Cultural Psychology. In Encyclopedia of Law and Society: American and Global Perspectives (Section IX). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications

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Cultural Psychology. In Encyclopedia of Law and Society: American and Global Perspectives (Section IX). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Cultural psychology is the study of how one’s culture affects one’s mind: how one thinks and reasons, what one feels, perceives and attends to, and how one interprets the world. Cultural psychology has emerged as an important field of psychological research as more and more studies have found that theories of psychology, developed in the West and thought to be universal, do not generalize well to other cultures. Grounded in a conception that mind and culture are mutually constituted, research in this field strives to both identify the effects of culture in the mind, and the effects of mind in culture. It includes theories and debates about the forms of cultures themselves (e.g. individualism-collectivism); moral and justice systems (e.g. different codes of ethics); and how different cultures create differences in how we judge cause (e.g. attributions to forces internal vs. external to the individual), conceive of ourselves (e.g. independent of vs. interdependent with others), reason (analytic vs. holistic reasoning ) and even perceive the world (e.g. what one attends to and remembers from a scene). Thus far, the most common comparisons have been between East Asian (Korean, Japanese, and Chinese) and European American participants, from which researchers have discovered profound cultural differences in many seemingly basic social psychology findings. Much of this research has implications for how peoples from different cultures will create and respond to their legal systems . As countries become more multicultural and trade and communication between nations becomes more common, the interaction between law and justice systems, cultural norms, and psychological phenomena will become more and more important. Below, we briefly review some research from cultural psychology that is relevant to how individuals interact with the law.

To determine the causative links between culture and psychology, one of the first challenge is to “unpackage” culture so that specific aspects of cultures can be linked to different psychological effects. Below, we describe two aspects of culture that are particularly relevant to this introduction. It is worth keeping in mind that these are not the only ways cultures can be compared; as more cultures are studied, other important dimensions will undoubtedly emerge.


Social psychology is the study of how the presence of others affects people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and so it makes sense that one of the most powerful ways of categorizing cultures in psychology is based on differences in how individuals relate to each other. In an influential book published in 1980, Geert Hofstede analyzed work values in more than 50 countries to derive four dimensions that differentiated between nations: power distance; uncertainty avoidance; masculinity-femininity; and individualism-collectivism. Important research has resulted from the testing of hypotheses based on or inspired by these dimensions, especially individualism-collectivism (IND-COL). IND-COL contrasts societies that encourage individuals to be independent and unique with societies that emphasize obligations to in-group members and to in-group harmony. In particular, Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama’s groundbreaking article published in 1991 showed how people from individualist and collectivist societies developed different self-concepts, which affect the ways they understand their social worlds. While people with an “independent” self-concept think of people as being autonomous and relatively free of social influence, those with an “interdependent” self think of people as grounded in roles and relationships with others. These different self-concepts have been shown to affect many other aspects of psychology and have become a popular way to more precisely represent cultural IND-COL differences. This dimension has also been linked to different ways of making attributions about responsibility, maintaining relationships, reasoning, emotions, motivations, and well-being, some of which will be discussed below.

Culture of Honor

Another culture-level dimension that has recently emerged is that of a “Culture of Honor,” which has been linked to the higher rates of violent crime among White Southern men. This culture appears to occur in areas around the world where economies were historically or currently based on herding livestock, and is hypothesized to have arisen from the need to protect easily-stolen herds in a “lawless” area through the development of a reputation for aggression. In particular, these societies encourage men to defend their honor against insult with violence. For example, in a 1996 book, Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen showed in laboratory experiments that white men raised in areas with a history of herding in the U.S. (mostly concentrated in the American South and West) react differently and more aggressively to insults than do other Americans. Field studies also showed that there is far less stigmatization of individuals who engaged in insult-related violence in the South than in the North, although the regions do not differ in how they view other kinds of violence. These regional differences are linked at the societal level to corresponding differences in the degree of insult-related violence (especially homicide); support for guns as needed self-protection (along with more lenient gun-control laws); laws regulating corporal punishment for schoolchildren and self-defense (e.g. the “true-man rule” in the South vs. the “retreat rule” in the North); and rates of legal executions. Importantly, these honor-related differences were found not to be empirically linked to other potential explanations, including North-South differences in temperature, poverty, and history of slavery. Nisbett and Cohen also hypothesize that the “lawless” inner cities might have produced a similar culture of honor, with predictable results for crime rates.


