Issues in Psychology

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Research in psychology has for very many years been dominated by the United States. According to Rosenzweig (1992), 64% of the world’s 56,000 researchers in psychology are Americans. Their impact on textbooks in psychology is often even greater. For example, consider Baron and Byrne’s (1991) textbook on social psychology. In that book, 94% of the studies referred to were from North America, compared with 2% from Europe, 1% from Australasia, and 3% from the rest of the world. However, North American psychologists do not carry all before them. Haggbloom et al. (2002) used various kinds of evidence to identify the greatest psychologists of the twentieth century. Nearly 20% of them (including Freud, Piaget, Pavlov, and Vygotsky) were non-American.

Find out more: Cross-cultural psychology

Facts like those just mentioned are of relevance to cross-cultural psychology, in which different cultures are studied and compared. What is a culture? According to Smith and Bond (1998, p.39), a culture “is a relatively organised system of shared meanings”. For example, the word “work” has a rather different meaning in the Japanese culture than in others. In Japan, it typically includes going drinking after normal working hours, and sharing in other recreational activities with one’s work colleagues. Fiske (2002, p.85) provided a broader definition of culture as “a socially transmitted or socially constructed constellation consisting of such things as practices, competencies, ideas, schemas, symbols, values, norms, institutions, goals, . . . artefacts and modifications of the physical environment”.

Most cross-cultural psychology has involved comparisons between different nations or countries. This suffers from the problem that a country is generally not the same as a culture. For example, there are several cultures within a single country such as the United States. Vandello and Cohen (1999) found that the individualistic culture (self-centred approach) applied to most Americans in the Mountain West and the Great Plains, whereas a more collectivistic culture (group-centred approach) applied in the Deep South.

Cultural Differences

It is often assumed that what is true of our culture or country is also true of most other cultures or countries. Many psychologists who carry out studies in the United States or in the United Kingdom make that assumption. However, the assumption is wrong. For example, an attempt was made to repeat the findings of six American studies on an Israeli population similar to that used in the American studies (Amir & Sharon, 1987). There were 64 significant findings in the American studies, only 24 of which were repeated among the Israeli participants. The other 40 findings weren’t repeated. In addition, there were six new findings in the Israeli sample that hadn’t been obtained in the American studies.

What are the main differences between cultures? Westen (1996, p.679) expressed some of them in vivid terms:

By twentieth century Western standards, nearly every human who has ever lived outside the contemporary West is lazy, passive, and lacking in industriousness. In contrast, by the standards of most cultures in human history, most Westerners are self-centred and frenetic.

  • Ask yourself: Consider evidence for the view that Westerners shun laziness, passivity, and low productivity. Where do these attitudes come from?

Western culture in general also differs from many others in more fundamental ways, including the ways in which we think of ourselves. As Westen (1996, p.693) pointed out:

The prefix “self-”, as in “self-esteem” or “self-representation”, did not evolve in the English language until around the time of the Industrial Revolution . . . The contemporary Western view of the person is of a bounded individual, distinct from others, who is defined by more or less idiosyncratic attributes. In contrast, most cultures, particularly the nonliterate tribal societies . . . view the person in her social and familial context, so that the self-concept is far less distinctly bounded.

Evidence consistent with Westen’s position was reported by Hofstede (1980).

Key study: Hofstede (1980)

The concept of self and of individual importance is related to societies that are described as individualist. Such social groups are contrasted with more collectivist cultures where the emphasis is on sharing tasks, belongings, and income. The people in such cultures may live in large family groups and value interdependence. The emphasis is on “we-ness” rather than “I”, as illustrated in the text by Nobles (1976). Examples of such cultures include Israeli kibbutzim, many African cultures, and communes.

Key study: Nobles (1976) The extended self: Rethinking the so-called Negro self-concept

Effects of individualism versus collectivism

Throughout this book we have provided examples of how individualist and collectivist culture is related to differences in behaviour. Attributions that are made by people from a collectivist culture tend to be contextualised, whereas attributions made by people in individualist cultures tend to be more focused on personal choice. It is also the case that the self-serving bias (accepting credit for success but not blame for failure) is stronger in individualist cultures than in collectivist ones, and that the fundamental attribution error (tendency to attribute others’ behaviour to their personality rather than to the situation) is less common in collectivist cultures than in individualist cultures.

Psychological theories of relationship formation and maintenance are also related to individualist versus collectivist cultures (see A2 Level Psychology Chapter 4, Relationships). Altruistic and pro-social behaviour is generally greater in collectivist cultures. Humanistic theories of motivation include the need for achievement as a motivating factor, but this may relate to individualist cultures only. Gender equality has been found to be more common in individualist cultures, whereas collectivist cultures require more separation of roles, which is often along gender lines.

