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2/5/96

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AAAS '96: Press briefing at 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10; Session at 8:30 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 11: "Cultural Diversity in Psychological Structure and Functioning"

Why psychologists need to study cultural diversity

STANFORD -- The field of psychology needs to be "internationalized" to make further progress toward understanding the universal nature of the mind, six researchers said at a Sunday, Feb. 11, session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Baltimore.

Researchers from five universities presented studies that suggest the field's understandings of the structure and functioning of the mind may be rooted in a set of centuries-old Western philosophical assumptions about what it means to be a person or a group member in an individualist-oriented society. Psychological research may have mistaken specific cultural twists for universal principles because most of the research subjects, as well as the researchers over the past 50 years, have been Americans or Europeans.

"This wasn't a problem until we began to take very seriously the old idea that individual minds are always social minds," said Hazel Markus, a Stanford professor of psychology who organized the session. "You don't have minds without cultural participation. We are moving away from the idea that the mind is like a computer that is the same wherever it goes and no matter what it processes."

Minds are created and maintained, she said, by individuals' participation in various social worlds - worlds "based on our country of origin, region of the country, ethnicity, religion, gender, profession."

"These worlds don't just tell us what to think and feel and do," Markus said, "they structure how we think, feel and behave. Our social worlds are organized by some culture-specific meanings and practices, and very often these are so much a part of everyday life that they are invisible to us."

In addition to Markus, the researchers who presented some of their work in this area were:

  • Phoebe Ellsworth, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, whose recent work explores Chinese and American interpretations of basic social interactions;
  • Anne Fernald, a child development psychologist at Stanford, whose recent work has focused on mother-child interactions in Japanese and American settings;
  • Shinobu Kitayama, a social psychologist at Kyoto University, who recently has examined self-esteem in Asia and North America;
  • Joan Miller, a psychologist at Yale, whose recent work explores the interpersonal tradeoffs between living in a culture that emphasizes individuality and one that stresses people's interdependence;
  • Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, whose recent work focuses on how everyday behavior reflects moral values imbedded in cultures.

All call into question the assumption in most psychological theory and in social science theory generally that "being a person means being an independent entity who is clearly separate from others and who is in control of his or her actions," Markus said.

Fernald: Child-parent interaction

Differing parenting or schooling practices in Japan and America may be related to different visions of how to be a healthy, successful adult, according to Stanford's Fernald.

In observations of mothers using pictures to tell stories to their 2- and 3-year-olds, Fernald found that mothers in Kyoto, Japan, were more likely to bring their child into the situation shown in the picture than were the mothers in Stanford, Calif. The American mothers attempted to tell an action story of children at a distance from their child - a story with a causal sequence delineated.

For example, using a picture of a group of five children building a sand castle on the beach while a solitary child makes a sand sculpture off to the side, the American mothers were likely to say something like, "this child is all by himself. Maybe he's mad, or maybe they won't let him play with them, or maybe he's building a masterpiece," Fernald said.

Using the same picture, the Japanese mothers provided minimal structure to the story, usually not speaking at all of how or why the situation came about but encouraging the child to identify with one of the pictured children in the group. They asked questions such as "What are they saying?" or "What does this boy feel?"

The differences are subtle, Fernald said, but repeatedly the Japanese mothers "emphasized the common purpose of these little characters, whereas the American mothers put characters at cross purposes," building tension into the narrative.

"The American story has a happy ending, with the lone child going over and joining the group," she said, "but the Japanese story places more emphasis on the process of getting to that ending. It's not just a difference in content but in what is highlighted in everyday routines and practices. Over and over again, the Japanese mothers help children enter into the scene, encouraging empathy for a child who is crying, for example, regardless of how it happened. This is not telling a story but encouraging a child's sympathy and working toward a solution to a problem."

Fernald's recent observations, as well as her earlier work comparing Japanese and American mothers' interactions with infants, suggest that the two cultures highlight different ways of being from the time children are born.

Shweder: Moral value formation

Psychology has been used to produce a long list of dos and don'ts for child-rearing in America that may reflect the importance of becoming a unique individual in this society, said the University of Chicago's Shweder. He focused on one such practice - children sleeping alone.

American pediatricians and newspaper advice columnists, perhaps based on their notions of Freudian psychology, he said, routinely advise parents not to allow their children to sleep with them, yet the United States is "virtually unique" in its preference for placing babies alone in their own cribs. "Many other cultures would consider it child abuse," he said.

In a study of family sleeping preferences, Shweder found that deep moral convictions - not just the availability of space - make family sleeping patterns different in Hyde Park, Ill., from those in Orissa, India. When asked to make the sleeping arrangements for a hypothetical family of seven under several space constraints, adults in both societies demonstrated that their first priority was to discourage incest. Beyond that, they showed little agreement.

The Oriya Hindus of Orissa were concerned with protecting the chastity of young unmarried girls, Shweder said, by not having them sleep alone. (They often slept with their mother if a sister was not available.) The Oriyas also were concerned with preserving respect for an age hierarchy among boys (teenage boys did not sleep with their fathers), and with protecting the youngest, most vulnerable and needy children by not leaving them alone at night.

