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?
“Cross-cultural psychology is concerned with the systematic study of behavior and experience as it occurs in different cultures, is influenced by culture, or results in changes in existing cultures” (Triandis. 1980. p. 1). This broad definition includes both contemporary cross-cultural psychology and cultural psychology.
Contemporary cross-cultural psychology examines psychological phenomena in many cultures. It measures psychological constructs equivalently in different cultures. An ideal study would use an instrument that has equivalent meaning in cultures sampled from all the cultural regions of the world. One of the purposes of cross-cultural psychology is to establish the generality of psychological findings, and thus a broad sampling of cultures is appropriate. The theoretical framework is universalistic, and assumes the psychic unity of humankind.
By contrast, cultural psychology uses a relativistic framework, and examines how culture and psychological phenomena co-create each other. Thus, it focuses on one culture at a time, and examines how psychological phenomena are modified by that culture. It does not necessarily accept the psychic unity of humankind (Shweder. 1990). There are several branches of cultural psychology (e.g., Boesch, Bruner, Cole, Greenield, Rogoff, Shweder, Valsiner). Indigenous psychologies are related to cultural psychologies. They emphasize the explication of the meaning of key culture-specific concepts (e.g., philotimo in Greece, which means doing what the in-group expects one to do; and amae, in Japan, which means expecting great indulgence from a person with whom one is highly interdependent). Ethnic and indigenous psychologies have been developed; for example, for Mexico by Diaz-Guerrero, India by Sinha, the Philippines by Enriquez, by Yang for Taiwan, and the Chinese mainland culture (Kim & Berry. 1993).
Cross-Cultural Psychology Theories and Methods of Study
The question of how information about the psychological functioning of various cultural and ethnic populations can be studied runs through the history of cross-cultural psychology like a thread. One tradition is based on Waitz’s notion of the “psychic unity of mankind.” according to which the human psyche is essentially similar across cultures. The tradition is rooted in the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth to nineteenth century, when philosophers such as Hume and Kant emphasized the basic similarity of human behavior across times and cultures and the need for cross-cultural research in identifying the principles governing this universality. In the Romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment (expressed in the work of Rousseau and Herder. among others, vast differences in the psychological functioning of different cultural populations were emphasized). Attempts to compare cultures cannot but involve peripheral aspects of psychological functioning. The tradition is noncomparative and maintains that cultures should be understood “from within.” The debate between these two approaches has recurred under various disguises. Examples include the distinction between universalism and cultural relativism. cross-cultural and cultural psychology, and etic and emic approaches (a popular terminology in cross-cultural psychology, drawing on a distinction by the linguist Kenneth Pike). The distinction between a comparative and noncomparative perspective in anthropology and between the nomothetic and ideographic approach in mainstream psychology have similar roots.
Goals of the Study of Cultural Factors in Cross-Cultural Psychology
Three goals of comparative and noncomparative approaches can be discerned: (1) testing the applicability of (usually) Western theories and measures in a non-Western context, (2) exploring the role of cultural factors by extending the range of variation of cultural variables, and (3) integrating culture into theories and measures in order to contribute to a truly universal psychology. These goals have an implicit temporal order. Cross-cultural psychology has enough impetus at present to conclude with confidence that important steps have been taken toward the realization of the first goal. Instruments covering various psychological domains such as intelligence, personality, and social behavior have been administered in cross-cultural studies. It has been repeatedly shown that instruments developed in Western countries are susceptible to various sources of bias, with the susceptibility tending to increase with the cultural distance between the instrument’s author and the examinees. The second goal has also been well studied. Social psychology provides many examples of the former; there are ample demonstrations of the vital and not infrequently neglected influence of cultural context on social-psychological functioning.
The pervasive cross-cultural differences in the social-psychological domain have undoubtedly added to the their popularity in cross-cultural psychology. One of the best known examples of cross-cultural research aimed at the second goal such was Segall, Campbell, and Herskovits’s work on illusion susceptibility (1966). In a large cross-cultural study, these authors demonstrated that in the built environment and with openness of the natural vista, illusion susceptibility is positively related to the occurrence of geometric shapes like rectangles and squares. Another example is the ecocultural framework that is frequently employed to link psychological aspects to features of the environment. In particular, food-gathering style has been studied, based on a dichotomy of nomadic hunting and food gatherers living in loosely organized societies in sparsely populated regions versus sedentary agriculturalists living in tightly knit societies in more densely populated regions. Various psychological differences of these societies have been examined, such as child-rearing patterns and cognitive style.