What is seen as right and fair varies by culture, and the legitimacy of laws is often based on those lay conceptions. Cultural experiences may have considerable influence on the creation and justification of many laws.

Distributive Justice

How should rewards be distributed: according to merit (equity), need, or equally among the group? In the West, companies often reward their workers based on a system of equity, with salaries distributed as a function of the productivity of individual workers. However, in much of the rest of the world, salaries are often distributed on the basis of a seniority system, with all employees of a certain age or time with the company receiving the same salary. Which is the best way to distribute rewards? The answer depends on your culture’s ideas of justice and fairness. For example, a study by Virginia Murphy-Berman and colleagues showed that when deciding how to divide a bonus between an excellent worker and a needy worker, Americans preferred to either split the money equally between the workers or give more of the bonus to the better worker (equitable). In contrast, Indians vastly preferred giving most of the bonus to the poorer employee (need-based), with the equitable option being the least attractive. These cultural differences are strongest when distribution is being made between ingroup members. In other words, when important relationships are likely to be affected, equal or need-based distribution is preferred, as they reduce competition and increase harmonious relations.

Moral Codes

Richard Shweder and colleagues have proposed that there are at least three “codes of ethics” that coexist at different levels of emphasis in different communities. The ethic of autonomy, probably the most common among American academics, and the basis of American law, stresses justice and individual freedom from non-interference: harming or infringing upon the rights of other individuals is seen as the marker of immorality and injustice, and may induce feelings of anger. Another common ethic is the ethic of community, which stresses individual obligations to fulfill certain roles and duties; failure to fulfill interpersonal obligations is seen as immoral, and induces feelings of contempt. A third ethic is the ethic of divinity. This ethic responds to a sense or belief that there is a “natural order of things” that is sacred; actions that cause impurity or degradation of oneself or others, or disrespect to transcendental authority(/ies), are seen as immoral, and induce feelings of disgust.

Past moral development research in the U.S. had primarily focused on an abstract ethic of autonomy as the pinnacle of moral development, but cultural psychological research has shown that abstract moral principles based on the other ethics are more important in other cultures. For example, research comparing Hindu Indians and European Americans showed that interpersonal obligations, even to strangers, were seen in much stronger moral terms by Indians than by Americans, and were even seen as legitimately regulated actions. Moreover, when interpersonal obligations (e.g. getting to a friend’s wedding) and justice violations (e.g. having to steal a train ticket to get there) were placed in opposition, Indians found the interpersonal obligations to have much greater moral weight than did Americans. Importantly, researchers have found cultural differences among Americans when justifying their views on politically-charged issues such as suicide or divorce. For example, members of fundamentalist Baptist sects prefer arguments based on the ethic of divinity, whereas members of progressive sects were more likely to use ethic of autonomy principles to defend their more liberal views. When laws and public conceptions of morality are different, the viability of the law system may be undermined. The coexistence of these sometimes conflicting moral codes in different communities offers insight into current political debates, and promises to continue to affect inter- and intra-national debates on laws in the future.

The question of who or what is responsible for an event is of obvious importance in the realm of law. However, research has shown that the “common-sense” way of determining responsibility may not be the same in different cultures. A large body of cultural psychological research by Nisbett and colleagues has examined differences in the habits of thought of East Asians (Japan, Korea, and China) and Westerners (mainly European Americans). In many domains of cognition, East Asians tend to be more “holistic” (attentive to context and relationships) than Westerners, who tend to be more “analytic” (attentive to objects separate from their context and other objects). These differences are seen in everything from very basic visual perception tasks (e.g. East Asians notice the background of a picture more than Westerners) to the more complicated task of explaining people’s actions. For example, the Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), the unconscious tendency to downplay situational constraints and attribute the reasons for another person’s actions to his/her internal disposition (personality), was previously thought to be a universal cognitive error. However, the FAE derives from people’s inability to attend sufficiently to the context (situation) of an object (a person); and predictably, the FAE was found to be far less evident in research done in India, Japan, and China. How might this affect how people judge criminals? Of particular interest is a study of American and Chinese newspaper articles about mass murderers. Reporters writing in Chinese widely used situational, relational, and other contextual and social factors as potential explanations for the murders, while the English-language reporters concentrated almost solely on the murderers’ mental instability and other internal dispositional factors. Another study showed that when problems within an organization arise (such as when Nick Leeson engaged in illegal trading and bankrupted Baring’s bank), those from East Asian cultures place more blame on organizations, whereas Westerners place greater blame on the individuals directly involved. These studies imply that when lay observers (e.g. members of a jury) are making judgments of how much a person is responsible for an event, there may be important cultural differences in opinion.


