Chapter 4- Methods for Studying Culture and Psychology
- What do you do if you want to study how cultural influences the way that people
- Psychologists Patricia Greenfield wanted to study Zinancantecans, an indigenous
people living in Mexico. However she found that the surveys used in Western didn’t
work well with the Zinacantecans.
- A technique used in surveys is to ask participants about the same issue in a
number of items that vary slightly. For instance, measuring extraversion typically
does not have just one item but a dozen items that all assess the extent to which one
acts in extraverted ways. This method of asking people similar questions, reduces
concerns of random error and ensures that peoples responses pertain to the
underlying construct. Zinacantecans however though that Greenfields survey would
follow their conversational norms. Therefore they got angry, because they couldn’t
understand how she could be so stupid to keep asking the same questions.
- It is extremely challenging to collect sound and compelling evidence for
psychological phenomena even with current technology. This is because they are
elusive, abstract and invisible and are produced and represented in the brain.
- One might think that they are aware of their thoughts and what’s going on in their
brain, however most of our psychological experiences goes beyond our awareness.
This is why psychologists rarely investigate psychological processes by asking their
subjects directly about their experiences.
- The problem for cultural psychologists is that these difficulties are multiplied
when trying to understand the mind of people from different cultures.
The goal of this chapter is to learn how to design studies to study culture and
-The study of culture and psychology touches on two central theme. First, the goal of
cultural studies is to either demonstrate similarities or differences across cultures in
the ways that people think, thereby reflecting universal psychological tendencies.
Second, in cultures in which differences emerge, studies are designed to understand
how people’s different experiences result in different ways of thinking
Considerations for Conducting Research Across Cultures
- Psychological data are often clues, and clues are ambiguous. The problem
with cultural psychologists is that not only do they inherit the standard
ambiguities of whatever method the adopt from other subfields of
psychology (personality psychology, cognitive psychology) but these
methods also create further ambiguities when applied to people of a different
- In this chapter the author describers various strategies by which reserachers
can improve their ability to asses psychological states of people from other
What Cultures Should We Study
- It is not recommended to use the “shotgun” method and randomly select
cultures which you should study - Although such an approach might reveal some unexpected cultural
difference, it can be very difficult to interpret the results if there is no theory
guiding the selection of cultures.
- Rather you will find meaningful and easy to interpret results if you let your
research question guide your choice of your research samples.
- One common approach of selecting cultures is to choose samples based on
theoretical variable you are investigating. For example if you were interested
in how collectivism shapes they way people view their relationships, then
you would focus on cultures that clearly differ in terms of collectivism. If you
found a difference between cultures then that suggests that there
collectivism shapes how people relationships, and if you found no difference
then that suggest that collectivism and relationships are unrelated. One good
way to choose samples views it to look for cultures that vary on theoretical
dimension of interest.
- Sometimes people are interested in exploring the degree of universality of a
particular psychological finding. A good way of doing this, is comparing two
cultures that vary differently on many dimensions, such as language,
geography, education, social processes. And if there is similarity in a
particular psychological process between the two cultures that are
maximally different then their compelling evidence that there is a high
degree of universality for that process. One study did this by analyzing how
two sets of children did on a measure of “theory of mind” contrasting
Western and Baka (people who live in rainforests of southeast Cameroon)
children. Despite the difference between cultures, children performed
extremely similar to the tasks, suggesting that the development of theory of
the mind is highly similar across the world.
Making Meaningful Comparisons Across Cultures
- What kinds of steps should a researcher take to ensure that the research
findings provide a fair contrast of the cultures under study?
Develop Some Knowledge About The Cultures Under Study
- cultural psychologists often study people from different cultures and it is not
always clear how much the researcher’s own experience would generalize to
the people he/ she is studying. For example, a team of psychologists from
Scandanavia went to India, and wanted to study a family meal. However
there is no such thing in India, but being civil and polite they agreed to have
the family meal without telling the psychologist that they don’t engage in that
behaviour. Then during this “family dinner” people kept getting up from the
table and leaving. No one ever explained to the psychologists that that family
meansl should not be presumed to be part of some universal grid. The
psychologist went back home, coded the materials and made some sort of
inference about what was going on, bt they never really knew what was
- The moral of the story iss to know something about what you are studying.
Had the researchers had more knowledge about the culture they were
studying prior to the investigation then they would have been able to
conduct their research in a far more productive way. - Thus an initial step when studying people of different cultures is to first leran
something about the culture under study.
- One can do this by reading existing texts and ethnographies about the
- Ethnographies are rich description of people of a particular culture, derived
from extensive observation and interaction by an anthropologist.
- However, learning culture through books and ethnographies limits you to
learning about ideas that the author felt was the most relevant.
- Another approach is to find a collaborator who is from the culture that you
are studying and who is interested in pursuing the same research with you.
Much research are in cultural psychology are done in collaboration between
people who are from cultures they are studying.
- Another effectives strategy is to immerses yourself in the culture to learn it
firsthand. It is an effective way but it is time consuming and costly.