The second goal has also been examined from a non-comparative perspective. Two approaches are discussed here. The first is cultural psychology, a relatively young subdiscipline. It is closely related to social constructionism and aims at an in-depth understanding of psychological functioning by studying in situ behavior, usually in only one culture. Culture and personality are taken to constitute each other in a process of mutual influences. Culture is seen as a system of meanings, with studies often focusing on how individuals gradually acquire the perspective of a culture. In line with common practice in anthropology (ethnography in particular), assessment methods are utilized that impose little or no a priori categorization on the data, such as unstructured interviews and tape and video recordings. Because of the interest in learning processes, diachronic (longitudinal) designs are often employed.
Indigenous psychologies provide another example of an increasingly popular, noncomparative approach to understanding cultural variation. It is a generic name for all types of psychologies that attempt to overcome the limitations of, in Sinha’s words, “the culture-bound and culture-blind tendencies of mainstream psychology” (1997). Indigenous psychologies have been developed in various areas, such as Latin America, India, Japan, and China. The need for developing an indigenous psychology is often triggered by findings that a non-Western application of a common Western theory or instrument does not do justice to the specifics of the non-Western group. In various degrees of elaboration, these psychologies try to overcome Western biases in theory and assessment, ultimately aiming at an enhancement of the adequacy and applicability of psychological knowledge for these areas. Indigenous psychologies are not yet developed enough to have a serious effect on Western psychology. To date, the integration of cross-cultural findings and mainstream theories of psychology, the third goal of cross-cultural psychology, remains an open challenge.
Methodological Issues in Cross-Cultural Psychology
The largest part of the cross-cultural knowledge base is related to the testing of the applicability of Western theories and measures. In such studies, methodological features tend to require attention. It is therefore not surprising that cross-cultural psychology has been described as a method. A good example of such a concern is the sampling of subjects within cultural populations. Whereas the anthropologist can often rely on a small number of informants who, because of their expertise, have good access to the cultural knowledge of interest, such as the indigenous taxonomy of a particular flora, the cross-cultural psychologist usually deals with psychological characteristics that vary substantially across the members of a population. The sampling procedure that is applied then has a bearing on the interpretability of the results. A comparison of two haphazardly chosen samples is susceptible to interpretation problems: Is the observed difference in psychological functioning (e.g., in locus of control) the result of an underlying cultural difference or because of sample differences in relevant though uncontrolled background characteristics, such as socioeconomic status, gender, or education?
Three popular sampling procedures represent different ways of dealing with confounding characteristics. The first is random, or probability, sampling. It assumes an available listing of eligible units, such as persons or households. If properly applied, such a sample will yield an adequate picture of the cultural population. Yet, confounding variables, which are not controlled for in this approach, may challenge the interpretation of cross-cultural differences.
The second type is matched sampling. A population is stratified (e.g., in levels of schooling or socioeconomic status) and within each stratum a random sample is drawn. Using a matching procedure, confounding variables can then be controlled, but such a sample may poorly represent a whole population. The latter may be improved by applying statistical weights to individual scores (e.g., when highly schooled people are overrepresented in the sample, these scores will get a weight that is lower than those of less educated persons). Matching is appropriate when cultural groups are not too dissimilar with regards to confounding variables, but the procedure cannot correct adequately for confounding variables when there is little or no overlap across cultures (e.g.. comparisons of literates and illiterates).
The third sampling procedure combines random sampling with the measurement of control variables and enables a (post hoc) statistical control of ambient variables. The applicability of this procedure is limited only by the assumptions of the statistical technique utilized; for example, an analysis of covariance assumes equal regression coefficients of the confounding variables in the prediction of a target variable.
Cross-cultural studies also have to deal with the sampling of cultures. Again, three types of sampling can be envisaged. The first is random sampling. Because of the prohibitively large cost of a random sample from all existing cultures, it often amounts to a random sample of a particular groups of cultures (e.g.. Circummediterranean cultures). The second and most frequently observed type of culture sampling is convenience sampling. The choice of cultures is then governed by considerations of availability and cost efficiency. In many studies, researchers from different countries cooperate, with each collecting data in his or her own country. The reasons for choosing a particular culture are more based on substantive considerations in the third type, called systematic sampling. A culture is deliberately chosen because of some characteristic, such as in Segall, Campbell. and Herskovits’s (1966) study in which cultures were chosen based on features of the ecological environment, such as openness of the vista.
