What Is Cross-Cultural Psychology? 11 Research Findings & Theories

Cross culturalAs psychologists, counselors, and therapists, we must never lose sight of the fact that humans are members of a cultural species.

Therefore, we must consider the effect of cultural learning on how we live, our drives, and our goals (Heine, 2010).

As Steven Heine (2010) writes, “on no occasions do we cast aside our cultural dressings to reveal the naked universal human mind.”

Culture should be taken into account when working with clients. According to cross-cultural psychology, it has broad impacts, including on our motivation, self-esteem, social behavior, and communication (Triandis, 2002).

This article explores the background of cross-cultural psychology’s search for possible behavioral and psychological universals.

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What Is Cross-Cultural Psychology?

Cross-cultural psychology is not only fascinating, but insightful, shedding vital light on how and why we behave as we do. This offshoot of psychology involves the scientific study of variations in human behavior under the influence of a “shared way of life of a group of people,” known as cultural context (Berry, 2013).

The American Psychological Association describes cross-cultural psychology as being interested in the “similarities and variances in human behavior across different cultures” to identify “the different psychological constructs and explanatory models used by these cultures” (APA Dictionary of Psychology, 2020).

Cross-cultural psychology became a sub-discipline of general psychology in the 1960s to prevent psychology from “becoming an entirely Western project” and “sought to test the universality of psychological laws via cultural comparative studies” (Ellis & Stam, 2015).

This cross-cultural approach to psychology involved recognizing culture as an external variable and exploring its impact on individual behavior. Over the decades that followed, the focus remained on identifying and testing the generalizability of using mainstream psychology approaches (Ellis & Stam, 2015).

It differs from cultural psychology, which aims to organize psychological processes by culture, because rather than looking for differences, cross-cultural psychology is ultimately searching for psychological universals. It seeks psychological patterns that we all share (Ellis & Stam, 2015; Berry, 2013).

Cross-cultural psychology borrows ideas, theories, and approaches from anthropology; it also recognizes the importance of analyzing international differences identified through social-psychological mechanisms.

And it’s important. We often assume that, psychologically speaking, all cultures are the same. Yet this is simply not the case (Berry, 2013).

When anthropologist turned psychologist Joseph Henrich began his research into cultural diversity, he became aware that Western populations were often unusual compared to others.

He also warns us of the risks of psychological bias toward WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) populations. We could be ignoring the psychological differences between peoples and wrongly assuming psychological patterns hold cross-culturally (Henrich, 2020).

As Henrich (2020) says, we should celebrate human diversity (psychological or otherwise), while noting that none of the psychological differences identified between cultures suggest one is better than the other or is immutable. Instead, human “psychology has changed over history and will continue to evolve” (Henrich, 2020).

 

7 Theories and Goals of the Field

Japanese cultureAn early textbook on cross-cultural psychology, authored by John Berry, professor of psychology at Queen’s University, Canada, set out three goals that cross-cultural psychologists should address (Berry, Poortinga, Marshall, & Dasen, 1992; Ellis & Stam, 2015):

  • First and most importantly, test the field’s generality by looking at how different cultures respond to standard psychological tests.

  • Next, remain open and observant of other cultures’ psychology, such as recognizing novel aspects of how they behave.

  • Finally, integrate the knowledge (from the first two points) to create nearly universal psychology valid for a greater number of cultures.

Several psychological theories, models, and approaches have emerged from the ongoing research into cross-cultural psychology. They are often not distinct, but complementary, and include:

  • Ecocultural model
    More recently, having reconfirmed the above goals, Berry proposed the ecocultural model.

It treats culture as a series of variables, existing at both individual and population levels, that interact to influence diversity in individual behavior (Berry, 2004, 2013; Ellis & Stam, 2015).

  • Cultural syndromes
    Harry Triandis (2002) from the University of Illinois suggests that ecologies shape cultures, and cultures “influence the development of personalities.”

Cultural differences are identified, measured, and described as cultural syndromes (defined by their complexity, tightness, individualism, and collectivism) that can be used to group and organize cultures.

  • Individualism and collectivism
    Over the years since Triandis’s initial work, individualism and collectivism have dominated research in the field, particularly regarding the differences identified through psychometric testing (Ellis & Stam, 2015).