Theories of adolescence and old age relate to cultural differences.

The distinction between individualistic and collectivistic cultures is important, but is limited in some ways. First, it is simply not the case that everyone in an individualistic culture adopts an individualistic approach or that everyone in a collectivistic culture adopts a collectivistic approach. Triandis et al. (2001) estimated that only about 60% of people conform to the dominant culture. Second, Hofstede (1980) assumed that collectivism was the opposite of individualism, but the evidence indicates they are not that different from each other (Gelfand et al., 1996)—it is possible to accept personal responsibility (an individualistic quality) while at the same time obtaining much enjoyment from group activities (a collectivistic quality). Third, just consider the diversity of the various cultures with which you are familiar—it is a great oversimplification to categorise them all as individualistic or collectivistic.

Emic and Etic Constructs

Berry (1969) drew a distinction between emic constructs and etic constructs. Emic constructs are specific to a given culture, and so vary from one culture to another. In contrast, etic constructs refer to universal factors that hold across all cultures. One useful way to remember this is in terms of the distinction between “phonemics” and “phonetics”. Both involve the study of the sounds of words (phonemes) but phonemics is the study of sounds as they contribute to meaning in a particular language, whereas phonetics is the study of universal sounds independent of meaning. The notion of the “family” is an example of an etic construct whereas the “nuclear family” (just parents and children) is an emic construct. According to Berry, what has happened fairly often in the history of psychology is that what are actually emic constructs are assumed to be etic constructs.

  • Ask yourself: Try to generate other examples of emic and etic constructs.

The study of intelligence can be used to illustrate this point. It has often been argued that the same abilities of problem solving, reasoning, memory, and so on define intelligence in every culture. Berry (1974) disagreed strongly with that view. He favoured a viewpoint known as cultural relativism. According to this viewpoint, the meaning of intelligence is rather different in each culture. For example, as Sternberg (1985, p.53) pointed out:

coordination skills that may be essential to life in a preliterate society (e.g., those motor skills required for shooting a bow and arrow) may be all but irrelevant to intelligent behaviour for most people in a literate and more “developed” society.

Cole et al. (1971) provided further evidence of the emic nature of the concept of intelligence. They asked adult members of the Kpelle tribe in Africa to sort familiar objects into groups. In most Western societies, people would sort the objects into categories (e.g., foods, tools). What the Kpelle tribespeople did was to sort them into functional groups (e.g., a knife with an orange, because an orange can be cut by a knife). Thus, what is regarded as intelligent behaviour can differ from one culture to another. By the way, the Kpelle tribespeople showed that they could sort the objects into categories when asked to do so—they did not naurally do this, because they thought it was a stupid way of sorting.

Imposed etic

An imposed etic is a technique or theory that is rooted in a researcher’s own culture, such as an intelligence test, and then used to study other cultures. Psychologists have studied obedience, moral development, and attachment in various cultures using measures designed within our own culture. This includes measures such as Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas (see A2 Level Psychology page 349) and the Strange Situation that was included in your AS level studies. The methods used to diagnose and treat mental disorders are also imposed etics.

The general insensitivity to cultural differences reveals itself in the personality area. Most studies of personality in non-Western cultures have assessed personality by means of translated versions of Western tests rather than by devising new, culture-relevant tests (i.e., they use an imposed etic). Evidence that personality structure may vary from one culture to another was reported by Kuoshu and Bond (1990). They asked students in Taiwan to describe several people they knew using two sets of adjectives: (1) those found from studies in Western cultures to assess the Big Five personality factors (extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, culture, and conscientiousness); and (2) adjectives taken from Chinese newspapers. Kuo-shu Yang and Bond found that five different factors emerged from an analysis of the adjectives taken from the Chinese newspapers: social orientation, expressiveness, competence, self-control, and optimism. There is some agreement between the two sets of factors. For example, the Big Five factor of agreeableness correlated +0.66 with social orientation, and emotional stability correlated +0.55 with competence. However, the overall similarity between the two sets of personality factors was fairly low, suggesting that personality structure in Taiwanese culture differs from that in Western cultures. Thus it is inappropriate to use a Western personality test to assess personality in another culture.

  • Ask yourself: What social psychological explanations can you give for the results of Kuo-shu Yang and Bond’s study?

