Psychological Universals: What Are They and How Can We Know? Ara Norenzayan

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Psychological Universals: What Are They and How Can We Know?
Ara Norenzayan

Steven J. Heine

University of British Columbia

Psychological Bulletin (in press)

Psychological universals, or core mental attributes shared by humans everywhere, are a foundational postulate of psychology, yet explicit analysis of how to identify such universals is lacking. Drawing on the emerging field of cultural psychology, this article offers a conceptual and methodological framework to guide the investigation of genuine universals through empirical analysis of psychological patterns across cultures. Issues of cross cultural generalizability of psychological processes, and three cross cultural research strategies to probe universals, are considered. Four distinct levels of hierarchically organized universals are possible: from strongest to weakest claims for universality, accessibility universals, functional universals, existential universals, and non-universals. Finally, universals are examined in relation to the questions of levels of analysis, evolutionary explanations of psychological processes, and managing cross-cultural relations.

Psychological Universals: What are They and How Can We Know?

There are two statements about human beings that are true: that all human beings are alike, and that all are different. On those two facts all human wisdom is founded.
Mark Van Doren, American poet (1894-1972).

Human psychological universals are core mental attributes that are shared at some conceptual level by all or nearly all non-brain damaged adult human beings across cultures. The assumption of human universals is a foundational postulate of psychology, and, as such, a rich understanding about how we can consider universality in psychological phenomena is of great importance to the field. In this paper, we bring together insights and observations from the emerging field of cultural psychology to bear on the questions of psychological universals that are of concern to most fields of psychology: what psychological universals are and are not, what standards of evidence there are to support their occurrence and degree of generality, what are their types or levels, and what research strategies are available to probe them.

Cultures are to some degree adaptive responses to their environments (Cohen, 2001), and unlike most other species, human beings occupy vastly different ecological niches demanding different sociocultural arrangements (Boyd & Silk, 2003; Diamond, 1997; Edgerton, 1971). Humans are also endowed with cognitive capacities for massive cultural transmission that favors ingroup members (Henrich & Boyd, 1998) and enables them to consider the perspectives of fellow group members (Dunbar, 1992; Tomasello, Kruger, & Ratner, 1993). From a game-theoretical point of view this social nature of our species renders the outcomes of any strategy that an individual pursues dependent on what his or her group members opt to do. This mutual interdependence between individual and ingroup member leads to multiple equilibria for any social system, which further fuels the engines of cultural diversity (Cohen, 2001; Fiske, 2000). This combination of ecological variability, ingroup-biased cultural diffusion, and multiple equilibria have led to vast degrees of sociocultural diversity throughout history.

The existence of cultural diversity poses a great challenge to psychology: the discovery of genuine psychological universals entails the generalization of psychological findings across disparate populations having different ecologies, languages, belief systems, and social practices. Moreover, psychological phenomena often reflect the interaction of innate psychological primitives with sociocultural inputs, yielding contingent universals of an “if-then” sort (e.g., cooperate if neighbors are cooperative, otherwise defect; see Kenrick, Li, & Butner, 2003). Such generalizations demand comparative studies based on rigorous criteria for universality. Yet psychological universals have largely been a neglected topic of explicit analysis in psychology.

Past Considerations of Universals in Anthropology

While human universals have been largely overlooked in psychology, they have been examined in linguistics (e.g., Comrie, 1981; Slobin, 1978), and biology (e.g., Alexander, 1979; Dobzhanski, 1962). But universals have been explored and debated the most within anthropology, since the modern era of that field first emerged. One goal of the anthropological enterprise has been to explore and explain the vast degrees of diversity of human natures across the planet (e.g., Benedict, 1934). This explicit focus on investigating diversity came with a cautious awareness about the pitfalls of generalizing beyond one’s samples. We suggest that the anthropological literature of the last hundred years renders the question of human universals both urgent and difficult. It is urgent in that the vast array of diverse human potentials uncovered in ethnographies from around the world behooves us to consider what features unite humankind. The question is difficult because identifying something as universal amidst an array of diverse instantiations requires one to make distinctions between the concrete, particular manifestations that can be observed in behavior, and the abstract, underlying universals that have given rise to those behaviors. This distinction, challenging at the best of times, has provided no shortage of controversy and debate (e.g., Ekman, 1994, in response to Russell, 1994; Geertz, 1973; Shweder, 1991; Spiro, 1987).