Extensive experience with the application of Western instruments (often adapted) in a non-Western context has led to a set of concepts and recommended practices. Central concepts are bias and (in)equivalence. Bias refers to the presence of validity-threatening aspects of a test or inventory such as inappropriate items; a stimulus is biased if it does not have the same psychological meaning in the cultures studied. For example, endorsement of the item “[I] watched more television than usual.” which is part of a common coping list, will depend on the availability of electricity and television sets, among other things. Equivalence refers to the implications of bias on the comparability of scores across cultures.
Multilingual Studies in Cross-Cultural Psychology
Cross-cultural studies are often multilingual, and recommended practices for how instruments can be translated or adapted have been developed. In an adaptation procedure, one or more parts are rewritten in order to improve an instrument’s suitability for a target group. Most multilingual studies employ existing instruments. A translation, followed by an independent back-translation and a comparison of the original and back-translated version, possibly followed by some alterations of the translation is accomplished. Back-translations provide a powerful tool to enhance the correspondence of original and translated versions that is independent of the researcher’s knowledge of the target language. Yet, they do not address all problems. First, back-translations put a premium on literal reproduction; this may give rise to stilted language in the target version that lacks the readability and natural flow of the original.
A second problem involves translatability. The use of idiom (e.g., the English “feeling blue”) or references to cultural specifics (e.g., country-specific public holidays) or other features that cannot be adequately represented in the target language challenges translation-back-translations (and indeed all studies in which existing instruments are translated). When versions in all languages can be developed simultaneously, “decentering” can be used. in which no single language or culture is taken as starting point; individuals from different cultures develop an instrument jointly, thereby greatly reducing the risk of introducing unwanted references to a specific culture. During the last decade there has been a growing awareness that translations and adaptations require the combined expertise of psychologists (with competence in the construct studied) and experts in the local language and culture of the target culture(s). In this so-called committee approach, in which the expertise of all relevant disciplines is combined, there is usually no formal accuracy check of the translation. The committee approach is widespread among large international bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union, in which texts have to be translated into many languages.
Individual and Country-Level Studies in Cross-Cultural Psychology
Cross-cultural studies can compare psychological functioning at various levels of aggregation, ranging from individuals to households, classes, schools, regions, and even whole countries. By far, most studies compare individuals, while more recently there is an increasing interest in country-level comparisons. With regards to the former, much research has been carried out in the area of intelligence and cognitive development. Factor analyses of cross-cultural applications of intellectual tasks have yielded strong support for the universality of the cognitive apparatus, with factoral structures found in Western and non-Western groups tending to be identical. On the other hand, average scores on intelligence tests in particular differ rather consistently across cultural groups, with Western individuals frequently obtaining higher scores than non-Western. The interpretation of these differences was and still is controversial, and inconclusive reasons have been offered, such as genetic origin, environmental background, and measurement artifacts (the differential suitability of the instrument).
Piagetian theory has also spurred cross-cultural research. The order of the stages as proposed by Piaget has been found to be universal, yet the age of onset of each stage tends to differ, with more cross-cultural variation in age found at the higher stages. Evidence for the universality of the highest stage, formal-operational thinking, is weak, although the poor applicability of formal-operational tasks in particular cultures can at least partly account for this observation. Evidence from cultural anthropology based on observations of behavior in situ supports the universality of formal-operational thinking.
In sum, there are no studies refuting the universality of basic features of cognitive functioning, like primacy and recency effects in short-term memory retrieval, the virtually unlimited storage capacity of long-term memory, the attainment of Piagetian conservation, and logical reasoning. Nevertheless, the area of application of certain cognitive skills may differ across cultures (and often across professional groups within cultures). Cultures can build on a set of universal “building blocks” such as long-term memory, but the kind of information that is stored (e.g., scholastic information) may vary considerably across cultures.
The second line of research attempts to establish the universality (or cultural specificity) of certain traits or personality structure in general. Eysenck’s three-factor model of personality (emotional stability, psychoticism, and extroversion) and more recently, the “Big Five” model of personality (conscientiousness, neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, and openness), which is based on psycholexical studies, have been the subject of cross-cultural research. Despite minor problems in both traditions (Eysenck applied a statistical procedure to demonstrate factoral stability with a low statistical power, while the fifth factor of the Big Five could not always be retrieved), the personality structure among Western subjects seems to be essentially universal. However, some non-Western studies have pointed to the incompleteness of Western models of personality. For example, in a large Chinese study it was found that a Western model of personality did not cover aspects frequently utilized in self-descriptions, such as face and harmony. The possible incompleteness of Western models of personality points to an observation often made in cross-cultural psychology: Universal aspects of psychological functioning can be found at a fairly abstract level, while a closer examination of a single group (as in the case of the Chinese study) points to the existence of cultural specifics not covered by the Western structure.
