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.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Why should inclusion matter to companies?

It's not just about goodwill - inclusivity is a good business decision.

To reach a 50-50 workplace scenario, policies on diversity need to be paired with a culture of inclusiveness. While diversity brings equal representation in meetings, board rooms, promotions and recruitment, inclusivity helps give voice to the people who might otherwise be marginalized or excluded. Inclusion at workplace can be seen in an environment that values diverse opinions, encourages collaboration and invites people to share their ideas and perspectives. As Verna Myers, a renowned diversity advocate, puts it “Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

Creating a sense of belonging for everyone is essential for a company’s success. Let’s look at some of the real benefits of a diverse and inclusive workplace:

Better decision making

A whitepaper by Cloverpop, a decision making tool, established a direct link between inclusive decision making and better business performance. The research discovered that teams that followed an inclusive decision-making process made decisions 2X faster with half the meetings and delivered 60% better results. As per Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino, this report highlights how diversity and inclusion are practical tools to improve decision making in companies. According to her, changing the composition of decision making teams to include different perspectives can help individuals overcome biases that affect their decisions.

Higher job satisfaction

Employee satisfaction is connected to a workplace environment that values individual ideas and creates a sense of belonging for everyone. A research by Accenture identified 40 factors that influence advancement in the workplace. An empowering work environment where employees have the freedom to be creative, innovative and themselves at work, was identified as a key driver in improving employee advancement to senior levels.


A research by stated the in India, 62% of innovation is driven by employee perceptions of inclusion. The study included responses from 1,500 employees from Australia, China, Germany, India, Mexico and the United States and showed that employees who feel included are more likely to go above and beyond the call of duty, suggest new and innovative ways of getting work done.

Competitive Advantage

Shirley Engelmeier, author of ‘Inclusion: The New Competitive Business Advantage’, in her interview with Forbes, talks about the new global business normal. She points out that the rapidly changing customer base with different tastes and preferences need to feel represented by brands. An inclusive environment will future-proof the organisation to cater to the new global consumer language and give it a competitive edge.

An inclusive workplace ensures that no individual is disregarded because of their gender, race, disability, age or other social and cultural factors. Accenture has been a leading voice in advocating equal workplace. Having won several accolades including a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate equality index, Accenture has demonstrated inclusive and diverse practices not only within its organisation but also in business relationships through their Supplier Inclusion and Diversity program.

In a video titled ‘She rises’, Accenture captures the importance of implementing diverse policies and creating an inclusive workplace culture.


To know more about inclusion and diversity, see here.

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