Relatively early in the discipline’s history, there have been attempts by many anthropologists to document universals in human nature. Clark Wissler (1923), for example, constructed a universal taxonomy which reflected hypothesized human needs, by which anthropologists could organize the diverse particulars that they encountered in their expeditions. Similar taxonomies were developed and refined as a growing chorus considered the question of what features of human nature were universal (e.g., Kluckhohn, 1953; Levi-Strauss, 1969; Malinowski, 1944; Murdock, 1945). What became apparent from these early efforts was a distinction between categories of universals, such as “religion” or “kinship,” and their varied content, such as “beliefs in reincarnation” and “matrilineal descent.” Indeed, the sheer range of diversity in the content of human activity revealed through the growing ethnographic database, left little dispute that this was an inappropriate level at which universals could be reliably found. However, later efforts (e.g., Goodenough, 1970; Berlin & Kay, 1969), demonstrated that certain kinds of cognitive content could indeed embody universals. Recent developments in cognitive anthropology and developmental psychology have further buttressed the case for a striking degree of universality in the content of thought and behavior (e.g., Atran, 1998; Avis & Harris, 1991; Boyer, 1994; see especially Hirschfeld & Gelman, 1994).

The most extensive recent effort to catalogue human universals was that by Donald Brown (1991) who constructed a list of hundreds of characteristics, incorporating both categories (e.g., marriage, rituals, language) and content (e.g. fear of snakes, coyness displays, having color terms for “black” and “white”) that are common to people everywhere. These efforts to discern and taxonomize the universal human, or the consensus gentium (Geertz, 1973), have been highly controversial throughout the history of anthropology. Some have questioned whether interesting human universals really exist (e.g., Mead, 1975; Benedict, 1934), and others argued that such efforts to identify the lowest common denominator of humankind are either misguided, or of dubious value (e.g., Geertz, 1973). More recently, a growing number of voices in cultural anthropology have adopted a post-structuralist perspective, emphasizing the fluidity and ambiguity of culture. There is a marked skepticism in this view towards generalizing from the individual level to the cultural level, let alone generalizing to the level of what is universally human (e.g., Bourdieu, 1977; Brightman, 1995; Clifford & Markus, 1986).

Past Considerations of Universals in Psychology

In contrast to the long history of positing and debating universals in anthropology, the question of whether a given psychological phenomenon is universal has rarely been considered explicitly throughout much of psychology’s history, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., etics and emics, Berry, 1969; sex differences in attraction, Buss, 1989; violence, Daly & Wilson, 1988; facial expressions, Ekman, Sorenson, & Friesen, 1969; motives, Klineberg, 1954; social behavior, Pepitone & Triandis,1987; Triandis, 1978; see also Lonner, 1985). We suggest that the question of universality is so often neglected because much of psychology has maintained the implicit assumption that its objects of investigation were de facto universals. This unstated assumption of universality, or “psychic unity” (e.g., Murdock, 1945), can be discerned from three observations about the field of psychology. First, the origins of psychology have been profoundly influenced by biology (Benjamin, 1988). This biological basis of the field has led to an assumption of psychological universals in at least two respects: much research on the biological basis of human psychology is conducted analogically in other species. This is done so with the idea that psychological mechanisms in other species can speak to human psychological functioning. But if we begin with the view that humans in one culture share psychological mechanisms with other species it follows that these same psychological mechanisms are assumed to be shared universally within humans themselves. Furthermore, to the extent psychology is conceived to be grounded in biology, it inherits the theoretical foundation of evolutionary theory as well (Barkow, Cosmides, & Tooby, 1992; Pinker, 1997). Because evolutionary reasoning hinges on the assumption of a shared species-wide genome, this theoretical foundation encourages psychologists to accept psychic unity as a given. In these ways, the biological heritage of psychology presupposes that psychological mechanisms are universal.

