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Insights Into Human Nature From Cultural Psychology

An interview with leading cultural psychologist Steven Heine.

We are a peculiar family, us humans.

For all the remarkable care and empathy we lavish onto fellow others, we are also quite skilled at spotting what makes us different from each other. Take any encounter between a group of people and it will likely include a swift mental appraisal of our differences, from our tastes to our values. This knack takes on Olympic-level proportions when we step outside our ingroups and traverse cultural borders.

While recognizing the cross-cultural variance in our overt behaviors may come effortlessly to us, researchers in Cultural Psychology have been investigating the differences that have seeped into the deepest structures of our lives—the way we think, the way we feel, the way we construe our sense of self and the way we conduct our relationships.

Their consensus?

Culture matters.

As much as the sea matters to the fish that call it home; as much as the earth matters to the roots that it nurtures. Our cultures—diverse and magnificent—color the way we experience the world and shed light on the wonder that is to be human.

Here are 10 questions with a leading cultural psychologist, Dr. Steven Heine.

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What is one of the biggest insights you have gained about human beings from your prolific research across cultures?

It’s the idea that human nature is not something that’s inside us. Humans come into this world ready to acquire our natures. We come ready to learn. We are out there seeking cultural information, for example, the first language that we encounter. Human nature is about learning from our experiences and having those experiences become part of us. Each of us is exposed to a different set of experiences and each of our natures, then, is somewhat distinct. This is why we are different from each other—because we, as a living neural network, have been shaped by different experiences.

What are some universals that people around the world share?

Universals are harder to study than cross-cultural differences. Yet there are many things that are universal about humans. For example, we learn from each other and adapt to local norms. We care a lot about our close relationships. We largely express the same emotions. Our personality structure is largely the same. We are a social species, so we care about our standing in our community and we care about belonging with others. Those are some of the things that matter the most around the world.

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How has globalization impacted the field of cultural psychology?

The world is clearly globalizing and we are coming into more contact with diverse places than before. That does impact our field quite a lot. There is now more research on acculturation and how people negotiate learning new cultural norms. Another topic that’s generating growing interest is studying people who have a global identity and people who have grown up in multiple places around the world (for example, Third Culture Kids). In general, it makes it more challenging to find differences between populations as people form connections with each other across the world. Nevertheless, despite globalization, most people’s lives are still locally experienced.

What are some tips for fostering international relationships?

People generally think that they don’t have culture and that culture is what happens to others. Remember that just as your partner is a product of a lifetime of cultural experiences, so are you. Not everyone shares the same norms as you. Try to imagine their perspective. Try to be open and be slower to judge them, knowing that they might not be expressing thoughts and behavior that is consistent with your perspective. Keeping this in mind when interacting with others can be helpful for international relationships.

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Why is there limited research on the Middle East in cultural psychology?

To me, the biggest shortcoming in the field is that we haven’t canvased the world’s cultures well. Geographically many places are still understudied. Part of the reason is that some international samples are more convenient than others. For example, at the University of British Columbia where I teach, over 60 percent of the students have an Asian background. That facilitates doing research with Asians. There are also certain political challenges of doing cross-cultural work and that might especially be why research in the Middle East is underrepresented. The findings might be protested or resisted against, too. Many politically sensitive questions have been understudied, even though they are especially important ones to study. It’s a ripe topic for future research efforts.

What, for you, remains one of the biggest cross-culturally understudied enigmas of the human psyche?

Romantic love! It manifests quite differently around the world. The best example is the existence of arranged marriages. Eli Finkel, the romantic love researcher, argues that even in the U.S., relationships have been changing over time. Now, people pursue relationships more as a means of self-expression, whereas in the past, it was more about forming a basic economic unit of a family. Why are our attitudes towards relationships changing so much? What do we pursue in a partner? What are we aspiring to achieve with our partners? What are the challenges we face in our relationships? I think these questions are understudied across cultures.

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Why do certain people grow up to either be critical of their own cultures or hold them in high regard?

Even though we all have access to the same cultural messages within our cultures, people react differently to those messages. Some people will embrace them unquestioningly. Others will react against them and reject those messages. Why do we respond differently? Personality traits might be one reason. Openness to experience, for example, underlies political attitudes. People who are politically conservative are more likely to embrace the status quo, and people who are politically more liberal are more likely to question the status quo. To a certain degree, our political and personality temperaments do seem to be inherited. But they are shaped by the local cultural messages, too. And that’s a difficult thing to disentangle.

How much do our genes influence our life outcomes?

People tend to think about genes in a more deterministic way than what the science suggests. For example, in our research, when participants read about a genetic argument, like how obesity is influenced by genes, they become more fatalistic about their weight. They’ll eat more and think, “It’s genetic, what can I do?” In contrast, if people learn about how our weight is influenced by our experiences, they’ll watch their diet more carefully. We also found that when you tell people about the genetic variation that exists around the world, they show more of a racist bias. But when people hear that even though gene frequencies vary around the world, the human genome is remarkably homogenous compared to other species, they are less likely to show racist biases. These are two different truthful statements about the human genome and it affects people when they hear them. If you learn that you have ancestry from some part of the world, it will probably affect you. People will cheer for different Olympic teams after getting their genetic test results, they’ll answer the census differently, learn new languages. It’s curious how people think that who we are is all about the genes, and that culture is secondary. I think that’s evidence of a bias. Our experiences play a huge role in shaping us.

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Is human nature inherently good or bad?

I think it’s both. We are a social species—that’s a constant across all cultures. We have evolved intuitions that help us be a good group member. When we act badly, we feel guilt and shame, which help us to act better. Another part of being a member of a social species is wanting to enhance our own status within the group. In some circumstances, people will take shortcuts and behave badly—sometimes even for a good goal. But in most situations, I think our default is to behave as though we are good. We are complicated and multifaceted.

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What rewards can be gained from learning about other cultures?

I think you are so limited when you are only exposed to your own cultural group. As Seymour Martin Lipset said, “He who knows one country knows no country.” You learn about yourself too, by meeting people from other cultural backgrounds. It provides you with different perspectives and enhances creativity. It helps you to understand the world better and be more empathetic towards others. It can help with international relations and negotiations. The perspectives you encounter and the awareness you cultivate of different concerns of others can make you a more informed, global citizen and, ultimately, give you the means to succeed.

Many thanks to Steven Heine for his time and insights. Dr. Heine is Distinguished University Scholar and Professor of Social and Cultural Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Cultural Psychology (2015) and DNA Is Not Destiny (2017). Many thanks also to the students of Cultural Psychology at PPLE (Spring, 2019, University of Amsterdam) for their questions and for interviewing Professor Heine.