Posted on January 15, 2014

Culture and Psychological Functioning

Culture and Psychological Functioning
The study of culture has undergone a variety of different embodiments as different approaches have sought to define the construct through the decades. In essence, the study of culture has experienced the same pendulum swing influencing perspective mirrored in other fields of study, typically swinging from one direction to the other dependent upon the predominant views of the time.
In 1952, Kroeber and Kluckholm (1952) suggested “culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts: the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; cultural systems may on the one hand be considered products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action” (as cited in Berry, 2000). This perspective integrates the individual into and part of the culture to which they belong, perpetually intertwined.
However, following the 1950’s there were several decades wherein the study of culture was approached singularly through three dominant approaches: symbolic approach, activity theory, and individualistic (personal) approach (Ratner, 1999). In 1999, Ratner published an article calling for an integrated approach to the study of culture comprised of the strengths of the dominant approaches of the day sans their inherent weaknesses. These elemental approaches each emphasized an important pieces of the puzzle (culture), but overlooked or neglected other equally important and significant aspects. For instance, although the symbolic approach emphasized cognition and social content of psychological processes, it neglected the interdependence of the individual and activities within social environments. On the other hand, activity theory emphasized activity and social agency, but neglected individual agency and failed to elucidate connections between activity and psychological processes. The personal or individualistic approach emphasized individual agency in the construction of psychological phenomena, but neglected interdependent activities and social interactions (Ratner, 1999).
Ratner (1999) proposed an integrated approach consisting of central tenets from each of the aforementioned:
“Psychological phenomena are cultural in their essence…formed as people participate in social life, they embody characteristics of a particular social life, and they generate behavior that perpetuates particular social relationships” (p. 21).
“The cultural essence of psychological phenomena consists in practical social activities… Activities are the ways human life is organized…define the kinds of things that people think about, perceive, imagine, remember, speak, and feel” (p. 23).
“Psychological phenomena are organized by social concepts …People’s conceptions about things, people, and events depend upon the activities which they devise for dealing with them. (Concepts also depend upon experience with the natural environment)” (p. 24).
“Social activities, concepts, and psychological phenomena are devised by humans, as individualistic …Agency develops through participating in broad, collective social activities” (p. 24).
Currently, culture is conceived as an interdependent, dynamic construct part and parcel of individuals who share in its creation. According to Markus and Kitayama (2010) culture is comprised of numerous coalescing aspects of human life: societal factors (ecological, economic and historical), institutions and products (language, education, politics, media, and legal), daily situations and practices (home, work and school), and self (perception, cognition, emotion, motivation, and action) (p. 422).
Culture and Social Cognitive Processing
Our cognitive processing is directly influenced by our culture as we interact and participate within it, even as it evolves throughout our lifetime. Specifically, social norms enmeshed within our culture and experienced on a daily basis at home, work and school, directly impact our cognitive processing, shaping our attributions, heuristics, biases, values, and morality. For instance, the last several decades have evidenced a reduction in blatant stereotyping and prejudice expression; however, implicit stereotyping and subtle prejudice is still occurring. These changes have occurred as the result of sociopolitical changes that directly influenced the development of politically correct behavior, i.e., what is and is not appropriate to say or do in social situations. Another way culture shapes our cognitive processing relates to institutional policies and product exposure. We are consumers of media and the information provided to us through it. Our perspectives, thoughts, and ideas are shaped by the influences of what we read, hear, and see. This information becomes part of our self-concept and becomes assimilated into who we are as individuals and influences what we think and feel about ourselves and others.
Because culture is such an integral part of who we are, what we think, what we do, and is, at the same time, a byproduct of same, changing our cultural context directly impacts our cognitive processing. Exposure to other cultures, becoming a part of them, learning to understand other people and their unique perspectives changes our perspectives. Research has shown that Japanese individuals exhibit collectivist or interdependent cognitive processing while Americans exhibit independent and individualistic cognitive processing. However, cognitive processing results of Japanese or American participants residing in the other country maintain cognitive processing effects of the host country, rather than their country of origin (Smith, Spillane, & Annus, 2006) evidencing the influence of culture on cognitive processing and adaptability of same.
Cognitive processes can also change as a result differential modeling such that individuals “adopt an ideal, symbol, or behavior because it characterizes important, powerful people” (Smith, Spillane, & Annus, 2006, p. 220). Additionally, cognitive processes can change as a result of cultural selection preservation preference or direct bias which describe how “cultural perspectives are transmitted because of their perceived benefits to the group at that time, or because they are easier to remember than alternatives” (Smith et al., 2006, p. 220). These influences and/or biases can unconsciously influence individuals to adapt their cognitive processes styles to incorporate their current cultural context because it is in their best long-term interests to do. For instance, basic avoiding negative outcomes and attempting to achieve positive outcomes would cause a person to change their behavior. The behavior necessary to avoid or achieve particular outcomes is entirely dependent on the cultural context.
The influence of host culture versus culture of origin is quite robust. In fact, as I mentioned in my discussion post, Smith, Spillane, and Annus (2006) also produced research supporting similar findings. In their study, Japanese (in-country) exhibited different cognitive processing than Americans (in-country). However, when individuals from these same cultures were assimilated into the opposite cultures (host country), they exhibited the cognitive processing of their host country, rather than their country of origin. These results provide additional support for the influence of cultural context.
Smith, G. T., Spillane, N. S., & Annus, A. M. (2006). Implications of an emerging integration of universal and culturally specific psychologies. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(3), 211-233. Continue reading