What Is Cross-Cultural Psychology?

man and woman looking at trinkets while traveling
Linka A Odom / Getty Images
Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

What Is Cross-Cultural Psychology?

Cross-cultural psychology is a branch of psychology that looks at how cultural factors influence human behavior. While many aspects of human thought and behavior are universal, cultural differences can lead to often surprising differences in how people think, feel, and act.

Some cultures, for example, might stress individualism and the importance of personal autonomy. Other cultures may place a higher value on collectivism and cooperation among members of the group. Such differences can play an influential role in many aspects of life.

This article discusses the history of cross-cultural psychology, different types of cross-cultural psychology, and applications of this field. It also discusses the impact it has had on the understanding of human psychology.

What Is Culture?

Culture refers to many characteristics of a group of people, including attitudes, behaviors, customs, and values that are transmitted from one generation to the next. Cultures throughout the world share many similarities but are marked by considerable differences. For example, while people of all cultures experience happiness, how this feeling is expressed varies from one culture to the next.

The goal of cross-cultural psychologists is to look at both universal behaviors and unique behaviors to identify the ways in which culture influences behavior, family life, education, social experiences, and other areas.

History of Cross-Cultural Psychology

Cross-cultural psychology is an important topic. Researchers strive to understand both the differences and similarities among people of various cultures throughout the world.

The International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology (IACCP) was established in 1972, and this branch of psychology has continued to grow and develop since that time. Today, increasing numbers of psychologists investigate how behavior differs among various cultures throughout the world.

After prioritizing European and North American research for many years, Western researchers began to question whether many of the observations and ideas once believed to be universal might apply to cultures outside of these areas. Could their findings and assumptions about human psychology be biased based on the sample from which their observations were drawn?

Many of the findings described by psychologists are focused on a specific group of people, which some researchers have dubbed Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, often referred to by the acronym WEIRD.

As a result, cross-cultural psychologists suggest that many observations about human thought and behavior may only be generalizable to specific subgroups. To develop a broader, richer understanding of people that can be applied to a wider variety of cultural settings, it is essential for researchers to also look at people from diverse cultures.

Despite recognizing that research has a strong Western bias, evidence suggests that this bias persists today. According to one analysis, around 90% of participants in psychology research are drawn from Western, industrialized countries, 60% of which were American.

Recap

Cross-cultural psychologists work to rectify many of the biases that may exist in the current research and determine if the phenomena that appear in European and North American cultures also appear in other parts of the world.

Types of Cross-Cultural Psychology

Many cross-cultural psychologists choose to focus on one of two approaches:

  • The etic approach studies culture through an "outsider" perspective, applying one "universal" set of concepts and measurements to all cultures.
  • The emic approach studies culture using an "insider" perspective, analyzing concepts within the specific context of the observed culture.

It is also common for cross-cultural psychologists to take a combined emic-etic approach.

Meanwhile, some cross-cultural psychologists also study something known as ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism refers to a tendency to use your own culture as the standard by which to judge and evaluate other cultures.

In other words, taking an ethnocentric point of view means using your understanding of your own culture to gauge what is "normal." This can lead to biases and a tendency to view cultural differences as abnormal or in a negative light. It can also make it difficult to see how your cultural background influences your behaviors.

Cross-cultural psychologists often look at how ethnocentrism influences our behaviors and thoughts, including how we interact with individuals from other cultures.

Psychologists are also concerned with how ethnocentrism can influence the research process. For example, a study might be criticized for having an ethnocentric bias.

Topics in Cross-Cultural Psychology

Cross-cultural psychology explores many subjects, focusing on how culture affects different aspects of development, thought, and behavior. Some important areas of study include:

  • Emotions: This field seeks to understand if all people experience emotions the same way or if emotional expressions are universal.
  • Language acquisition: This area explores whether language development follows the same path throughout different cultures.
  • Child development: This topic investigates how culture affects child development and whether different cultural practices influence the course of development. For example, psychologists might investigate how child-rearing practices differ in various cultures and how these practices impact variables such as achievement, self-esteem, and subjective well-being.
  • Personality: This area researches the degree to which different aspects of personality might be influenced or tied to cultural influences.
  • Social behavior: Cultural norms and expectations can have a powerful effect on social behavior, which this topic seeks to understand.
  • Family and social relationships: Familial and other interpersonal relationships can also be heavily influenced by societies and cultures.

Recap

Cross-cultural psychology seeks to understand how culture influences many different aspects of human thought and behavior. Cross-cultural psychologists often study development, personality, and social relationships.

Uses for Cross-Cultural Psychology

Cross-cultural psychology touches on a wide range of topics, so students interested in other psychology topics may choose to also focus on this area of psychology. For example, a child psychologist might study how child-rearing practices in different cultures impact development.

Cross-cultural psychology can help teachers, educators, and curriculum designers who create multicultural education lessons and materials learn more about how cultural differences affect student learning, achievement, and motivation.

In the field of social psychology, applying a cross-cultural view might lead researchers to study how social cognition might vary in an individualist culture versus a collectivist culture. Do people from each culture rely on the same types of social cues? What cultural differences might influence how people perceive each other?

Impact of Cross-Cultural Psychology

Many other branches of psychology focus on how parents, friends, and other people impact human behavior. However, most do not take into account the powerful impact that culture may have on individual human actions.

Cross-cultural psychology focuses on studying human behavior in a way that takes the effects of culture into account.

The study of cross-cultural psychology and the inclusion of more representative and diverse samples in psychology research is essential for understanding the universality of different psychological phenomena. Recognizing how different factors appear in various cultures can help researchers better understand the underlying influences and causes.

A Word From Verywell

Cross-cultural psychology plays an important role in the understanding of behavior throughout the cultures of the world. While much of psychology research remains primarily Western and Eurocentric, there is a stronger awareness of the importance of representation and diversity in the research process.

Was this page helpful?
8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Mathews G. Happiness, culture, and context. Int J Wellbeing. 2012;2(4):299-312. doi:10.5502/ijw.v2.i4.2

  2. Lonner WJ. On the growth and continuing importance of cross-cultural psychology. Eye on Psi Chi. 2000;4(3):22-26. doi:10.24839/1092-0803.Eye4.3.22

  3. International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology. About us.

  4. Henrich J, Heine SJ, Norenzayan A. Most people are not WEIRD. Nature. 2010;466(7302):29-29. doi:10.1038/466029a

  5. Thalmayer AG, Toscanelli C, Arnett JJ. The neglected 95% revisited: Is American psychology becoming less American? American Psychologist. 2021;76(1):116-129. doi:10.1037/amp0000622

  6. Wang Q. Why should we all be cultural psychologists? Lessons from the study of social cognition. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2016;11(5):583-596. doi:10.1177/1745691616645552

  7. Cheung FM, van de Vijver FJ, Leong FT. Toward a new approach to the study of personality in culture. Am Psychol. 2011;66(7):593-603. doi:10.1037/a0022389

  8. Keith KD. Visual illusions and ethnocentrism: Exemplars for teaching cross-cultural concepts. Hist Psychol. 2012;15(2):171-176. doi:10.1037/a0027271