The entire notion of semi-permanent personality traits determining behaviour is less applicable in collectivistic cultures in which it is assumed that individuals will change to fit in with group expectations. For example, Norenzayan et al. (1999) found that people from Western cultures regard personality traits as stable, whereas East Asians regard them as much more flexible and changeable.

Derived etics

Berry (1969) proposed that an alternative method of study might be used, one that is similar to the techniques used by anthropologists. He called this a derived etic, where a series of emic studies take place in a local setting conducted by local researchers using local techniques. Such studies can build up a picture of human behaviour in a manner similar to the ethnographic approach taken by anthropologists. This is the study of different cultures through the use of comparisons. By making comparisons between cultures we can learn more about a target culture, rather like the way that comparative psychology can enlighten us about human behaviour.

We can see the above approach in action in the area of diagnosing mental disorders. DSM-IV (APA, 1994), which is American based, focuses mainly on mental disorders that are common in the Western world, although there is a short appendix in DSM on culture-bound syndromes found in other parts of the world. Kleinman and Cohen (1997, p.76) dismissed this appendix as “little more than a sop thrown to cultural psychiatrists and psychiatric anthropologists”. They pointed out that detailed work in several non-Western cultures had uncovered many disorders totally ignored by DSM-IV. Here are a few examples:

  • pa-fend (fear of wind) found in China

  • amafufunyana (violent behaviour caused by spirit possession) found in South Africa

  • brain fag (problems in concentrating and thinking produced by excessive study—one to avoid!) found in West Africa.

  • Ask yourself: How might cultural differences in mental disorders affect immigrants?

Biases in cross-cultural research

One final consideration, in relation to cross-cultural research, is the bias involved when an observer conducts research in a foreign culture. A classic example of such research is the studies conducted by Margaret Mead (1935) where she observed three tribes in New Guinea (see pages 152–153 and 260–261 of A2 Level Psychology). Mead concluded that the Mundugumor tribe were all aggressive (masculine quality) regardless of sex. Neither gender gave much attention to child rearing. In contrast the Arapesh were all warm, emotional, and non-aggressive (feminine qualities). Husbands and wives shared everything, including pregnancy: the men took to bed during childbirth! The Tchambuli exhibited a reversal of our own gender roles. Women reared the children but also looked after commerce outside the tribe. The men spent their time in social activities, and were more emotional and artistic.

But how reliable are observations made of individuals in different cultural situations? The greatest problem is the effect that expectations have on what the observer sees. The study of perception tells us this. Perception is a “top-down process”: much of what we see (or hear) is incomplete and ambiguous. Therefore, we impose our own meaning to interpret these data. We draw on past experience and expectations. Expectations also influence the categories that are selected and the way that data are recorded.

A further problem for cross-cultural research is that foreign researchers may simply misinterpret the language or cultural practices and draw erroneous inferences. It is also true that they are likely to sample a very small group of individuals within the culture they are studying and this sample may be unrepresentative. Participants aware they are being observed may not behave naturally. For example, concerning another study undertaken by Mead of puberty in Samoa (1928), Freeman (1983) criticised Mead’s conclusions, arguing that she may not have established sufficient trust with the Samoan people to expect total honesty from them. One woman in Samoa told Freeman that she had not been honest with Mead about her sexual experiences. Freeman also claimed that Mead was not sufficiently closely involved with the Samoan people and that she saw only what she wanted to see.

Racial Bias

Racial bias is a particularly unpleasant form of cultural bias. Some of the ways in which it manifests itself were discussed by Howitt and Owusu-Bempah (1990). They considered every issue of the British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology between 1962 and 1980. They were dismayed at the way in which Western personality tests such as the 16PF were used inappropriately in non-Western cultures. As they pointed out (p.399), “There were no studies which attempted to explore, for example, the Ghanaian or Chinese personality structures in their own terms rather than through Western eyes.” However, as we saw earlier, there have some recent attempts to consider seriously the possibility that personality structure varies from one culture to another.

  • Ask yourself: What do you think is meant by the phrase “in their own terms” when applied to personality structures in different cultures?

Owusu-Bempah and Howitt (1994) claimed to have found evidence of racism in the well-known textbook by Atkinson, Atkinson, Smith, and Bem (1993). They pointed out that Atkinson et al. tended to categorise Western cultures together, and to do the same for non-Western ones. This included referring to work on African tribes without bothering to specify which tribe or tribes had been studied. Owusu-Bempah and Howitt (p.165) argued as follows: “The cumulative effect of this is the ‘naturalness’ of white people and their ways of life, and the resultant exclusion . . . of black people and their cultures.”