Individualistic cultures recognize the individual’s needs (over the group’s), including individual goals and rights. By contrast, collectivist cultures are motivated by group goals, where individuals sacrifice their own needs for the group (Triandis, 2002).

  • Natural science approach
    “Cross-cultural psychology relies on genetics” and neuroscience to provide a more complete picture of biological building materials that influence the behaviors and psychological features associated with different cultures (Shiraev & Levy, 2020).

Evolutionary theory provides further information regarding the evolutionary factors that influence human experience and behavior, laying the foundation for human culture (Shiraev & Levy, 2020).

One of the overarching aims of cross-cultural research is to use statistical analysis to understand what each type of culture means to the individual in terms of their psychological similarities and differences (Ellis & Stam, 2015).

 

4 Examples of Real-Life Applications

Cross-cultural psychology has been applied to (and affected) multiple, diverse areas of human care over the last few decades.

 

Narrative approach in psychotherapy

“Culture can be thought of as a community of individuals who see the world in a particular manner” (Howard, 1991). As a result, storytelling can be a powerful therapy approach, with narratives capturing the essence of human thought and cultural context. Narrative helps the psychotherapist not only relate to clients, but also understand the development of their identity.

 

Multicultural counseling and therapy

Cross-cultural psychology is valuable in informing mental healthcare. Indeed, “systems of care must adapt to cultural complexity so that services are acceptable and effective” (Gielen, Draguns, & Fish, 2008).

It is essential to begin with an awareness of biases and privilege, then form a deep understanding of the cultural influences on wellbeing and distress to improve service delivery (Gielen et al., 2008).

 

Learning and teaching

Combining insights from multiple disciplines, including cross-cultural psychology, has informed educational psychology and led to numerous teaching reforms. A broader cultural view encourages educators and researchers to revisit the biases of educational systems at various levels (Watkins, 2000).

 

Speech therapy

The development of speech is inevitably influenced by cultural factors. Knowledge gained from cross-cultural psychology provides greater insight into the needs and difficulties faced by children and improves the awareness of potential bias from clinicians and assessors (Carter et al., 2005).

 

Popular Topics: 4 Interesting Research Findings

EntrepreneurCross-cultural psychology research has led to some fascinating findings in diverse areas, including the following.

 

Entrepreneurial career intentions

It is broadly accepted that entrepreneurship is crucial to a country’s economic success.

To better understand “the antecedents of entrepreneurial intention,” psychology has used cross-cultural research methods to confirm the importance of cultural context (including cultural identity and cultural variation) on career decisions (Moriano, Gorgievski, Laguna, Stephan, & Zarafshani, 2011).

Moriano et al. (2011) found that sociocultural attitudes were the strongest predictors of individuals wanting to become entrepreneurs. Indeed, an entrepreneur in one culture may be seen as more legitimate than in another, impacting uptake (Moriano et al., 2011).

 

Differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures

There are some very recognizable differences between individualistic and collectivist cultures (Church, 2000).

In collectivist cultures:

  • People tend to focus on context rather than their internal processes when predicting others’ behavior.
  • Individual behaviors are less consistent across different situations.
  • Behavior is more easily predicted from “norms and roles than from attitudes.”

 

Creativity

Cross-cultural psychology has been applied to the field of creativity with some interesting results.

According to Glăveanu (2010), “culture and the individual are both open systems” and the two are mutually dependent and involved in the creative process.

Glăveanu (2010) suggests that the community serves as a social context for producing the artistic outcome and contributes to evaluating creativity.

 

Religion

Cohen, Wu, and Miller (2016) suggest “that a greater attention to both Western and Eastern religions in cross-cultural psychology can be illuminating regarding religion and culture” and insightful regarding how national cultures interact.

Collectivist cultures encourage people to develop interdependent selves, connected in meaningful ways to those around them. By contrast, in individualistic cultures, people think of themselves “as relatively distinct from close others” (Cohen et al., 2016).

Furthermore, some religions are collectivistic, focusing on tradition and community-based religious practice, while others are individualistic, expressing personal faith and one’s relationship with God.

 

Differences Between Psychology and Cultural Psychology

“Cross-cultural psychology arose as a division of mainstream psychology that deliberately extended the mainstream research framework to test the universality of psychological principles” (Ellis & Stam, 2015).