For obvious reasons, comparisons based on country scores are not numerous, yet the few large-scale studies that have been reported have been influential. The first large data base containing information about a large set of cultures was the Human Relations Area Files, published in the 1960s by George Peter Murdock, a cultural anthropologist. The data base contains scores for many variables of hundreds of (mainly nonindustrial) societies. The well-acknowledged problem of data quality (scores were obtained from a wide variety of sources ranging from trained anthropologists to missionaries, and often not applying identical criteria and with an unknown interrater agreement) is more than compensated for by the sheer size of the data base and the opportunity to compare a large set of cultures. The publication of the data base has initiated an ongoing series of publications.
In a more recent study, Geert Hofstede has compared the work-related values of over 100.000 employees of IBM branches in 50 nations. He maintains that country differences in scores can be represented along four dimensions: individualism-collectivism, uncertainty avoidance (i.e., “neuroticism at country level”), power distance (acceptance of unequal power distribution), and femininity-masculinity (gender role overlap in a country). Currently popular is the dichotomy of individualism and collectivism. Interest has increased owing to Hofstede’s international comparison of work-related values, but its introduction in the social sciences goes back at least to 1887 and the work of Ferdinand Tonnies, who distinguished between Gemeinschaft (in which the group prevails and individuals form molar bonds characterized by an emphasis on group goals) and Gesellschaft (in which the individual prevails and interpersonal relationships are molecular). The impact of a country’s status on the individualism or collectivism of various psychological aspects (e.g., personality and attitudes) has been extensively studied during the past decade. Much evidence has been accumulated that shows the widespread consequences of individualism. Unfortunately, many studies involve the comparisons of countries with high gross national products, which are known to show a strong positive relationship with individualism. As a consequence, confounding population differences (e.g., in schooling or income) are often poorly controlled. In another large-scale project, Schwartz asked teachers and college students in more than 80 countries to indicate to what extent each of 56 values constituted an important motive in their lives. The country differences could be represented in two dimensions: one involved an openness-conservatism dimension while the other described a continuum from self-enhancement (e.g., achievement, power) to self-transcendence (e.g., benevolence and wisdom).
4 Books to Learn More
The following four books are some of our favorites on the subject of cross-cultural psychology. Combined, they provide a broad and deep insight into the research, theories, and application.
1. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Research and Applications – John Berry, Ype Poortinga, Seger Breugelmans, Athanasios Chasiotis, and David Sam
This new edition of one of the leading textbooks on cross-cultural psychology targets students new to the field and more experienced practitioners wishing to update their skills.
Written by a team of distinguished international authors, the book’s 18 chapters present an exhaustive discussion of cross-cultural psychology approaches and their application.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Critical Thinking and Contemporary Applications – Eric Shiraev and David Levy
This new seventh edition of this popular text on cross-cultural psychology is conversational in style and uses a critical thinking framework to develop analytical skills.
The book contains a wealth of recent references to keep you updated about the field. Along with covering the theory, it explores how to apply the learnings in various multicultural contexts including teaching, healthcare, social work, and counseling.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Contemporary Themes and Perspectives – Kenneth Keith
Kenneth Keith does an excellent job at placing key areas of psychology within a cultural perspective. An introductory section is followed by the research and theories of cross-cultural psychology, and then the book moves into clinical and social principles and applications.
This second edition is rich in research and examples and will provide the reader with a comprehensive overview of the discipline and its integration with the rest of psychology.
Find the book on Amazon.
4. The Cross-Cultural Coaching Kaleidoscope – Jennifer Plaister-Ten
In Jennifer Plaister-Ten’s excellent book, we learn about the impact of cross-cultural psychology research findings on coaching and how to work and practice in a global market.
This is an incredibly valuable text for coaches working in a multicultural environment and raising awareness of cultural influences for their clients’ benefit.
Find the book on Amazon.
- Amir, Y.. & Sharon, I. (1987). Are social psychological laws cross-culturally valid? Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 18, 383-470. Provides an instructive demonstration showing that Western findings from experimental social psychology are often poorly generalizable in a different cultural context.
- Berry, J. W. (1976). Human ecology and cognitive style: Comparative studies in cultural and psychological adaptation. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. Describes the influence of ecology on psychological functioning, particularly on cognitive style.