The central point made by Owusu-Bempah and Howitt (1994) was that Atkinson et al. (1993) evaluated other cultures in relation to the technological and cultural achievements of the United States and Europe. In their own words (p.163):

Cultures that fall short of this arbitrary Euro-centric standard are frequently described as “primitive”, “undeveloped” or, at best, “developing”. Religion, morality, community spirit, etc., are ignored in this racist ideological league table.

In sum, many Western psychologists have written in insensitive ways about cross-cultural differences. Sometimes the mistaken impression may have been given that some cultures are “better” than others rather than simply different. There are certainly grounds for concern, but thankfully any explicit or implicit racism is very much in decline.

Some recent research has focused on trying to reduce racial bias in people taking part in experiments. Plant et al. (2005) used a computerised situation in which white participants pretended they were police officers and decided as rapidly as possible whether to shoot at black and white suspects. There was a greater tendency to shoot at black suspects. However, extensive practice in which race was unrelated to the presence or absence of a gun eliminated that racial bias suggesting that at least some of racial bias can be altered fairly easily.

The Changing Picture

We have seen that there is substantial evidence of cultural bias running through several areas of psychology, and that is obviously a matter of regret. However, it is important to note that the picture is changing fairly rapidly for the better. At least four ways in which psychologists have attempted to reduce or eliminate cultural bias emerge from our earlier discussion. First, far more psychologists are engaged in cross-cultural research based on an acknowledgement that what is the case in one culture may well not be the case in another culture. The distinction between individualistic and collectivistic cultures is oversimplified, but at least it recognises that cultures differ in major ways from each other.

Second, there has been progress within the fields of intelligence and personality. It used to be assumed that intelligence and personality tests devised by Western psychologists could appropriately be used in all other cultures. Very few psychologists believe that any more, and there have been numerous attempts to develop measures that assess more accurately and sensitively the structure of intelligence and personality in each culture studied.

Third, there is progress in the field of diagnosing mental disorders. Early versions of the American DSM system virtually ignored mental disorders that are found mainly or exclusively in non-American cultures. DSM-IV in 1994 acknowledged the inadequacy of that approach, and it seems probable that future version of DSM will move further in the direction of focusing on culture-bound syndromes. (See the psychopathology chapters in A2 Level Psychology for more on DSM-IV.)

Fourth, the history of psychology contains numerous examples of racial bias, in which some races were regarded as superior to others. This racial bias is now (quite rightly) regarded as totally unacceptable. It has been a gradual process, but nowadays virtually all psychologists accept that races or cultures undoubtedly differ in various ways but that these differences do not in the slightest imply that some are better than others.

What is cultural bias?

  • Culture can be defined as a relatively organised system of shared meanings.

  • There is some tendency to confuse the idea of a cultural group with people living in one country.

  • Many psychologists in the Western world have ignored important cross-cultural differences.

  • A major distinction is made between individualist and collectivist cultures, particularly in terms of the self-concept:

    • This distinction is important in understanding behaviour, as shown, for example, in studies of attribution and of motivation.

    • However, the distinction is limited, because it doesn’t apply to everyone within a given culture.
Emic and etic constructs

  • It is important to distinguish between:

    • Emic constructs: specific to a given culture

    • Etic constructs: universal.

  • Intelligence is regarded as an etic construct but there is evidence of it being emic.

  • Imposed etics:

    • Psychologists use tools developed in their own culture to measure behaviour in other cultures.

    • Imposed etics include the Strange Situation and Cattell’s personality test.

    • There is low validity for such studies.

  • Derived etics:

    • Attempts to offer a solution by taking the findings from a variety of emic studies and making comparisons between cultures

    • Recent developments within the diagnosis of mental disorders are based on derived etics.

  • Cross-cultural research is hampered by observer bias, and the use of small samples that are often unrepresentative.
Racial bias

  • Racial bias is a particular example of cultural bias in psychology:

    • It often involves grouping together quite distinct cultures as in the case of “African tribes”.

    • It also leads to evaluations of other cultures in relation to the technological and cultural achievements of the United States and Europe, and the conclusion that other cultures are primitive or undeveloped.

    • Implicit racism is often insensitive and perpetuates erroneous stereotypes.

  • The good news is that psychological research is increasingly sensitive to potential issues of racial bias, and so this form of bias is in steep decline.
Reducing cultural bias

  • Psychologists are now attempting to reduce cultural bias by:

    • Acknowledging cross-cultural differences

    • Developing more accurate measures for assessing personality and intelligence

    • Expanding the field of diagnosing mental disorders

    • Refusing to accept racial bias.

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