However, there are several differences between cross-cultural psychology and other branches of psychology. Indeed, much of general psychology focuses on the impact of other people on behavior (such as family, relationships, and friends), yet it ignore culture’s influence. On the other hand, cross-cultural psychology looks at human behavior within the culture, using it as the context for study (Shiraev & Levy, 2020).

It is also important to note that while cross-cultural and cultural psychology are both extensions of general psychology, despite the similar names, they have different focuses (Ellis & Stam, 2015).

Cross-cultural psychology has, since the 1970s, formed part of the established, mainstream, and empirical psychology dedicated to individualistic explanations of psychological phenomena. Culture becomes a way of testing the universality of psychological processes (Ellis & Stam, 2015).

Cultural psychology is interested in determining how local cultures (including their social practices) influence and shape how our psychological processes develop (Ellis & Stam, 2015).

 

A Look at 8 Programs, Degrees, and Training Options

Cross-cultural psychology degreeCompleting cross-cultural psychology training substantially increases awareness of cultural differences, improves positive emotions about other cultures, and boosts self-efficacy and self-confidence (Wei, Spencer-Rodgers, Anderson, & Peng, 2020).

Several organizations offer training influenced by cross-cultural psychology theory and research findings, including:

  • Cross-cultural training
    Global Integration provides tailored training opportunities that include understanding the impact of cultural styles, recognizing the benefits of cultural diversity, and seeing the value in more inclusive virtual meetings.

  • Country-specific cross-culture training
    Living Institute offers training to help collaborate across cultures and seek value in diversity.

  • Building cross-cultural skills for global working
    Culturewise specializes in cross-cultural and cultural awareness training including, leadership, management, and communication skills.

While few graduate programs focus entirely on cross-cultural psychology, the following master’s degrees offer valuable insights into areas related to the field.

  • Social and cultural psychology
    The London School of Economics and Political Science, UK, offers a master’s degree that explores how culture and society shape how we think, behave, and relate to one another.

  • Culture, adaptive leadership, & transcultural competence
    The University of Amsterdam, Netherlands, has a master’s program that includes cross-cultural psychology. Specifically, it covers how culture shapes psychological functioning and how to design programs and culturally sensitive interventions.

  • Mental health: Cultural psychology and psychiatry
    Queen Mary University, London, UK, offers a master’s degree that explores sociocultural factors in mental health and mental illness.

  • Diversity and inclusion leadership
    Tufts University, Medford, USA, offers a master’s degree in becoming a strong, informed, and skilled leader versed in diversity and inclusion.

  • Criminal justice – Diversity, inclusion and belonging
    Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, USA, offers a master’s degree in criminal justice with a concentration in diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

 

4 Books to Learn More

The following four books are some of our favorites on the subject of cross-cultural psychology. Combined, they provide a broad and deep insight into the research, theories, and application.

 

1. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Research and Applications – John Berry, Ype Poortinga, Seger Breugelmans, Athanasios Chasiotis, and David Sam

Cross-Cultural Psychology

This new edition of one of the leading textbooks on cross-cultural psychology targets students new to the field and more experienced practitioners wishing to update their skills.

Written by a team of distinguished international authors, the book’s 18 chapters present an exhaustive discussion of cross-cultural psychology approaches and their application.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

2. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Critical Thinking and Contemporary Applications – Eric Shiraev and David Levy

This new seventh edition of this popular text on cross-cultural psychology is conversational in style and uses a critical thinking framework to develop analytical skills.

The book contains a wealth of recent references to keep you updated about the field. Along with covering the theory, it explores how to apply the learnings in various multicultural contexts including teaching, healthcare, social work, and counseling.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

3. Cross-Cultural Psychology: Contemporary Themes and Perspectives – Kenneth Keith

Contemporary Themes

Kenneth Keith does an excellent job at placing key areas of psychology within a cultural perspective. An introductory section is followed by the research and theories of cross-cultural psychology, and then the book moves into clinical and social principles and applications.

This second edition is rich in research and examples and will provide the reader with a comprehensive overview of the discipline and its integration with the rest of psychology.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

4. The Cross-Cultural Coaching Kaleidoscope – Jennifer Plaister-Ten

Coaching Kaleidoscope

In Jennifer Plaister-Ten’s excellent book, we learn about the impact of cross-cultural psychology research findings on coaching and how to work and practice in a global market.