- Berry, J. W.. Poortinga. Y. H., Segall, M. H., & Dasen, P. R. (1992). Cross-cultural psychology: Research and applications. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. A textbook at advanced level, describing major theories and models of cross-cultural research.
- Brislin, R. W. (1986). The wording and translation of research instruments. In W. J. Lonner & J. W. Berry (Eds.), Field methods in cross-cultural research (pp. 137-164). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Gives a good overview of issues in test translations as well as a set of rules to enhance translatability.
- Dasen, P. R. (Ed.). (1977). Piagetian psychology: Cross-cultural contributions, New York: Gardner. Summarizes the major findings of Piagetian cross-cultural studies.
- Hambleton, R. K. (1994). Guidelines for adapting educational and psychological tests: A progress report. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 10, 229-244. Presents an elaborate set of recommended practices in multilingual studies prepared by an international committee of psychologists. The combined efforts of psychologists and experts in the language and culture of target populations are proposed as a powerful means to safeguard accurate translations and adaptations.
- Hofstede, G. (198o). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, The most frequently quoted source in cross-cultural psychology, presenting a taxonomy of differences among countries in four dimensions (individualism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and masculinity).
- Jahoda, G, (1989). Our forgotten ancestors. In R. A. Dienstbier (Series Ed,) & J. J. Berman (Vol. Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation 1989: Vol. 37. Cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 1-40). Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. Presents a short and highly readable history of the ancestors of cross-cultural and cultural psychology. with an emphasis on seventeenth- to nineteenth-century thinkers.
- Jahoda, G., & Krewer, B. (1997). History of cross-cultural psychology and cultural psychology. In J. W. Berry, Y. H. Poortinga, & J. Pandey (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (2nd ed., Vol. 1, pp. 1-42). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Describes the intellectual roots of cross-cultural and cultural psychology.
- Jensen, A. R. (1980). Bias in mental testing. New York: Free Press. A rich source of cross-cultural comparisons of mainly American groups.
- Kagitcibasi, C. (1997). Individualism and collectivism. In J. W. Berry, M. H. Segall, & C. Kagitcibasi (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 1-49). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Presents a recent overview of individualism-collectivism studies.
- Lonner, W. J., & Adamopoulos, J. (1997). Culture as antecedent to behavior. In J. W. Berry, Y. H. Poortinga, & J. Pandey (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (2nd ed., Vol. I, pp. 43-83). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Summarizes the main findings of the paradigms that were most influential in cross-cultural psychology.
- Miller, J. G. (1997). Theoretical issues in cultural psychology. In J. W. Berry, Y. H. Poortinga, & J. Pandey (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (2nd ed., Vol. I, pp. 85-128). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Describes theoretical issues in cultural psychology.
- Saxe, G. B (1991). Culture and cognitive development: Studies in mathematical understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum. A good example of a the cultural-psychological approach to the study of mathematics. Both everyday and school mathematics are described and compared.
- Schwartz, S. H. (1992). Universals in the content and structure of values: Theoretical advances and empirical tests in 20 countries. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 25, pp. 1-65). Orlando. FL: Academic Press. Describes a presumably universal structure of human values.
- Segall, M. H., Campbell. D. T., & Herskovits, M. J. (1966). The influence of culture on visual perception. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill. A good example of a theory that successfully models cross-cultural variations (of illusion susceptibility).
- Segall. M. H., Dasen, P. R., Berry, J. W., & Poortinga, Y. H. (1990). Human behavior in global perspective. New York: Pergamon Press. A basic textbook.
- Sinha, D. (1997). Indigenizing psychology. In J. W. Berry, Y. H. Poortinga, & J. Pandey (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (2nd ed., Vol. 1, pp. 129-169). Boston: Allyn & Bacon. Provides a good overview of the indigenization movement in cross-cultural psychology.
- Smith. P. B.. & Bond. M. H. (1993). Social psychology across cultures: Analysis and perspectives. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf. A good overview of the challenges that cross-cultural studies provide to mainstream social psychology.
- Stigler. J. W.. Shweder. R. A.. & Herdt. G. (Eds.). (1990). Cultural psychology: Essays on comparative human development. New York: Cambridge University Press. A rich source of information about cultural psychology.
- Van de Vijver. F. J. R.. & Leung. K. (1997). Methods and data analysis for cross-cultural research. Newbury Park. CA: Sage. Presents an overview of problems and suggested solutions of cross-cultural research.