Second, the cognitive revolution provided another framework from which to understand human thought, and this framework also presupposes universality. Cognitive science has relied heavily on the analogy of the human mind to the computer (Block, 1995). This metaphor makes explicit the perspective that brain hardware gives rise to universal software, or psychological processes. In this model, output can be observed in beliefs, values, and behaviors, and these could vary endlessly across cultures and historical periods given the radically different “inputs” generated by the diverse social, political, and economic environments in which people live. Beneath this shallow surface of variability of mental content rests the easily discernible deep structure of universal psychology. Indeed, individual differences, let alone cultural differences, are rarely considered when the computer metaphor is invoked.

The assumption of universality in psychology is perhaps most evident when we consider the discipline’s sampling methodology. Unlike many of the other social sciences (e.g., anthropology, geography, political science, and sociology) psychologists tend not to concern themselves with questions of generalizability of their samples to populations at large, except with respect to populations that might deviate from the normal and universal mind, such as patients with brain injuries or with clinical disorders. The sampling method that has become standard in cognitive, social, personality, and some research in clinical psychology is to recruit participants from undergraduate psychology classes and to make inferences about the human mind based on them. This critique is not new (e.g., Gergen, 1973; Sears, 1986). Yet this method is rarely called into question (with some important recent exceptions, Medin & Atran, 2004; Rozin, 2001), underscoring how most psychologists implicitly assume that the findings that derive from a particular sample, bounded by context, historical time, and social class, would generalize to other contexts.

Exacerbating this issue of non-representative sampling is an issue of uneven geographical representation in research. A recent survey of all the published papers in the history of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the flagship journal of social and personality psychology, revealed that 92% of the papers originated from the US and Canada, and a full 99% emerged from Western countries (Quinones-Vidal, Lopez-Garcia, Penaranda-Ortega, & Tortosa-Gil, 2004). This pattern is not unique to social psychology, however, and if anything, is exacerbated in other fields of psychology. An analysis of the proportion of major journal articles in psychology from 1994 to 2002 that included the keyword “culture,” found that the term appeared in only 1.2% of the articles in major cognitive and experimental psychology journals, 3.1% of major clinical psychology journals, 4.3% of major developmental psychology journals, and 4.8% of major social psychology journals (Hansen, 2004). Thus many psychologists have not been studying human nature – they have been investigating the nature of educated, middle-class, young adult Westerners (or the children of such people). This sampling issue is especially problematic given that Western middle-class populations from which most psychology samples are derived, far from being typical of the world, happen to represent a cultural anomaly in that they are unusually individualistic, affluent, secular, low context, analytic, and self-enhancing with respect to the rest of the world (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998; Lipset, 1996; Triandis, 1995). It is reasonable to restrict our investigations to the most convenient samples if the processes that we are studying are known to reflect a common, underlying human nature. However, this convenience bears a substantial cost if we wish to question whether psychological phenomena are universal. The bedrock of the psychological database, consisting of cumulating layers of findings from Western middle-class college-educated young adults and their young children, prevents us from testing this assumption.