- Combination of these strategies is an optimal way of learning about different
Contrasting Highly Different Cultures from Similar Cultures
- Although standard methodologies are useful for conducting cross cultural
research among industrialized societies who have comparable experiences,
but they are not much use when exploring subsistence societies that do not
share these kinds of shared experiences. For instance, giving a survey in
Canada and USA and then giving the same survey in Zinacantecan.
- If we are to make meaningful comparison across cultures, participants must
understand the questions or situation in equivalent ways.
- Having methods be perceived in identical ways across different cultures is
termed methodological equivalence. A variety of statistical techniques are
applied to cross- cultural studies of survey data to increase such equivalence.
- However when cultures are not comparably familiar with the research
setting, ensuring methodological equivalence can be difficult, so researchers
have to adapt procedures so that it is understandable in each culture. Often
this results in them using slightly different procedures for each culture.
- Some experimental control is lost when they do this, however it is
- Because of the challenges in creating methodological equivalent across
cultures, the vast majority of cross cultural research has been done between
- It is easier to study college students across cultures allows meaningful
comparisons because students are more familiar with many kinds of
procedures used in psychological studies.
- However, a problem with looking at just University students is the
generalizability (do the samples generalize with the population)
- We are less able to confidently generalize our results if we do not have much
evidence from a diverse range of samples (from elementary students, elderly
etc). - Second, there is a problem with the power of studies. This refers to the
capability for the study to detect an effect (which in cross cultural studies has
to do with whether a difference exists)
- Power reflects the quality of the design of the study, is the study designed so
that it is sensitive enough to identify an anticipate effect?
- In cross cultural studies you can look at culture as the independent variable
(variable that is varied or manipulated)
- There more variance there is in the independent variables the more likely
one will detect an effect in the dependent variable (the variable that you
- If difference exists with similar samples (such as samples from industrialized
cultures) then we can assumed that effects of divergent samples (people
from very different culture) would be more pronounced.
Conducting Cross Cultural Research with Surveys
- One of the most common ways of conducting cross cultural research is to
employ surveys. Participants are asked a series of questions and it is usually
- However there are several unique challenges.
- Translation of Questionnaire Items.
- Participants and the researchers usually speak different languages
- When dealing with topics that are less concrete, such as emotions, values,
narratives, or personality traits, there communication difficulties become
- One solution to this, is keeping all the questions in English and only studying
those individuals who are bilingual in that culture, speaking both English and
their native language. This avoids costs of translating the materials.
- However there are still problems with this, first, the individual would have
poor English and the data might be meaningless if the participants didn’t
have the requisite to understand what was being asked. Second, one has to
be concerned whether those who have good English are representative of the
culture. Those who can speak English may be more familiar with Western
culture and their ideas may be more Westernized that their non English
- Thirdly, the language that we are thinking in can greatly affect the way we’re
thinking. Researchers found that bilingual respondents respond differently
when tested in their native language and their second language.
- Translating materials is not an easy task, many psychological terms do not
have equivalents in other languages. For example there is no exact terms for
self-esteem in Chinese.
- This is why it is crucial to ask questions that are comparable in meaning
across cultures. Having an accurate translation of psychological materials is
necessary precondition for doing a good cross- cultural research.
- How can we ensure we get a good translation? Make sure that one of the
primary investigators is fully bilingual in the languages that are being
compared. A bilingual investigator will be able to compare translated materials with originals and will be in a good position to asses whether
translations are accurate. This is the most commonly used method.
- However, in many instances it is impossible for researchers to be fluent in
both languages of interest.
- In this case, it is necessary to have a translator. However it’s a bit too much of
a blind leap of faith to hope whatever translator has been hired to capture all
the nuances of the meanings included in the materials. A strategy that can be
used to reduce this leap of faith is the back-translation method.
- How it works is that you would have the original material in English, and
then you will get a translator to translate it in Chinese. Then you would hire
another translator to translate the Chinese back to English. This way you
have two English versions and you would compare the two. There are likely
to be differences between the two English versions, so then the researcher
would go back and forth discussing with the two translators to reach a
consensus of how to alter the materials so they can be equivalent.
- One weakness of back translation, is that it might result in a very unnatural
or hard to understand even through the literal meaning is preserved
- Reliable and valid cultural differences are more likely to be found with well
- Reponses Biases
- Interpreting and comparing survey responses from different people of
different cultures are more challenging than interpreting those from withing
- Moderacy and Extremity Biases
- Often psychologists present participants with statements and they have to
indicate their agreement by choosing a number from a scale 1(strongly
disagree) to 7 (strongly agree)
- However there is a tendency for people from different cultures to vary in
terms of how likely they are to express their agreement In a moderate
fashion (choosing close to the midpoint for everything).
- This is known as a moderacy bias and the latter as an extremity bias.
