Culture Conscious

How culture shapes thought.

Chatting Up Culture With Steven Heine: Part I

An interview with eminent cross-cultural psychologist Steven Heine.

Steven Heine is a leading figure in cultural psychology. He has authored or co-authored countless articles, book chapters, and books. (He wrote “Cultural Psychology,” the textbook that sparked my interest in the field in the first place.) With professional ties to Japan, Heine has helped pave the way for psychological research examining similarities and differences between East Asians and North Americans. He is currently a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, where he teaches and supervises undergraduates and Ph.D. students.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Heine for a phone conversation a few weeks ago. We spoke about his research, his experience as a schoolteacher in Japan, the downfalls of studying WEIRD people, and the importance of cross-cultural psychology to the world in general. What follows is the first half of our conversation; stay tuned for the rest of the story in a future post.

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Steven Jackson: What are you currently working on in cultural psychology?

Steven Heine:  We’ve been looking at cultural differences in self-enhancing motivations, how people have positive feelings towards not only themselves but things connected to themselves. For example, when you own something, you view it as more valuable than when you don’t own it. It’s called the “endowment effect.” The strength of that effect is stronger in Western cultures than in East Asian cultures. So we’ve been looking at other ways of seeing whether this motivation to view oneself positively is shaped by cultural experiences.

We’ve also started to look at how culture shapes sleep. We’re still in the exploratory stages of this project — although what’s noteworthy is that East Asians on average sleep about an hour and a half less each night than North Americans do. And it’s not a more efficient sleep, not like they’re compressing relatively more value out of their hours. Other studies have found that even infants in East Asia sleep about an hour less than European infants. So we’re trying to figure out how culture shapes the ways that you sleep.

SJ: Does this take place in a sleep lab?

SH: Nope. We lend people these motion-detecting watches and they wear them for a week at a time—whenever they’re not having a shower or swimming they keep it on. These kinds of watches are used in sleep studies as a way of measuring how long people are sleeping, how efficient their sleep is, and whether they’re waking up in the night. Ideally I’d like to take this into a controlled lab environment. We’ll see where the research points us. We usually start off with the more affordable methods, and if everything looks promising, then it’ll justify trying to build a sleep lab and study sleep across cultures that way.

SJ: Why study sleep?

SH: Sleep is something that has really been an unexplored topic cross-culturally.  I’m attracted to it because culture isn’t something that only shapes the way our minds operate; it shapes the way our bodies operate too, and sleep is at the intersection of those.

SJ: Can you speak a bit more about this intersection of mind, body, and culture?

SH: Right now a big topic of research is embodied cognition, where there are different metaphors that people have, that seem to be expressed through the body. For example, if you’ve done something that’s morally unclean, you want to wash your hands longer in order to feel physically clean. I’d be very interested to see if there are culturally distinct bodily metaphors and if we see different physical actions having different cognitive associations across cultures.

With embodied cognition, one possibility is that the language metaphors we use are expressing real associations in our biology. Maybe, doing an immoral act really does involve areas of our brain associated with physical cleanliness. Maybe these are physical associations that we have and the metaphors just reflect those—or maybe we can come to embody a culturally learned association as well. That would be really interesting to see. I haven’t done such research myself and I don’t know anyone who has, but I think that’d be a nice direction to go.

SJ: Imagine a random person comes up to you on the street and challenges you to make them care about cultural psychology. What are you going to say? Why is this stuff important?

SH: I think it’s important because ultimately the kinds of things we’re studying are guiding people’s behaviors. If you’re in a situation where people from different cultures come together, and if you want to succeed in these interactions, it’s really important that you have some kind of understanding of the cultural norms that guide people’s behaviors.

As a field, psychology has been too quick to universalize our theories. Meaning that whatever findings we have that emerge out of a particular study, we’re quite quick to assume it must be true of human nature more generally. This actually has some significant costs when dealing with people from other cultures. If you’re projecting onto them the same thoughts and feelings and motivations that you would have in the situation, that can create some real misunderstandings. I think a lot of things are universal across cultures, but an awful lot are not, and we don’t know until we actually investigate it.

SJ: That sounds like the main thrust in the “WEIRD” article. Can you tell me a bit about that paper? [In 2010, Heine and two colleagues published a paper pointing out that most psychologists study WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies.]

SH: The first point is that we really do study WEIRD people as a field. The vast majority of research is done in the West with university students, to the point that a randomly selected American undergrad is about 4,000 times more likely to be in a psychology study than a randomly selected person outside of the West.

A cost of doing this is that we don’t really know how our theories generalize to other samples, so we are somewhat at a loss to fully understand the phenomena that we’re studying. Is this phenomenon endemic to our species, is this something that characterizes every member of our species, or is this something that characterizes only those who’ve been raised with a certain set of experiences? If we don’t have the data, we don’t have answers to those kinds of questions.

Also, by studying such a limited sample, the topics that we study are limited. There’s a failure of imagination on our part to conceive of what kind of psychological processes or phenomena are interesting, or worthy of study—or even exist. So we tend to study the kinds of things that are familiar to North American researchers, but there are other kinds of phenomena that we just don’t have enough exposure to. In studying East Asia, for example, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the power of the motivation to maintain face. This is a motivation that’s largely absent in Western psychological research. It’s just not a concern that we would think to study, or know how to identify all the processes related to it.

I also think it has a cost to the field in that it marginalizes international researchers. Most research is being done in North America, so the kinds of theories dominating the field are those that have been identified in American samples. If you’re an international researcher living in a different cultural context, and you want to build on the research in psychology, then you’re going to try to replicate and extend findings that North American psychologists identified. If there are cultural differences involved, you might not replicate and extend those findings. And if the field doesn’t recognize the role of culture in shaping psychology, then the conclusion one might draw is, “You must not be doing it very well. Why can’t you find what everyone else can find?”

SJ: How are we doing at breaking out of the WEIRD pattern?

SH: Well I’d say that’s not our strength. We have these long-lasting habits that have colored our field from the beginning. We haven’t taken culture seriously, and I think we’re still struggling with that. That paper came out a couple years ago, and I’m happy that it has sparked some discussion, but I haven’t yet seen much in the way of real changes in the ways that research is done—but it would be too soon to see that.

SJ: If you could direct your research toward a previously ignored group, ethnicity, geographic region, whatever, where would you explore?

SH: The field made a lot of progress back in the early nineties when it started studying not just North Americans and Europeans, but also East Asians, and making comparisons between the two. I think we saw a lot of growth because of that. But so far those are really the only populations that have been rigorously studied across many different phenomena, and for the most part, the rest of the world is understudied in terms of their psychology.

I think you could have the biggest impact by studying groups that are living in subsistence kinds of environments, in that they’re leading a lifestyle far different from most college students. It would be a very useful test for universality, because if you did find similarities in people across such diverse cultural situations, that’d be compelling evidence that there is something common and universal going on for that phenomenon. Also, these small-scale societies feature a lifestyle more similar to the ancestral environment in which humans evolved, so they’re an especially good group to study to understand the kinds of challenges and selection pressures that humans faced in an ancestral environment. What we study here—college students in the West—is in an environment drastically different from what humans evolved in, and it’s not surprising if we do find several aspects of our psychology that differ between those groups.

Steven B. Jackson is a student at Beloit College studying cognition and culture.

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