Assuming universals from a restricted database is not just a theoretical problem for psychology. It is an empirical one too. The past two decades has witnessed an explosion of research on cultural psychology. Much of this research has identified just how poorly many of our theories and findings generalize to other cultural contexts. This observed cultural diversity has not been restricted to a narrow subset of marginal phenomena; rather it cuts across the central theories and findings of psychology. For example, some phenomena that are less evident or appear in significantly divergent forms in other cultures include, from cognitive psychology, memory for and categorization of focal colors (e.g., Roberson, Davidoff, Davies, & Shapiro, 2004; Roberson, Davies, & Davidoff, 2000), spatial reasoning (Levinson, 1996), certain aspects of category-based inductive reasoning (Bailenson et al, 2002; Medin & Atran, 2004), some perceptual illusions (e.g., Segall, Campbell, & Herskovits, 1963), habitual strategies for reasoning and categorization (e.g., Nisbett et al., 2001; Norenzayan, in press), the relation between thinking and speaking (e.g., Kim, 2002), certain aspects of numerical reasoning (Miller & Paredes, 1996; Gordon, 2004); from judgment and decision making, preferred decisions in the ultimatum game (e.g., Henrich et al., in press), and risk preferences in decision making (Hsee & Weber, 1999); from social and personality psychology, independent self-concepts (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991), the similarity-attraction effect (e.g., Heine & Renshaw, 2002), motivations for uniqueness (e.g., Kim & Markus, 1999), , the fundamental attribution error (e.g., Miller, 1984; Morris & Peng, 1994; Norenzayan & Nisbett, 2000), self-enhancing motivations (e.g., Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999), predilections for violence in response to insults (e.g., Nisbett & Cohen, 1996), high subjective well-being and positive affect (e.g., Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995; Kitayama, Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000), feelings of control (e.g., Morling, Kitayama, & Miyamoto, 2002), and consistent self-views (e.g., Suh, 2002); from clinical psychology, the prevalence of major depression (Weissman et al, 1996), depression as centered on negative mood (e.g., Kleinman, 1982; Ryder, 2004), social anxiety (Okazaki, 1997), the prevalence of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia (e.g., Lee, 1995), and a number of other indigenous syndromes that have not yet received much attention in the West (e.g., agonias among Azoreans, James, 2002; ataque de nervios among Latino populations, Liebowitz et al., 1994; hikikomori among Japanese, Masataka, 2002; and whakama among the Maori, Sachdev, 1990); and from developmental psychology, the noun bias in language learning (Tardif, 1996), moral reasoning (e.g., Miller & Bersoff, 1992; Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, & Park, 1997), the prevalence of different attachment styles (e.g., .Grossmann, Grossmann, Spangler, Suess, & Unzer, 1985), and the tumultuousness and violence associated with adolescence, Schlegel & Barry, 1991). This growing body of research exploring cultural diversity in psychology urges the field to take a step back to reconsider how we can conceptualize whether psychological phenomena are universal.

The Need for Methodological Criteria for Investigating Psychological Universals

The relatively long history of debating human universals in the anthropological literature has greatly informed the investigation of psychological universals (for examples, see Atran & Norenzayan, in press; Berlin, 1992; Berlin & Kay, 1969; Brown, 1991; Daly & Wilson, 1988; Medin & Atran, 1999). Nevertheless, there are enough differences between the fields of anthropology and psychology to warrant distinct (but hopefully converging) efforts to develop methods that can facilitate the search for psychological universals. We identify three reasons for this. First is the issue of geographical limitations. The investigation of universals will be indebted to the methodical documentation of cultural diversity compiled by the pioneering efforts of anthropologists throughout the 20th century. In particular, the Human Relations Area Files database is of considerable utility for questioning what is universal, although conclusions are limited by the reliability and validity of the individual ethnographies. However, the extensive coverage of the anthropological database is something that psychology may strive towards, yet not fully attain. It is unrealistic to expect many psychologists to regularly launch the same kind of ambitious enterprises to explore the varieties of psychological experiences in all known cultures on the planet. Thus, the psychological database will likely remain relatively impoverished in terms of the numbers of cultures explored compared with that amassed through a century of ethnographies. Nevertheless, this does not mean that questions of universals cannot be empirically tested. It suggests the need to adopt strategies that can inform these questions in the absence of the rich and extensive database covering many of the world’s cultures.

A second key difference between psychology and anthropology is that psychology’s object of study, the workings of individual minds, is different from that of anthropology, which investigates human lives in their broader ecological contexts. A consideration of psychological universals requires guidelines that can inform investigations of processes that are traditionally the focus of psychological research: attention, memory, self-concepts, mental health, cognitive strategies, decision rules, emotional programs, perceptions, motives, personality structures, language acquisition, causal theories, and other mental representations of the world. In contrast, the question of potential universals in the anthropological sense (for a thorough discussion, see Brown, 1991) is targeted at a different set of characteristics. These may include family and social structures (governance, kinship relationships), social practices (coming of age rituals, treatment of the dead), and the use of tools (fire, weapons). Whether these are social phenomena that are superorganic and theoretically autonomous from individual minds (e.g., Geertz, 1973; Durkheim, 1915/1965), or more plausibly, are causally connected social distributions of mental representations and their material effects in a population (e.g., Atran & Sperber, 1991; Sperber, 1996; see also Boyd & Richerson, 1985), universals at the collective level diverge from psychological universals in important ways. Different objects of study require different standards of evidence: for example, posing questions about cultural practices such as initiation rites and kinship terminology require different kinds of evidence obtained by participant observation, linguistic analysis, and data collection at the societal level than posing questions about psychological phenomena such as cognitive dissonance and loss aversion, which are best approached through controlled experimentation at the individual level.