The “holistic” and “analytic” modes of thought have also been shown to affect preferred modes of reasoning, in particular preferences for logical and intuitive reasoning. In a series of studies that pitted formal logic against intuitive reasoning, Ara Norenzayan and colleagues found that Koreans were more “thrown off” by implausible conclusions of correct logical arguments than Americans. Koreans were more likely to say that logically valid arguments were invalid when the conclusion was implausible, and they were also more likely to find valid arguments to be more convincing if they involved typical examples of categories. These effects occurred even though when given purely abstract logic problems, there was no difference between the abilities of Korean and American students. So, though abstract logical reasoning was not a problem for the Koreans, when an intuitive response (based on experience and context) was at odds with a logical or rule-based response, they preferred the intuitive. Another series of studies by Kaiping Peng and Nisbett contrasted Chinese and American students in how they reacted to contradiction. In one experiment, Chinese were found to take a compromising opinion when two opposing arguments were read together, even though one argument was rated as more convincing than the other when they read them separately; Americans, in stark contrast, became even more extremely in favor of the more convincing argument when they read the arguments together. Chinese also sought compromise when solving social conflicts, while Americans came down heavily on one side or the other. Such results are further supported by studies showing that when choosing methods of conflict resolution, Chinese preferred using informal procedures such as mediation and bargaining in order to reduce animosity, but Americans were more likely to choose adversarial conflict resolution methods. A final study showed that arguments with either context- (holistic) or contradiction- (logical) based content were differentially convincing to Chinese and American students. These results have intriguing implications for potential cultural differences in the persuasiveness of legal arguments and other forms of logical argument.


The above provides a brief review of cultural psychology findings that are most relevant to the law. Additionally, current social psychology inquiries into law will need to take note of cultural differences in a more multicultural world. Cultural Psychology is a young field, and the connections between cultural psychology and law remain to be fully explored. However, the connections have begun to be made (see Justin Levinson & Peng’s article below), and potential applications and implications are important.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture's consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Leung, Kwok & E. A. Lind (1986). “Procedural Justice and Culture: Effects of Culture, Gender, and Investigator Status on Procedural Preferences.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 50: 1134-1140.
Levinson, Justin and K. Peng (in press). “Beyond Biases: A Cultural and Social Psychological Critique of Actual Cause and Foreseeability Standards.” Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal.
Markus, Hazel and S. Kitayama (1991). “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation.” Psychological Review 98: 224-253.
Murphy-Berman, Virginia, J.J. Berman, P. Singh, A. Pachauri, P. Kumar (1984). “Factors Affecting Allocation to Needy and Meritorious Recipients: A Cross-Cultural Comparison.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 46: 1267-1272.
Nisbett, Richard E. and D. Cohen (1996). Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South. Boulder, CO: Westview Press
Nisbett, Richard E. (2003). The Geography of Thought. New York: The Free Press.
Norenzayan, Ara, E.E. Smith, B.J. Kim, & R.E. Nisbett (2002). “Cultural Preferences for Formal versus Intuitive Reasoning.” Cognitive Science 26: 653-684.
Peng, Kaiping & R.E. Nisbett (1999). “Culture, Dialectics, and Reasoning about Contradiction.” American Psychologist 54(9): 741-754.
Shweder, Richard A., N.C. Much, M. Mahapatra, & L. Park (1997). “The “Big Three” of Morality (Autonomy, Community, and Divinity), and the “Big Three” Explanations of Suffering.” In Morality and Health, edited by A. Brandt & P. Rozin. New York: Routledge, 119-169.
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