Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Thinking About Cultural Differences III: Where Do They Come From?

Cultural differences relate to individual differences.

So far, we have talked about some differences in the way people think across cultures. Then, we took a look at reasons why it is important to study cultural differences. In this post, we'll consider some factors that might lead to differences in thinking across cultures.

Not surprisingly, a lot of the early explanations for cultural differences in thinking were taken from the extensive social science literature on culture. Anthropologists, sociologists, and other social scientists have long been interested in capturing the ways that cultures differ.

The work of Geert Hofstede in particular has had a profound influence on cultural psychology. He identified a number of dimensions along which cultures may differ. One in particular that has played an important role in the study of cultural differences in thinking is the distinction between individualist and collectivist cultures. To oversimplify a bit, an individualist culture is one that emphasizes the priority of the individual. A collectivist culture is one that prizes the group identity in which members of the culture strive to satisfy the goals of the group. Most cultural groups in Western societies are individualist cultures, while most cultural groups in East Asian societies tend to be collectivist cultures.

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[I should make one point here before going on. Cultures and countries are not the same thing. For example, most people growing up in the United States are raised in the majority culture that is reinforced by public schools, contact with US media, and a common set of religious beliefs. However, a Native American growing up on a reservation may have a quite different cultural experience. These cultural groups have a profound influence on the way that members of that culture develop cognitively and socially. Even though countries are quite likely to have different cultures within them, much research on cultural psychology tends to treat people who grow up in those countries as if they were members of the majority culture.]

The research on cultural differences in thinking suggests that the patterns of differences that have been found are related to the distinction between individualist and collectivist cultures. That is, members of collectivist cultures tend to exhibit behaviors like being likely to compromise and for their memory for objects to be influenced by context. Members of individualist cultures show a preference for one side or the other of a debate rather than compromise, and their memory tends to be uninfluenced by culture.

So, now the question shifts. What is it about individualist and collectivist cultures that influences these aspects of thinking? This is where motivation comes in. It turns out that some interesting motivational variables are also related to the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures. I'll talk about two in particular here: self-construal and fear of isolation.

Self construal has to do with the way people typically identify themselves. Some people have an independent self-construal. That is, they tend to think of themselves using descriptions that are independent of other people. For example, if you think of yourself as smart, or tall, you are describing yourself, but you are not specifically referring to other people (even though you probably need to know something about the intelligence or height of people in general in order to make these descriptions). Other people have an interdependent self-construal. These people think of themselves primarily in terms of aspects that refer specifically to other people. For example, if you think of yourself as a parent, or a leader, then you are using a description that refers to others. (You can't be a parent without having a child. You can't be a leader unless someone is following you.)

It turns out that members of collectivist cultures tend to have a more interdependent self-construal, while members of individualist cultures tend to have a more independent self-construal. In addition, women within a culture tend to have a more interdependent self-construal than men.

Fear of Isolation is another variable related to culture. Fear of Isolation refers to people's concern that they might be socially or physically isolated from a group. The social isolation part is most related to cultural differences. Overall, members of collectivist cultures tend to have a higher Fear of Isolation than members of individualist cultures. There is also a lot of variation within cultures in how much people exhibit Fear of Isolation.

So what? So far, this just suggests that there are a lot of different aspects of people that differ across cultures. However, it is possible to manipulate someone's self-construal and their level of Fear of Isolation (at least temporarily). For example, Wendi Gardner and her colleagues have done studies of self-construal in which they influence people's self-construal. For example, they have people do a proofreading task in which they have to circle all of the pronouns in a passage. For one group, the pronouns are all "I" and "me." For the other group, the pronouns are all "we" and "our." The I/me group ends up with a more independent self-construal and the we/our group ends up with a more interdependent self-construal. If you do this priming, and then you give people studies of thinking, then you find that the group induced to have an interdependent self-construal acts more like members of Collectivist cultures do on the tasks. The group induced to have an independent self-construal acts more like members of an Individualist culture.

Kyungil Kim and I have done a similar thing with studies of Fear of Isolation. We can induce a higher Fear of Isolation in Americans by having them think of instances in which they were anxious or afraid because they were isolated from a group. The control condition thinks of instances in which they were anxious or afraid because they caused someone else to be isolated from a group. Using thinking tasks and memory tasks, we find that the High Fear of Isolation group acts more like the members of Collectivist cultures do, and the group low in Fear of Isolation acts more like the members of the Individualist culture.

Results of studies like this suggest that motivational factors like self-construal and Fear of Isolation are the psychological variables that are being affected by culture and that lead to differences in thinking. Situations (like being in an experiment) can temporarily change someone's self-construal or level of Fear of Isolation, but the culture has helped shape the normal levels of these factors.

Finally, differences in Fear of Isolation and self-construal explain differences in thinking across cultures, but they also explain differences in thinking within cultures. That is, not everyone within a culture has exactly the same kind of self-construal or exactly the same level of Fear of Isolation. Even within a culture, people with a relatively more interdependent self-construal or relatively high Fear of Isolation tend to think in ways characteristic of members of Collectivist cultures. People with a relatively more independent self-construal or a relatively low Fear of Isolation tend to think in ways characteristic of members of Individualist cultures.

So, now research must focus on two key questions. First, how is it that culture influences people's self-construal and level of Fear of Isolation? Second, why is it exactly that differences in self-construal and differences in Fear of Isolation affect thinking in systematic ways? There have been lots of speculations on both of these questions by psychologists, but these questions are the focus of ongoing research.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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