The Focus of Cross-Cultural Psychology

How Cultural Differences Influence Human Behavior

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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, however, may place a higher value on collectivism and cooperation among members of the group. Such differences can play a powerful role in many aspects of life.

Cross-cultural psychology is also emerging as an increasingly important topic as 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.

Why Cross-Cultural Psychology Is Important

Since psychology emerged largely in Europe and North America, researchers began to question whether many of the observations and ideas that were once believed to be universal might apply to cultures outside of these areas. Could our findings and assumptions about human psychology be biased based on the sample from which our observations are drawn?

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

For example, consider how something such as social cognition might vary from an individualist culture such as the United States versus a collectivist culture such as China. Do people in China rely on the same social cues as people in the U.S. do? What cultural differences might influence how people perceive each other? These are just some of the questions that a cross-cultural psychologist might explore.

What Exactly 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 impacts our behavior, family life, education, social experiences, and other areas.

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

  • The etic approach focuses on studying how different cultures are similar.
  • The emic approach focuses on studying the differences between cultures.

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 own 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.

Major Topics in Cross-Cultural Psychology

  • Emotions
  • Language acquisition
  • Child development
  • Personality
  • Social behavior
  • Family and social relationships

How Cross-Cultural Psychology Differs From Other Branches of Psychology

  • Many other branches of psychology focus on how parents, friends, and other people impact human behavior, but most do not take into account the powerful impact that culture may have on individual human actions.
  • Cross-cultural psychology, on the other hand, is focused on studying human behavior in a way that takes the effects of culture into account.
  • According to Walter J. Lonner, writing for Eye on Psi Chi, cross-cultural psychology can be thought of as a type research methodology, rather than an entirely separate field within psychology (2000).

Who Should Study Cross-Cultural Psychology?

Cross-cultural psychology touches on a wide range of topics, so students with an interest in other psychology topics may choose to also focus on this area of psychology. The following are just a few who may benefit from the study of cross-cultural psychology:

  • Students interested in learning how child rearing practices in different cultures impact development.
  • Teachers, educators, and curriculum designers who create multicultural education lessons and materials can benefit from learning more about how cultural differences impact student learning, achievement, and motivation.
  • Students interested in social or personality psychology can benefit from learning about how culture impacts social behavior and individual personality.
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Article Sources

  • Lonner, W.J. On the Growth and Continuing Importance of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Eye on Psi Chi, 2000; 4(3): 22-26.

  • Matsumoto, D. R .Culture and Psychology (2nd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole; 2000.

  • Smith, P. B., Bond, M. H., & Kağitçibaşi, Ç. Understanding Social Psychology Across Cultures: Living and Working in a Changing World (3rd Rev. Ed.). London, UK: Sage; 2000.