When Igor de Almeida moved to Japan from Brazil nine years ago, the transition should have been relatively easy. Both Japan and Brazil are collectivist nations, where people tend to value the needs of the group above their own. And research shows that immigrants adapt more easily when the culture of home and that of the new country coincide.
But for de Almeida, a cultural psychologist now at Kyoto University, the countries’ cultural differences were striking. The Japanese prioritize formal relationships, such as with co-workers or members of the same “bukatsu”, or extracurricular club, for example, while the Brazilians prioritize friends in their informal social network. “Sometimes I try to find [cultural] similarities, but it is very difficult”, says de Almeida.
Now new research helps explain that disconnect. For decades, psychologists have studied how culture shapes the mind, or people’s thoughts and behaviors, comparing Eastern and Western nations. But two research groups working independently in Latin America are finding that a cultural framework that divides the world in two is too simplistic and obscures nuance in other parts of the world.
Due to differences in methodology and interpretation, the teams’ findings about how people living in the collectivist nations of Latin America think are also contradictory. And that raises a larger question: Will general cultural theories based on East-West divides hold up over time, or are new theories needed?
However this debate develops, cultural psychologists argue that the field must 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 about all sorts of things.”
These misconceptions can jeopardize political alliances, business relationships, public health initiatives, and general theories about how people find happiness and meaning. “Culture shapes what it means to be a person,” says Stanford University behavioral scientist Hazel Rose Markus. “What it means to be a person guides all our behavior, how we think, how we feel, what motivates us [and] how we respond to other individuals and groups.”
culture and mind
Until four decades ago, most psychologists believed that culture had little to do with the mind. That changed in 1980. Surveys of IBM employees conducted in some 70 countries showed that attitudes toward work depended largely on the workers’ country of origin, IBM organizational psychologist Geert Hofstede wrote in Consequences of culture.
Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, a cultural psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, further developed one of Hofstede’s four cultural principles: individualism versus collectivism. Culture influences thinkingclaimed the duo in a now widely cited article in the 1991 psychological review. Comparing people primarily in the East and West, they hypothesized that living in individualistic countries (i.e., Western ones) led people to think independently while living in collectivist countries (the East) led people to think interdependently.
That paper was groundbreaking at the time, says Vignoles. Before then, with psychological research based almost exclusively in the West, the Western mind had become the default mind. Now, “instead of being just one type of person in the world, there are [were] two kinds of people in the world.”
Latin America: a case study
How individualism/collectivism shapes the mind now underpins the field of cross-cultural psychology. But researchers continue to treat the East and the West, mainly Japan and the United States, as prototypes, Vignoles and his colleagues say.
To expand beyond that narrow lens, the team surveyed 7,279 participants in 33 countries and 55 cultures. Participants read statements such as “I prefer to ask other people for help rather than rely solely on myself” and “I consider my happiness separate from the happiness of my friends and family.” They then answered how well those comments reflected their values on a scale of 1 for “not at all” to 9 for “exactly.”
That analysis allowed the researchers to identify seven dimensions of independence/interdependence, including self-reliance versus dependence on others and an emphasis on self-expression versus harmony. Surprisingly, Latin Americans were as or more independent than Westerners in six of the seven dimensions, the team reported in 2016 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.
The researchers’ subsequent analysis of four studies with 17,255 participants in 53 countries largely reaffirmed that surprising finding. For example, Latin Americans are more expressive that even Westerners, Vignoles, de Almeida and their colleagues report in February in Perspectives in psychological science. But that finding violates the common view that people living in collectivist societies repress their emotions to foster harmony, while people in individualistic countries express emotions as a form of self-expression.
Latin American nations are collectivist, as defined by Hofstede and others, but people think and behave independently, the team concludes.
Kitayama’s team takes a different view: Latin Americans are interdependent, just in a completely different way than East Asians. Instead of repressing emotions, Latin Americans tend to express positive and socially attractive emotions to communicate with others, says cultural psychologist Cristina Salvador of Duke University. That encourages interdependence, unlike the way Westerners express emotions to show their personal feelings. Westerners’ feelings can be negative or positive and often have little to do with their social environment, a sign of independence.
Salvador, Kitayama, and their colleagues had more than 1,000 respondents in Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Japan, and the United States reflect on various social scenarios, rather than asking explicit questions like Vignoles’ team. For example, respondents were asked to imagine winning a prize. They then chose which emotions, such as shame, guilt, anger, friendship, or closeness to others, they would express with family and friends.
Respondents from Latin America and the United States expressed strong emotions, Salvador reported in February at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference in San Francisco. But people in the United States expressed self-centered emotions, such as pride, while people in Latin America expressed emotions that emphasize connection with others.
Because Latin America’s great ethnic and linguistic diversity made it difficult to communicate with words, people learned to communicate in other ways, says Kitayama. “Emotion became a very important means of social communication.”
Decentering the West
More research is needed to reconcile those findings. But how should that investigation proceed? Although a shift to a broader framework has begun, research in cultural psychology still relies on the East-West binary, say researchers from both teams.
Psychologists who peer-review studies for acceptance in scientific journals still “want a conventional, white, American comparison sample,” says Salvador. “[Often] you also need an Asian sample.”
The primacy of East and West means that psychological differences between those two regions dominate research and discussions. But both teams are expanding the scope of their research despite those challenges.
Kitayama’s team, for example, traces how interdependence, which they argue precedes the rise of independencemight have morphed as it spread around the world, in a theoretical paper also presented at the San Francisco conference (Serial number: 7/11/19). In addition to diversity giving way to “expressive interdependence” in Latin America, the team describes “modest interdependence in East Asia” stemming from the communal nature of rice cultivation“self-assertive interdependence” in the Arab regions arising from nomadic life and “argumentative interdependence” in South Asia arising from its central role in trade (NS: 7/14/14).
This research began with a “West and Rest” mentality, says Kitayama. His work with Markus created an “East-West and the rest” mentality. Now psychologists are finally dealing with “the rest,” she says. “The time is really ready to expand this [research] to cover the rest of the world.”
De Almeida imagines further decentralizing the West. He wonders what would have happened if the researchers had started by comparing Japan and Brazil instead of Japan and the United States. Instead of the current laser focus on individualism/collectivism, some other defining facet of culture would likely have risen to prominence. “I would say that emotional expression is the most important thing,” says de Almeida.
He sees a simple solution. “We could increase the number of studies that don’t involve the United States,” he says. “Then we could develop new paradigms.”