What is cross-cultural psychology?

Quick Answer
Traditional views of psychology often ignored the role of culture in characterizing human behavior and thought. However, researchers have begun to appreciate the role of culture in psychology. Culture and thought are often mutually interdependent.
Expert Answers
enotes eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cross-cultural psychology is a broad term for the scientific study of human behavior and mental or cognitive processes within different cultures. In general, this field addresses similarities and differences between cultures. According to the American social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Ara Norenzayan, the view that there are differences between cultures, at least in terms of cognitive processes, was not widely held in the twentieth century. Instead, most psychologists assumed that basic cognitive processes were universal—that the fundamental aspects of thinking and perceiving that involve attention, memory, learning, and reasoning operated in the same way among all cultures. Based on their research and that of other scholars, Nisbett and Norenzayan concluded that the basic processes of thinking and behavior are shaped by culture, although there are aspects of thinking and perceiving that may be innate (genetic or possessed at birth) and that limit or constrain the degree to which such shaping is possible.

How Thinking Constrains Culture

In the field of developmental psychology, there is much evidence to suggest that very young children have sets of basic building blocks that they use to understand human minds, important entities, and world events. These sets of building blocks are thought to be innate and domain specific (for example, one set helps children understand how other people think, and another set helps them understand the properties of objects). Evidently, they are common to all infants across cultures and limit the types of thinking about the world that can exist in any culture.

For example, the American developmental psychologist Elizabeth Spelke describes an experiment in which infants were shown a single toy animal placed on a stage. A curtain was lowered to hide or occlude the toy, and a second toy was shown to the infants and then placed behind the screen. Next, the screen was raised, revealing either both toys or only one of the toys. Infants looked longer at the single toy than the two toys. This finding shows that the infants were able to keep track of the two objects in their minds, even when the objects were hidden, and were surprised that one of the toys had disappeared. It also suggests that infants do not need to learn that objects do not spontaneously disappear. Related experiments by American developmental psychologist Renee Baillargeon show that without being taught, infants understand that objects cannot spontaneously appear, break apart, coalesce, or change size, shape, pattern, or color. This findings illustrate one of the basic building blocks of all cultures, the principle of persistence, which states that certain object changes are impossible.

Another type of thinking that may constrain cultures involves ideas about religion. American anthropologist and psychologist Pascal Boyer notes that religions share many similar beliefs across cultures—for example, the belief that something nonphysical, such as an invisible spirit, survives after a person’s death and can be contacted by a select few individuals. These ideas arise from basic beliefs shared among cultures about physics, biology, and the mind.

How Culture Shapes Thinking

Differences between cultures lead to different ways of thinking. Consider the differences between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. In an individualistic culture, people view themselves more as individuals and are taught to act independently, taking personal responsibility for their successes and failures. In a collectivistic culture, people view themselves more as members of groups and are taught to act interdependently, favoring the needs of the group over their own individual needs. The United States is an example of an individualistic culture, while most East Asian cultures are collectivistic.

These different cultural perspectives affect thinking in many ways. For example, one important finding in social psychology is the fundamental attribution error, which is the tendency to overestimate how much a person’s behavior is due to dispositional factors and to underestimate how much it is due to situational factors. Dispositional factors refer to a person’s internal characteristics, such as personality traits, abilities, and motives; situational factors refer to external causes. For example, students might explain that they did well on an exam because they are intelligent (a dispositional factor) or because the teacher gave an easy exam (a situational factor). Collectivistic cultures are less likely to make the fundamental attribution error than individualistic cultures. For example, cultural psychologists Michael Morris and Kaiping Peng examined newspaper reports of two mass murders and found that an American newspaper was more likely to describe the mass murders in terms of dispositional factors, such as a very bad temper, whereas a Chinese newspaper was more likely to focus on situational factors, such as isolation from the Chinese community due to having been recently fired.

Cultures arise in different geographical regions and environments, which can lead to important differences between cultures. One area of differences is the family structure. Most families across societies have parents who are monogamous (one man married to one woman). However, in some families, there is polygamy, which includes polyandry (one woman married to more than one man) and polygyny (one man married to more than one woman). According to American social psychologists Douglas Kenrick, Steven Neuberg, and Robert Cialdini, polygamy arises in cultures because of survival needs. For example, a polyandrous woman in Tibet may marry several men who are brothers because the harsh environment in the high Himalayan desert makes it difficult for a single man and woman to survive. The brothers in turn share the wife so that they can preserve the family estate from generation to generation. This family structure, which is called fraternal polyandry, appears to be driven by economic conditions originating from the environment.


Berry, John W., et al. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Research and Applications. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.

Goldstein, Susan. Cross-Cultural Explorations: Activities in Culture and Psychology. 2nd ed. Boston: Pearson, 2008. Print.

Heine, Steven J. Cultural Psychology. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.

Keith, Kenneth D., ed. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Contemporary Themes and Perspectives. Malden: Blackwell, 2011. Print.

Krumov, Krum, and Knud S. Larsen. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Why Culture Matters. Charlotte: Information Age, 2013. Print.

Laungani, Pittu D. Understanding Cross-Cultural Psychology: Eastern and Western Perspectives. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2007. Print.

Matsumoto, David, and Fons J. R. van de Vijver, eds. Cross-Cultural Research Methods in Psychology. New York: Cambridge UP, 2011. Print.

Nisbett, Richard E. The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why. New York: Free, 2003. Print.

Shiraev, Eric B., and David A. Levy. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Critical Thinking and Contemporary Applications. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2013. Print.

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question