with, highlighting how culture influences personality development vis-a-vis worldview.
3. Bridging Gaps Between Cultures
Recognizing cultural differences enables effective communication across international parties, minimizing misunderstandings, tensions, etc., especially in casual settings such as work, where cultural diversity is increasingly common.
4. Researching Topics on Issues Critical for Multiculturalism/International Diplomacy
Sociologists, policymakers, and organizational institutions can utilize insights drawn from cultural psychology literature to gain knowledge about different social phenomena.
These may include intergroup relations across cultures (e.g., interracial marriages), family values, interpersonal dynamics within non-Western societies, communication patterns between ethnic groups working together in cross-cultural teams, etc.
5. Promoting Accurate Global Marketing Strategies:
For multinational corporations planning to expand their operations globally, it’s crucial to be aware of the nuances and cultural differences that exist in different countries.
This will enable them to not only understand the local customs and practices but also to incorporate them into their advertising campaigns, including language tonality and aesthetics, as they launch their products or services in new environments.
6. Improving Therapeutic Outcomes for Patients from Different Cultures
Therapists must be culturally sensitive and mindful when working with people from different ethnic backgrounds.
Cultural psychology research can help them better understand their clients’ backgrounds, beliefs, and values so they can provide more tailored therapeutic approaches and interventions.
This ensures patients receive the most effective treatment and better long-term outcomes.
See Also: Sociocultural Psychology
Cultural psychology is a crucial and highly dynamic field that seeks to understand the role of culture in shaping human behavior and cognition.
By examining shared beliefs, values, and practices within different societies, cultural psychologists can identify the vast differences between cultures, including how they engage in economic activity or any other field.
Cultural psychology highlights disparities among people and advocates for attention to be paid to them to achieve our united goal of cultivating a world filled with tolerance and mutual respect where diversity is celebrated.
So, cultural psychology plays a vital role in understanding and appreciating diversity, navigating communication between international parties, researching topics critical for multiculturalism/international diplomacy, and even aiding marketing efforts.
Benedict, R. (1934). Patterns of culture. New York: Routledge.
Boduroglu, A., Shah, P., & Nisbett, R. E. (2009). Cultural differences in allocation of attention in visual information processing. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 40(3), 349–360. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022108331005
Chin, T., Caputo, F., Lin, C.-L., & Hu, F. (2022). Editorial: Understanding cognitive differences across cultures: Integrating neuroscience and cultural psychology. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1041734
Landis, D., & Bhawuk, D. (2021). Harry C. Triandis (1926–2019). American Psychologist, 76(1), 169–170. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000644
Markus, H. R., & Conner, A. (2014). Clash!: How to thrive in a multicultural world. London: Plume.
Pathan, H., Memon, R. A., Memon, S., Khoso, A. R., & Bux, I. (2018). A critical review of Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory in second language acquisition. International Journal of English Linguistics, 8(4), 232. https://doi.org/10.5539/ijel.v8n4p232
Pope Edwards, C., & Bloch, M. (2010). The whitings’ concepts of culture and how they have fared in contemporary psychology and anthropology. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 41(4), 485–498. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022022110362566
Schwartz, S. J., Szabó, Á., Meca, A., Ward, C., Martinez, C. R., Cobb, C. L., Benet-Martínez, V., Unger, J. B., & Pantea, N. (2020). The convergence between cultural psychology and developmental science: Acculturation as an exemplar. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00887
Seiferle-Valencia, A. (2017). An analysis of Franz Boas’s: Race, language and culture. New York: Taylor And Francis.
Snibbe, A. C. (2003). Cultural psychology: Studying more than the “exotic other.” APS Observer, 16(12). https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/cultural-psychology-studying-more-than-the-exotic-other