The preferences of the middle-class Anglo-Americans of Hyde Park "can be summarized under the ideal of autonomy," Shweder said. "Highly valued members of the family, such as children, are needy and fragile and should be encouraged to be alone at night so that they can learn to be self-reliant and independent and to care for themselves." The American adults also demonstrated their strong belief in what Shweder calls "the sacred couple."

For spouses or other co-habiting adults, he said, "emotional intimacy, interpersonal commitment and sexual privacy require that they sleep together" and away from children, even if that means sacrificing the ideal of a bedroom for each child.

Shweder stressed that he was not implying that all child-rearing practices are equally good or moral. "We are saying that [the American middle class] has operated on a common set of understandings; there is more than one way, although not an infinite number of ways."

While psychology has tended to look for the universal features of a "central processing system" solely "within the skin" of a person, Shweder said, he now believes that "culture and the psyche make each other up," in such a way that "every person is stimulus bound and every stimulus is person bound."

Miller: Morality of 'caring' downplayed in U.S. culture

American commentators frequently lament a loss of community, but the field of psychology has done little to explain how cultural ideals of individualism shape interpersonal morality here, said Yale's Joan Miller. Miller is trying to provide an explanation by comparing Americans' sense of obligation to family members, co-workers or children with the sense of obligation felt by others in more collectivist-oriented cultures.

In a series of studies comparing Hindu Indians in Mysore, India, with European-Americans in New Haven, Conn., she found that Indians believe there is a greater sense of personal satisfaction in behaving in selfless ways than do Americans. She also found that Americans' sense of obligation toward others depends in part on whether they like them. Only in the case of their own child did Americans indicate they would feel truly obligated to help, regardless of whether they liked the other person, she said.

People in both countries were asked, for example, what they would do if a brother was moving and asked for help carrying heavy furniture up four flights of stairs. Half were told the imagined brother was someone who shared with them common tastes and interests, and half were told the brother was someone with whom they had not fought but who was quite dissimilar from them.

Indians in the study said they would help the brother regardless of their personal affinity for him, Miller said. "For Americans, the responsibility to help is less if you have low personal affection. In other words, if I don't like my brother, my response to him is less than if I like him."

This relationship held true, she said, in scenarios between co-workers and even between an adult scout troop leader and child scouts.

"But when it came to whether a parent would help a young child, Americans felt, 'this is my kid, and even though we don't get along that well I must help,'" she said.

Despite the stereotype that women are more selfless than men, Miller said that she did not find any significant gender differences.

Other theorists in the psychology of caring, such as Carol Gilligan of Harvard, have suggested that collectivist societies oppressively assign women and others to roles as caregivers. They suggest, Miller said, that Americans "can have a strong sense of community that is not obligatory, one in which help is freely given." Miller's own studies suggest, however, that "we are deluding ourselves. There are tradeoffs," she said.

Americans "tend to think of Indians as having all sorts of social constraints on their freedom, but we have other social constraints here. We cannot depend on others as much." As a result, she said, "we talk about feeling insecure, and Indians hardly ever talk about feeling insecure."

Her research, she said, suggests that cultures help create a different "sense of self" depending on whether they stress the importance of the individual or the group. "If your sense of self is based on autonomy, it feels very oppressive to have obligations, but duties may be satisfying to people in collectivist cultures."

Those exploring cultural psychology are reaching for a new definition of culture for their field, Miller said, "one that thinks of culture as not just a physical setting, but as meanings and practices through which we see and create the world."

Ellsworth: Emotional interpretations of situations

Culture may influence the emotion people feel by influencing how they interpret the meaning of situations or events, according to Michigan's Phoebe Ellsworth. In a recent study she looked for similarities and differences in the way Chinese and American adults, 4th-graders and 7th-graders interpreted simple cartoon situations.

For the study, Ellsworth and doctoral student Kai Ping Peng chose fish as their cartoon characters. In one of the 16 cartoon situations, a single fish is in the center, and fish in the four corners of the frame swim in toward the fish in the middle. The American 4th-graders, like the Chinese of all three age groups, saw in this cartoon a "happy, friendly situation," Ellsworth said, "but the American adults and adolescents saw it as anxiety producing."

"It looks as though there is more similarity in the little kids, which is what you would expect if culture takes time to fully sink in," she said of her preliminary results.

Only the 7th-grade American boys suggested aggression in response to any of 16 situations in the cartoons, she said. In one cartoon, two fish are swimming together, a third comes along, and one of the first two fish swims off with the third. Most of the participants in the study recognized it as a situation provoking jealousy, she said. They suggested that the protagonist fish would "find a new partner, get that one back or mope." Some of the 7th-grade American boys, however, said the fish would kill or beat up the offending fish.

Her work fits in, Ellsworth said, with that of other researchers in the session by suggesting strong variation among cultures in how individuals view group situations. "I also think it is in line with Shweder's work on sleeping patterns," she said, which suggests that "America may be the outlier culture - the really odd one that needs explaining."

