When Igor de Almeida moved to Japan from Brazil nine years ago, the transition had to be relatively easy. Both Japan and Brazil are collectivist nations, where people tend to value the group’s needs above their own. And research shows that immigrants adapt more easily when the cultures of home and the new country coincide.
But for de Almeida, a cultural psychologist now at Kyoto University, the cultural differences between the countries were striking. The Japanese give priority to formal relationships, such as with colleagues or members of the same bukatsu or extracurricular club, while Brazilians give priority to their friends on their informal social network. “Sometimes I try to find [cultural] similarities, but it’s really difficult, “said de Almeida.
New research is now helping to explain this disconnect. For decades, psychologists have studied how culture shapes people’s minds or thoughts and behavior, comparing Eastern and Western nations. But two research groups working independently in Latin America have found that the cultural framework that divides the world in two is too simplistic, obscuring the nuances elsewhere in the world.
Due to differences in methodology and interpretation, the teams’ findings on how people living in collectivist nations in Latin America think are also contradictory. And this raises a bigger question: will comprehensive cultural theories based on East-West divisions hold up, or are new theories needed?
However, this debate is unfolding, cultural psychologists say the field needs to be expanded. “If you make most of the world’s cultures invisible,” says Vivian Vignoles, a cultural psychologist at the University of Sussex in England, “you’ll be wrong.”
Such misconceptions can threaten political alliances, business relationships, public health initiatives, and general theories about how people find happiness and meaning. “Culture shapes what it means to be human,” said Hazel Rose Marcus, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University. “What it means to be human, guides all our behavior, how we think, how we feel, what motivates us [and] how we react to other individuals and groups. “
Culture and mind
Until four decades ago, most psychologists believed that culture had little effect on the mind. That changed in 1980. Studies of IBM employees in about 70 countries show that attitudes toward work largely depend on the homeland of the workers, writes IBM organizational psychologist Gert Hofstede in The implications for culture.
Marcus and Shinobu Kitayama, a cultural psychologist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, later clarified Hofstede’s four cultural principles: Individualism versus collectivism. Culture influences thinkingclaims the duo in an already widely cited document in 1991 Psychological examination. Comparing people mostly from East and West, they suggested that living in individualistic countries (ie Western ones) makes people think independently, while living in collectivist countries (East) makes people think independently.
This document was a pioneer at the time, Vignoles said. Previously, with psychological research based almost exclusively on the West, the Western mind became the default mind. Now, “instead of being just one kind of person in the world, there [were] two kinds of people in the world. ”
Latin America: a case study
How individualism / collectivism shapes the mind is now at the heart of the field of intercultural psychology. But researchers continue to treat East and West, mainly Japan and the United States, as prototypes, Vinol and colleagues say.
To expand beyond this narrow lens, the team surveyed 7,279 participants in 33 nations and 55 cultures. Participants read statements such as “I prefer to turn to other people for help instead of relying only on myself” and “I think my happiness is separate from the happiness of my friends and family.” They then answered how well these comments reflected their values on a scale from 1 for “not at all” to 9 for “exactly”.
This analysis allowed researchers to identify seven dimensions of independence / interdependence, including self-reliance versus dependence on others and an emphasis on self-expression versus harmony. Strikingly, Latinos were as independent as Westerners in six of the seven dimensions, the team said in 2016. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
The following analysis by researchers from four studies involving 17,255 participants from 53 nations largely confirmed this surprising finding. For example, Latinos are more expressive than even Westerners, Vignoles, de Almeida and colleagues reported in February 2009 Perspectives in psychological science. But this finding violates the common belief that people living in collectivist societies suppress their emotions to promote harmony, while people in individualistic countries experience emotions as a form of self-expression.
Latin American nations are collectivists, as defined by Hofstede and others, but people think and behave independently, the team concluded.
The Chinese team has a different opinion: Latinos are interdependent, just in a very different way than East Asians. Instead of suppressing emotions, Latinos tend to express positive, socially engaging emotions in order to communicate with others, says cultural psychologist Christina Salvador of Duke University. This encourages interdependence, unlike the way Westerners express emotions to express their personal feelings. Westerners’ feelings can be negative or positive and often have nothing to do with their social environment – a sign of independence.
El Salvador, China and their colleagues made more than 1,000 respondents in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Japan and the United States think about different social scenarios instead of asking explicit questions like the Vinoles team. For example, respondents were asked to imagine winning a prize. They then chose what emotions – such as shame, guilt, anger, friendship or closeness to others – they would express to family and friends.
Respondents from Latin America and the United States expressed strong emotions, El Salvador said in February at a conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in San Francisco. But people in the United States express egocentric emotions, such as pride, while people in Latin America express emotions that emphasize connection with others.
As Latin America’s great ethnic and linguistic diversity makes it difficult to communicate with words, people have learned how to communicate in other ways, China said. “Emotion has become a very important means of social communication.”
Decentralization of the West
More research is needed to reconcile these findings. But how should this research continue? Although the transition to a broader framework has begun, research in cultural psychology still depends on binary east-west, say researchers from both teams.
Psychologists who conduct peer-reviewed research papers in scientific journals still “want a basic, white sample for comparison in the United States,” Salvador said. “[Often] you also need an asian sample.
The primacy of East and West means that psychological differences between the two regions dominate research and discussion. But both teams are expanding their research despite these challenges.
The Chinese team, for example, outlines how the interdependence it claims predates independence may have changed as it spread around the world, in a theoretical paper also presented at the San Francisco conference (SN: 7.11.19). In addition to the diversity that gives way to “expressive interdependence” in Latin America, the team describes “self-suppressing interdependence in East Asia” stemming from the community nature of rice cultivation, “self-asserting interdependence” in Arab regions stemming from nomadic life and interdependence ”in South Asia, stemming from its central role in trade (SN: 7/14/14).
The study began with the “West and Others” mentality, China said. His work with Marcus creates an “East-West and others” mentality. Now psychologists are finally struggling with the rest, he says. “It simply came to our notice then [research] to cover the rest of the world. “
De Almeida envisions even more decentralization in the West. What if researchers had started by comparing Japan and Brazil instead of Japan and the United States, he wonders. Instead of the current laser focus on individualism / collectivism, another defining aspect of culture is likely to rise to prominence. “I would say emotional expression, that’s the most important thing,” de Almeida said.
He sees a clear solution. “We can increase the number of studies that do not include the United States,” he said. “Then we could develop new paradigms.”