Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Tolerance, Acceptance, Understanding

...And how they differ in everyday life and in research.

Wikimedia Commons: Picture of Friends by Pictofigo
Source: Wikimedia Commons: Picture of Friends by Pictofigo

Many of my blog columns aim at clarifying concepts or shedding new light on them. For example, I have posted dozens of pieces on the race concept, aimed at disentangling biology from culture (e.g., "What Race Is George Zimmerman?"); and my book, The Myth of Race, discusses the race concept from multiple perspectives.

Occasionally, I also compare concepts related to each other—for example, envy and jealousy—for the insights that result. That is what I would like to do here, by considering tolerance and acceptance and then thinking about them in relation to understanding.

Let’s begin with some abbreviated Wikipedia definitions:

Tolerance is a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one's own; freedom from bigotry.

Acceptance in human psychology is a person's assent to the reality of a situation, recognizing a process or condition (often a negative or uncomfortable situation) without attempting to change it, protest, or exit.

Tolerance is a virtue. It is a version of the golden rule in that, insofar as we want others to treat us decently, we need to treat them decently as well. It is also a pragmatic formula for the functioning of society, as we can see in the omnipresent wars between different religions, political ideologies, nationalities, ethnic groups, and other us-versus-them divisions. It is a basis for the First Amendment protections that enabled the United States to avoid the religious strife that plagued Europe for centuries. (And it is a reason to be skeptical of slogans such as “Zero Tolerance.”)

Acceptance goes a step beyond tolerance. If a sign of tolerance is a feeling of “I can live with X (behavior, religion, race, culture, etc.),” then acceptance moves beyond that in the direction of “X is OK.” You can tolerate something without accepting it, but you cannot accept something without tolerating it. For example, when a son or daughter tells a parent about an unwelcome career choice, marital partner, or sexual identity, he or she wants that information not just to be tolerated, but to be accepted.

Moving beyond tolerance and acceptance, we come to a third concept: understanding. Here is Wikipedia’s shortened definition:

Understanding is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message, whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object.

Here is the problem. It is possible to tolerate or accept someone without understanding him or her, and the same goes for tolerating or accepting a different culture. And the converse is also true. It is possible to understand a culture or a person without acceptance, or even tolerance—think, for example, of undercover spies.

It is good to know that some people are impressively free from prejudice against those with whom they have had little or no contact (or even abstract knowledge), as part of a live-and-let-live attitude toward life.

Tolerance and/or acceptance are desirable, but they are not a substitute for understanding. They are relevant for getting along with others in the world (though understanding helps), but understanding is essential for the social and behavioral sciences

This latter point may seem obvious, but it is not universally recognized in cross-cultural research. Some studies are done in the following manner:

1. An English-language personality test developed in the United States is translated into several languages.

2. The test is given to people (usually college students) in a variety of countries and languages.

3. The results are interpreted as showing specific average personality differences among cultures.

The problem with such research is that there is no research on the test in many or all of the countries studied, and there is no way of knowing whether the personality dimensions measured even exist in those cultures. For example, one could develop a test of “Americanism” and get the results for 20 countries. This would allow researchers to rank cultures on that variable, even though it is irrelevant to their existence.

I remember visiting China a number of years ago when a psychology professor there discussed his research on the “Big Five” personality dimensions (openness-to-experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—OCEAN). Many American psychologists believe that these are fundamental dimensions of personality. Yet my Chinese colleague said that his research had not found a dimension of openness, but had found a dimension of face-saving. So we can see that scores of Americans on the dimension of face-saving would be as culturally meaningless in the United States as scores of Chinese on openness-to-experience are in China.

It is good that some researchers are tolerant and accepting of other cultures, but these positive attitudes do not provide a shortcut to understanding the cultures that they include in their research.

More from Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today