Kitayama and Markus: Self-esteem

A vast research literature on self-esteem concludes that normal people tend to accentuate the positives and deny the negatives about themselves. Yet Kitayama and Markus find that unlike Americans, the people they studied in Japan, China, Korea and Thailand did not need to see themselves as "above average" in some way in order to feel good about themselves.

Holding oneself in high regard may indeed be a universal human need, Kitayama said, but exactly how this is accomplished varies considerably across cultures. "In the United States it is common that people try to discover and express desirable internal attributes of the self such as talents, abilities, personality traits. In many Asian cultures people seek to fit in to the relationship of which they are part by, for example, improving themselves to meet explicit and implicit expectations of others in the relationship. As a result, those in the latter group tend to focus more on what they might be missing by way of meeting socially shared standards or expectations than on what distinguishes them from the rest of the social group."

Studies in America repeatedly have found that a majority of people will rate themselves as "above average" at everything from leadership and friendliness to academic ability. This syndrome, which the researchers call a "false uniqueness" bias, is thought to be important to people's sense of self-esteem, which is important to self-motivation. In studies, Americans also tend to take credit for their successes, and blame outside circumstances or others for their failures. The reverse, however, is true of people in the Asian countries he has studied, Kitayama said.

One recent study that he and Markus conducted suggests that perhaps American society literally creates more situations for people to feel good about themselves than does Japanese society.

The researchers asked college students in the two countries to write down as many social situations as possible that would either increase or decrease their sense of self-esteem. Then they asked another group of students in both countries to rate how some of these examples would affect their self-esteem.

"The situations sampled from people in one culture were fairly familiar to those in the other culture," Kitayama said. "So an American success situation - 'Getting A+ in a final' - is perfectly understandable to Japanese respondents. Likewise, a Japanese failure situation - 'When I was jilted by someone I was thinking of marrying' - is also comprehensible to Americans." Nevertheless, the Americans showed a highly reliable tendency for self-enhancement - their increase in self-esteem was much larger in success situations than their decrease in self-esteem in failure situations. The effect was reversed for the Japanese.

Perhaps more important, Kitayama said, the American tendency for self-enhancement was more pronounced when American students responded to American-made situations and the self-deprecation tendency was more pronounced when the Japanese subjects responded to Japanese-devised situations.

"The results are consistent with the possibility that human motivation - in this case, self-enhancement - cannot neatly be located with a separate person," Kitayama said. "To the contrary, individual motivational tendencies are embedded in routinized everyday activities that have been formed and selected so that they tend to reflect the predominant cultural construals of self as independent or interdependent."

That is an example, Markus said, of what the two researchers mean when they say that "cultural frames" partly shape the individual's understanding of how to be human.

Concerns about stereotypes

The work presented in the symposium, Markus said, shows that "divergent ideas of what a person is, together with how these ideas are lived in the world, make a big difference for thinking, feeling and acting - for psychological functioning. It is the person who feels, thinks, acts - so what kind of entity you imagine the person [to be] really matters."

For Americans - who have been studied the most by psychologists, Markus said - a more international approach holds the promise of revealing the "taken-for-granted, purposely discounted or inadvertently ignored aspects" of the country's own social problems.

For example, she said, "many American employers say they want workers who fight less and cooperate more in the workplace, but it may be that the ways in which our schools emphasize autonomy, personal choice, finding a child's unique features and self-esteem makes that a difficult goal to achieve."

But she also stressed that a cultural approach to psychology must be careful to avoid simplistic group stereotypes, and Shweder stressed that the findings in this area "do not fit neatly into census categories" for groups.

Gender, religion, age, ethnic group and class are just a few of the variables that may provide differing "cultural frames" within which the individual must operate.

"Stereotyping is what did in this field of exploration 30 or 40 years ago," Markus said, speaking of a time when researchers were trying to link different child training practices to personality traits. "At that time, it was called 'culture and personality,' and it dissolved into a lot of ethnic name calling, such as 'the Germans have these attributes, the Jews have these and the French national character is this. . . ,' " she said.

Markus said she believes that universals will be found. "These will be universals in how the social world makes up the mind and in how the mind makes up the social world."

For example, she said, "almost any analysis of Japan reveals the importance and centrality of empathy and obligation, but there is plenty of individualism among Japanese. We need to study how individualism is practiced in Japan, and it will not be the same as in the U.S."

Similarly, "Americans are also very concerned with fitting in and connecting with others, but they do it within a cultural frame - a system of meanings and practices - that emphasizes autonomy, so we cannot just institute Japanese practices in our schools and businesses. We need to design an American-style interdependence."

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RESEARCHER CONTACT NUMBERS AFTER THE CONVENTION: Phoebe Ellsworth, University of Michigan, (313) 763-1143 or (313) 936-1685; Anne Fernald, Stanford University psychology department, (415) 725-2421; Joan Miller, Yale University psychology department, (203) 432-4623; Hazel Markus, Shinobu Kitayama and Richard Shweder are at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences on the Stanford campus through June. The number there is (415) 321-2052.


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