Across Cultures

Why modern theories of psychology may suffer from a pro-Western bias

Psychological phenomena have long been thought of as universal. Turns out that scientists may have been blinded by their own, largely Western, culture.

The academic discipline of psychology was developed largely in North America and Europe. Some would argue it is been remarkably successful in understanding what drives human behaviour and mental processes, which have long been thought to be universal. But in recent decades some researchers have started questioning this approach, arguing that many psychological phenomena are shaped by the culture we live in.

Clearly, humans are in many ways very similar – we share the same physiology and have the same basic needs, such as nourishment, safety and sexuality. So what effect can culture really have on the fundamental aspects of our psyche, such as perception, cognition and personality? Let’s take a look at the evidence so far.

Experimental psychologists typically study behaviour in a small group of people, with the assumption that this can be generalised to the wider human population. If the population is considered to be homogeneous, then such inferences can indeed be made from a random sample.

However, this is not the case. Psychologists have long disproportionately relied on undergraduate students to carry out their studies, simply because they are readily available to researchers at universities. More dramatically still, more than 90% of participants in psychological studies come from countries that are Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic, or W.E.I.R.D. Clearly, these countries are neither a random sample nor representative for the human population.

Thinking styles

Consider which two of these objects go together: a panda, a monkey and a banana. Respondents from Western countries routinely select the monkey and the panda because both are animals. This is indicative of an analytic thinking style, in which objects are largely perceived independently from their context.

In contrast, participants from Eastern countries will often select the monkey and the banana, because these objects belong in the same environment and share a relationship (monkeys eat bananas). This is a holistic thinking style, in which object and context are perceived to be interrelated.

Holistic thinking is prevalent in Asian cultures such as India. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Holistic thinking is prevalent in Asian cultures such as India. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a classic demonstration of cultural differences in thinking styles, participants from Japan and the United States were presented with a series of animated scenes. Lasting about 20 seconds, each scene showed various aquatic creatures, vegetation and rocks in an underwater setting. In a subsequent recall task, both groups of participants were equally likely to remember salient objects, the larger fish. But the Japanese participants were better than American participants at recalling background information, such as the colour of the water. This is because holistic thinking focuses on background and context just as much as foreground.

This clearly demonstrates how cultural differences can affect something as fundamental as memory – any theory describing it should take that into account. Subsequent studies have shown that cultural differences in thinking styles are pervasive in cognition – affecting memory, attention, perception, reasoning and how we talk and think.

The self

If you were asked to describe yourself, what would you say? Would you describe yourself in terms of personal characteristics – being intelligent or funny – or would you use preferences, such as “I love pizza”? Or perhaps you would instead base it on social relationships, such as “I am a parent”? Social psychologists have long maintained that people are much more likely to describe themselves and others in terms of stable personal characteristics.

However, the way people describe themselves seems to be culturally bound. Individuals in the western world are indeed more likely to view themselves as free, autonomous and unique individuals, possessing a set of fixed characteristics. But in many other parts of the world, people describe themselves primarily as a part of different social relationships and strongly connected with others. This is more prevalent in Asia, Africa and Latin America. These differences are pervasive, and have been linked to differences in social relationships, motivation and upbringing.

Zulu people are more likely to think of themselves in terms of social relationships. Photo credit: South African Tourism/Flickr
Zulu people are more likely to think of themselves in terms of social relationships. Photo credit: South African Tourism/Flickr

This difference in self-construal has even been demonstrated at the brain level. In a brain-scanning study, Chinese and American participants were shown different adjectives and were asked how well these traits represented themselves. They were also asked to think about how well they represented their mother (the mothers were not in the study), while being scanned.

In American participants, there was a clear difference in brain responses between thinking about the self and the mother in the “medial prefrontal cortex”, which is a region of the brain typically associated with self presentations. However, in Chinese participants there was little or no difference between self and mother, suggesting that the self-presentation shared a large overlap with the presentation of the close relative.

Mental health

Another domain that was originally dominated by studies on W.E.I.R.D. samples is mental health. However, culture can affect our understanding of mental health in different ways. Because of the existence of cultural differences in behaviour, the framework – based on detecting deviant or non-normative behaviours – is not complete. What may be seen as normal in one culture (modesty) could be seen as deviating from the norm in another (social phobia).

In addition, a number of culture-specific syndromes have been identified. Koro sufferers (mostly in Asia) are men who have the mistaken belief that their genitalia are retracting and will disappear. Hikikomori (mostly in Japan) is a condition that describes reclusive individuals who withdraw from social life. Meanwhile, the evil eye syndrome (mostly in the Mediterranean countries) is the belief that envy or other forms of malevolent glare will bring misfortune to the receiver.

The existence of such culture-bound syndromes has been acknowledged by both the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatry Association recently, as some of these syndromes have been included in their respective classifications of mental illnesses.

Clearly, culture has a massive effect on how we view ourselves and how we are perceived by others – we are only just scratching the surface. The field, now known as “cross-cultural psychology”, is increasingly being taught at universities across the world. The question is to what extent it will inform psychology as a discipline going forward – some see it as an extra dimension of it while others view it as an integral and central part of theory making.

With more research, we may well find that cultural differences pervade into even more areas where human behaviour was previously thought of as universal. But only by knowing about these effects will we ever be able to identify the core foundations of the human mind that we all share.

Nicolas Geeraert is senior lecturer at the University of Essex.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.