Does Culture Determine Psychology?

One of the recent trends in psychology (especially since the 90s) has been to emphasize culture over any kind of universals. As a recent article put it:

The job, experimental psychologists often assumed, was to push past the content of people’s thoughts and see the underlying universal hardware at work. “This is a deeply flawed way of studying human nature,” Norenzayan told me, “because the content of our thoughts and their process are intertwined.” In other words, if human cognition is shaped by cultural ideas and behavior, it can’t be studied without taking into account what those ideas and behaviors are and how they are different from place to place.

The problem is none of the research in this field even comes close to proving that. That cultural differences can effect psychology has been well known for decades but it does not disprove that there are underlying mental structures that virtually every human shares.

To give a good example: the supposedly groundbreaking paper by Markus and Kitayama (PDF)  only showed that perceptions of the self differed, not that people’s literal selves were different across cultures. In this case that individualistic cultures viewed the self as autonomous while collectivistic cultures saw themselves as an extension of a group.

Of course, regardless of their perceptions, someone’s “self” (as defined by the paper) is by definition individual to the person. Barring a mental illness, people don’t experience themselves as multiple people at once, or as someone else. Likewise, if someone from a collectivistic culture were alienated from the group, they might become depressed but they wouldn’t stop existing mentally as a person.

This is like research on facial expressions, while there are some cultural differences in how people view others’ expressions, facial expressions are universal regardless of the culture.

There is even a vast literature on things like autonomy across cultures; studies of of collectivist cultures ranging from Russian and Chinese college students (PDF) all the way to rural Chinese children (PDF) show that, regardless of the culture, people perform better when they can direct their own activities.

Why The Cultural Bandwagon? 

In the tradition of psychology throwing out the baby with the bathwater (remember radical behaviorism was once a reaction against Freudian psychology), this seems to be an extreme reaction to decades of Western assumptions on how other people thought. While there were mistaken assumptions and skewed sample sizes for many psychological tests, it does not negate one of the most basic findings in psychology.

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