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Cross-Cultural Psychology

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

Cross-cultural psychology is a branch of psychology that explores the similarities and differences in thinking and behavior between individuals from different cultures.

Scientists using a cross-cultural approach focus on and compare participants from diverse cultural groups to examine ways in which cognitive styles, perception, emotional expression, personality, and other psychological features relate to cultural contexts. They also compare cultural groups on broad dimensions such as individualism and collectivism—roughly, how much a culture emphasizes its members’ individuality versus their roles in a larger group.

Psychologists who are interested in expanding psychology’s focus on diverse cultures have pointed out that the majority of research participants are, to use a popular term, WEIRD: they are from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies. Cross-cultural research has made it clear that what psychologists conclude about this slice of the world’s population does not always extend to people with other cultural backgrounds.

What Is Cross-Cultural Psychology?

Psychology’s mission to understand how humans think and behave requires studying humanity as broadly as possible—not just the humans to which researchers tend to be nearest. Psychologists who conduct cross-cultural research investigate the richness of human psychological variation across the world, including points of consistency and divergence between populations with distinct cultural backgrounds, such as those in Western and East Asian countries.

Why is cross-cultural psychology important?

Psychological research that incorporates a more global sample of people provides insights into whether findings and models (such as those about the structure of personality or the nature of mental illness) are universal or not, the extent to which psychological phenomena and characteristics vary across cultures, and the potential reasons for these differences. Cross-cultural research demonstrates that experimental effects, correlations, or other results that are observed in one cultural context—for example, the tendency of Western participants to rate their abilities as better-than-average—do not always appear in the same way, or at all, in others.

How is culture defined in psychology?

While various definitions are used, culture can be understood as the collection of ideas and typical ways of doing things that are shared by members of a society and have been passed down through generations. These can include norms, rules, and values as well as physical creations such as tools.

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Psychological Differences Across Cultures
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The inhabitants of different regions and countries have a great deal in common: They build close social relationships, follow rules established by their communities, and engage in important rituals. But globally, groups also exhibit somewhat different psychological tendencies in domains ranging from the strictness of local rules to how happiness and other emotions are conceived. Of course, within each region, nation, or community, there is plenty of individual variation; people who share a culture never think and act in exactly the same way. Cross-cultural psychology seeks to uncover how populations with shared cultures differ on average from those with other cultural backgrounds—and how those differences tie back to cultural influence.

Do emotions differ across cultures?

While there are shared aspects of emotional experience across cultural groups, culture seems to influence how people describe, evaluate, and act on emotions. For example, while the experience of shame follows perceived wrongdoing across cultures, having shame may be evaluated more positively in some cultures than in others and may be more likely to prompt behavioral responses such as reaching out to others rather than withdrawing. Different emotional concepts (such as “anxiety,” “fear,” and “grief”) may also be thought of as more or less closely related to each other in different cultures. And cultural differences have been observed with regard to how emotions are interpreted and the “display rules” that individuals learn about appropriate emotional expression.

Does culture affect how we think about happiness?

While happiness seems to be one of the most cross-culturally recognizable emotions in terms of individual expression, culture can influence how one thinks about happiness. Research indicates that people in different cultures vary in how much value they place on happiness and how much they focus on their own well-being. Culture may also affect how people believe happiness should be defined and achieved—whether a good life is to be found more in individual self-enhancement or through one’s role as part of a collective, for example. 

The WEIRDness of Psychology

The psychological findings that get the most attention are disproportionately derived from a fraction of the world’s population. Some scientists call this relatively well-examined subgroup of human societies WEIRD: that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. As long as people who live in countries that meet these descriptors are the primary subjects of psychological research—and that has long been the case—it will often be difficult for psychologists to determine whether an observation applies to people in general or only to those in certain cultural contexts. Increasing the representation of people from diverse cultures in research is therefore a goal of many psychologists.

Which cultures are called WEIRD?

WEIRD populations are those who are broadly part of the Western world and who live in democratic societies that feature high levels of education, wealth, and industrialization. While there is not a single agreed-upon list of WEIRD cultures—and populations within particular countries can show different levels of these characteristics—commonly cited examples of WEIRD countries include the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and other parts of Western Europe, and Australia. 

Where did the term WEIRD come from?

Sampling top psychology journals in the mid-2000s, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett observed that 96 percent of research subjects came from Western, industrialized countries that represented just 12 percent of the world’s population, and that about two-thirds were from the U.S. Subjects seemed to largely be sourced from the countries in which the researchers lived. In 2010, citing this finding and others, Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan introduced the term WEIRD to describe this subpopulation. They expanded on the problems with focusing so exclusively on such participants and with assuming that findings from a relatively unrepresentative group generalized to the rest of the world.

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