The third difference between psychology and anthropology reflects the most commonly used methodologies within the two fields. Anthropological data have largely been amassed through qualitative ethnographic methods, whereas psychological data are largely the product of quantitative methods that employ experimental and correlational designs. These methods have their respective strengths and weaknesses, but differ regarding issues of sampling, measurement, replicability, experimental control, generalizability, and the richness of the data. The methods are different enough that it is relatively rare for psychologists and anthropologists to consider each other’s data. We submit that such cross-fertilization would greatly benefit the study of universals for both fields, provided that psychologists were better able to develop systematic ways of examining their phenomena cross-culturally.

Despite growing interest in psychological universals, there is as of yet no set of agreed upon methodological criteria by which we can consider universals. In the absence of such criteria, researchers have largely relied on appeals to their readers’ intuitions as to what kind of data would strengthen the case for universality. It is urgent for the field to consider some guidelines by which research endeavors regarding psychological universals can be facilitated.

In sum, we are proposing that the investigation of psychological universals will benefit from a consideration of strategies that are appropriate for the idiosyncrasies of psychological research. Methods are needed by which universals can be investigated without resorting to an exhaustive sampling of every culture of the world, guidelines for investigating questions of universality of psychological phenomena, and data collection efforts that can accommodate the peculiarities of the quantitative methods used by most psychologists.

Research Strategies to Test Hypotheses Regarding Psychological Universals

Establishing the universality of a phenomenon entails generalizing across diverse populations, to humanity or a broad subset thereof (e.g., all adolescents, all adult men, all literate people)1. Generalizability across cultures is a special case of the generality of effects across contexts, items, and populations in psychology (Abelson, 1996; Shavelson & Webb, 1991).

An important initial challenge in this endeavor is the issue of comparability of measures across cultures. That is, cross-cultural comparisons are successful only to the extent that the meaning of the questions and experimental settings are known to be roughly similar across cultures (Poortinga, 1989; Van de Vijver & Leung, 1997; Pepitone & Triandis, 1987). Although this issue often defies easy solutions (e.g., Heine, Lehman, Peng, & Nisbett, 2002; Peng et al, 1997), it is a problem that has been addressed with a number of converging strategies available in the cross cultural literature, including back-translation, emically (locally) derived measurement, multimethod observations, and establishing equivalency of meaning in control conditions (for reviews, see Berry, Poortinga, & Pandey, 1997; Okazaki & Sue, 1995; Triandis, 2000). Indeed the research strategies reviewed below reflect the profitable use of such tools.

The generality of effects across cultures can be investigated systematically. We focus on three cross-cultural research strategies that can shed light on claims of universality. The two-cultures approach relies on convergent evidence for a psychological phenomenon in divergent cultural contexts. The three-cultures or triangulation approach achieves the same goal, examining the generality of a phenomenon across two well-defined cultural dimensions. Finally, the cross-cultural survey approach is the most powerful in establishing universality, but it comes with its own methodological challenges and is also the costliest of all cross-cultural research strategies.

Generalizability across two cultures

The simplest strategy that encourages claims of universality is to compare two populations that vary greatly on as many theoretically relevant dimensions as possible, such as social practices, philosophical traditions, language, geography, socioeconomic status, literacy and level of education. The claim of universality is strengthened to the extent that the same psychological process or phenomenon emerges in widely divergent contexts. The more divergent the contexts, the more powerful are the claims of universality.

Consider, as an illustration, studies of children’s theory of mind across cultures. At about 4-5 years of age, preschoolers develop an elaborate “theory of mind,” which entails, among other things, the attribution of beliefs and desires to people, and the appreciation that people may have false beliefs (Wellman, 1990). It has been argued that a theory of mind is fundamental to social functioning, and may be critically implicated in the human ability for cultural learning (Tomasello et al, 1993).