- African- Americans and Hispanic- Americans tedn to give more extreme
responses than do Americans of European descent. Likewise, East Asians
show more moderacy biases in their responses than do European-
- Moderacy and extreme biases are response styles, because they affect how an
individual responds to an item independent of the content of the item.
- Such response styles are problematic for cultural comparisons because
cultures vary in how people responds to questions, this will affect
conclusions that we can draw when comparing average scores across
- One way of controlling this, is instead of the 7 point scale, you can use
Yes/No format. However this might not provide you with enough measure to
detect nuanced differences in opinions across cultures.
- If you are assessing how people feel across a broad range you might consider
“standardization”. This is each participants scores are first averaged, thrn yhr individual items are assess with respect to how much they deviate from the
participants own personal average. The standardized score is also knows as
the z score and it has to do with how participants respond to each item
compared to with their typical way of responding. Participants responses are
now expressed in terms of numbers of standard deviations by which they
depart from the participants own personal average. This shows which items
the person agreed with the most and which items the person disagrees with
the most. It allows the comparison of responses across cultures by
statistically forcing everyone to a uniform response style, thereby
eliminating moderacy and extremity biases. However if we were looking at
talkativeness, standardization forces everyone to have identical average
levels of talkativeness. So standardization could thus not tell us which culture
was more talkative because the cultures would be equated at the same evel
- Standardizing is a powerful tool, but often alters the dataset. It is only usefeul
when we are interested in cultural difference in the pattern of responses it is
not useful when we want to compare the average level of responses across
- Acquiescence Bias
- A tendency to agree with most of the statements is know as acquiescence
bias. This bias makes it difficult to compare the individual’s true degree of
approval with that of another person who tends to find most statements
disagreeable regardless of the content.
- The acquiescence bias is a problem fro cross-cultural research because
cultures differ in their tendencies to agree with items.
- There is a straightforward solution to acquiescence bias that is commonly
applied when researchers construct trait measure. Typically half of the items
in a measure are designed to be reversed scored, that is, they are written so
that agreeing with them indicated an opinion opposite to that measured in
the construct. For instance if you were measuring self esteem, half of the
items would indicate high self esteem and half of the other items would
indicate low self esteem. One’s total self esteem would be reversed scored, so
all the 7’s would be changed to 1’s and the 6 to 2’s 5 to 3’s and so on and then
summing all of them up with the items in the direction of high self esteem, By
ensuring that half the items are reversed score you, any acquiescing would
be cancelled out because the individuals would be agreeing with items that
both increase their total score and items that decrease their total score.
Therefore the data will neutralize acquiescence biases.
- Reference Group Effects
- For a statement such as I am tall, you will get three different measurements
across different countries. If you asked someone in Japan who is 5’8 to rate
themselves in Japan in a 1-5 scale they would say 4. If you were to ask
someone of the same height in Canada to rate themself, they would probably
say 2. The same height would yield different responses to the statement and
this is because I am tall does not have the same meaning in all cultures. The
reason for this is because people across cultures are using different standards to answer these questions. People tend to evaluate themselves
based on others- SIMILAR others. People from different cultures tend to
evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to different reference groups
and thus to different standards. This is a problem because cross cultural
psychologist are interested in assessing cultures in a single standard. This is
know as the reference- group effect.
- Research has shown that reference-group effects are potentially problematic
whenever we are comparing cultures on how much they agree with
statements with subjective response formats.
- One technique to correct this problem is to avoid subjective measures that
might have different standards in groups being compared. Instead one is
better off in using concrete measures that will be perceived more similarly
across cultures. For example, asking someone If they are helpful, this can be
interpreted differently depending on a culture’s standard of what behaviour
is perceived as helpful. In contrast to if you ask “if a friend of mine needed
help with his studies, I would be willing to cancel my own plans to help him”
this is more concrete in describing the situation in terms of what kind of help
- The more concrete the scenario the less likely they are to interpret it
differently across cultures.
- Some other kinds of measures are well protected from reference group
effects. For example, many cross cultural studies have employed behaviour
measures that do not rely on people’s understanding of how they compare
against others. For example, Levine and Norezayan investigated pace of life
of 31 cultures by examining behavioural measures (timing how long it took
people to walk on a busy street, and how long it took a postal worker to sell
them as stamp etc).
- Likewise, physiological measures are especially protected from reference
group effect (measuring the nervous system responses). These physiological
measure are often difficult and costly to obtain , however they are powerful
for cross cultural study because they can occur independently of the various
- Deprivation Effects
- Why do Italians rate “pleasur” a 2 (so low) and unimportant as compared to
other nationalities, especially when they have developed a lifestyle that
emphasize good food, leisurely breaks in cafes, opera, art and long summer
- The disconnect observed between self report measures of values and other
indaicator is a challenge for cross cultural investigation.
- One way to make sense of this disconnect is to look a what people actually
have in contrast to what they would like to have.
- For instance examining personal safety; It is when your safety is vulnerable
that you are more concered with it, and at other times you might be willing to
forget about it. - The problem with this is that we may expect that people who have less