This is an incredibly valuable text for coaches working in a multicultural environment and raising awareness of cultural influences for their clients’ benefit.

Find the book on Amazon.

 

PositivePsychology.com’s Related Resources

Our cultural context influences who we are, including our personality, strengths, values, and behavior.

We have several resources to get to know yourself better.

  • Exploring Character Strengths
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  • Looking at Difficult People From a Strength Perspective
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  • Core Quadrants
    We have many core qualities that we recognize we possess or for which others praise us. Understanding them can help our interactions with other people.

  • Extracting Needs From Emotions
    Emotions provide feedback on whether we are meeting our personal needs. This assessment allows clients to link positive and negative emotions to the satisfaction of personal needs.

  • Strength Regulation
    Strengths can be under- or overused. In this exercise, we explore each strength and consider the impact of its use.

  • 17 Positive Psychology Exercises
    If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enhance their wellbeing, this signature collection contains 17 validated positive psychology tools for practitioners. Use them to help others flourish and thrive.

 

A Take-Home Message

Psychological phenomena vary significantly across cultural contexts and have different degrees of universality. And yet, a great deal of psychological research has been performed in Western countries – a high percentage in the United States – impacting and biasing our understanding of human psychology (Heine, 2010).

Cross-cultural psychology is particularly valuable, as it helps address this narrow view by looking for what psychological phenomena are universal. It “examines psychological diversity and the underlying reasons for such diversity” (Shiraev & Levy, 2020).

Findings from research studies provide insight into cultural norms and behavior, including how social and cultural forces impact our activities (Shiraev & Levy, 2020).

Cross-cultural psychology aims to do more than merely identify differences between cultural groups; it seeks to uncover what is common or shared.

Explore some of the mental health theories, research, and applications involved in cross-cultural psychology. While it is a complex and vast subject, it has far-reaching value in our direct dealings with individuals from different cultures and can be used to promote awareness in our clients that may benefit their multicultural relationships.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 370 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.

  • APA Dictionary of Psychology. (2020). Retrieved March 21, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/cross-cultural-psychology
  • Berry, J. W. (2004). An ecocultural perspective on the development of competence. In R. J. Sternberg & E. Grigorenko (Eds.), Culture and competence (pp. 3–22). American Psychological Association.
  • Berry, J. (2013). Achieving a global psychology. Canadian Psychology, 54, 55–61.
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  • Berry, J., Poortinga, Y. H., Marshall, S. H., & Dasen, P. R. (1992). Cross-cultural psychology: Research and applications (1st ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Carter, J. A., Lees, J. A., Murira, G. M., Gona, J., Neville, B. G. R., & Newton, C. R. J. C. (2005). Issues in the development of cross-cultural assessments of speech and language for children. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 40(4), 385–401.
  • Church, A. T. (2000). Culture and personality: Toward an integrated cultural trait psychology. Journal of Personality69, 651–703.
  • Cohen, A. B., Wu, M. S., & Miller, J. (2016). Religion and culture. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 47(9), 1236–1249.
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  • Glăveanu, V. P. (2010). Principles for a cultural psychology of creativity. Culture & Psychology, 16(2), 147–163.
  • Heine, S. J. (2010). Cultural psychology. In S. T. Fiske, D. T. Gilbert, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (pp. 1423–1464). John Wiley & Sons.
  • Henrich, J. P. (2020). The WEIRDest people in the world: How the West became psychologically peculiar and particularly prosperous. Penguin Books.
  • Howard, G. S. (1991). Culture tales: A narrative approach to thinking, cross-cultural psychology, and psychotherapy. American Psychologist, 46(3), 187–197.
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  • Moriano, J. A., Gorgievski, M., Laguna, M., Stephan, U., & Zarafshani, K. (2011). A cross-cultural approach to understanding entrepreneurial intention. Journal of Career Development, 39(2), 162–185.
  • Plaister-Ten, J. (2016). The cross-cultural coaching kaleidoscope. Routledge.
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  • Watkins, D. (2000). Learning and teaching: A cross-cultural perspective. School Leadership & Management, 20(2), 161–173.
  • Wei, Y., Spencer-Rodgers, J., Anderson, E., & Peng, K. (2020). The effects of a cross-cultural psychology course on perceived intercultural competence. Teaching of Psychology.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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