Studies of children’s theory of mind have been conducted among North American and Western European children. Thus a critical question is whether a mentalistic framework for the understanding of human behavior found in Western children is a reflection of Western cultural contexts, or a reflection of universal early childhood development. To address this question, Avis and Harris (1991) examined the theory of mind in Baka children. The Baka are a pygmy people who live in the rainforests of southeast Cameroon. They are non-literate hunter-gatherers with little or no exposure to Western philosophical ideas that may potentially contribute to mentalistic interpretations of human behavior. Thus the Baka and Western children represent sharply divergent cultural contexts.

Avis and Harris examined the “false belief” task, a widely used measure of theory of mind. In this task, children of different ages were invited to move the location of a desirable food from its container to a hiding place in the absence of the adult preparing the food. The children were then asked to predict whether the returning adult would look for the food in the container (the “false belief” answer) or the hiding place (the “true belief” answer).

The results largely replicated the pattern found among Western children. A majority of older children passed the false belief task, correctly predicting that the adult would approach the empty container and not the hiding place to which the food was moved. A minority of younger children were also systematically correct. Similar to Western children, by age 4-5, Baka children were good at predicting a person’s behavior based on that person’s beliefs. The fact that a similar mentalistic understanding of behavior emerged at around the same age in sharply divergent cultural contexts strengthens the case that the ability to appreciate false beliefs is a functional universal, largely determined by pancultural processes of human development.

Cross-cultural comparisons of theory of mind reasoning have been sparse and unsystematic. The existing evidence points to both universality and cultural variability (Wellman, Cross, & Watson, 2001; see also Lillard, 1998, for a discussion of ethnographic accounts of cultural variability). In a recent meta-analysis of theory of mind reasoning across cultures, Wellman et al (2001) found that the developmental trajectory in children’s false belief performance was the same across cultural and linguistic contexts, although cultural variation was found in performance rates at any given age group. No single variable has been identified so far that predicts the cross-cultural differences.

More concerted research is required to reach firm conclusions about the universality of theory of mind reasoning. However Avis and Harris’ study illustrates the power of the two-cultures approach in bolstering a claim for universality (see also Flavell, Zhang, Zou, Dong, & Qi, 1983, for similar evidence among Chinese children). Cultures that are theoretically maximally divergent on the domain under question yield the most convincing examples of potential universals (e.g., comparing color perception across groups that differ in their color terms, Heider & Oliver, 1972; but see Roberson, et al, 2000, 2004; comparing facial expressions across cultures with minimal shared cultural history and contact with each other, Ekman, Sorenson, & Friesen, 1969).2

Consider a case where the two-culture strategy fails to corroborate a universality claim of a process in developmental psychology. Carey (1985) has proposed an influential argument that children until the age of 10 do not possess a distinct folkbiological understanding; instead, they project their folkpsychological understanding on the natural world. As a result, young children’s understanding of biological phenomena is anthropocentric and intertwined with folkpsychological notions. In support of this argument, Carey presented evidence from studies of preschoolers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, indicating that projections of unknown properties from humans are stronger overall than projections from other animals; projections from humans to mammals are stronger than projections from mammals to humans; and most surprisingly, projections from humans to bugs are stronger than from even bees to bugs. Together, these findings suggest that children privilege humans for their inferences about the natural world.

Given that Carey’s evidence comes exclusively from a North American urban population, it is an open question as to whether the Cambridge children’s human-centered inferences are reflective of a universal cognitive tendency, or a cognitive pattern that is reflective of the unique circumstances of North American middle class culture. To answer this question, a recent study compared biological reasoning among urban American children and rural Menominee Indian children of northern Wisconsin (Medin & Atran, 2004). Menomenee children live in contexts that depart considerably from the Cambridge, Massachusetts cultural milieu. They live in a rural environment where children are immersed in the natural world of plants and animals at a very early age. The urban American children again made projections that were human-centered, by and large replicating Carey’s (1985) findings. However, contrary to Carey’s argument, Menominee children did not privilege humans over other animals. They did not make stronger projections from humans than from other animals; they did not make stronger projections from humans to mammals or humans to bugs than from mammals to other mammals or from bees to bugs. The researchers argued that urban American children’s anthropocentric bias is likely to be a reflection of a particular cultural circumstance – a lack of sufficient exposure to nonhuman species – leading to an impoverished folkbiological domain, rather than a universal tendency in causal understanding. Alternatively, it is conceivable that Menomenee children may start with an anthropocentric framework from an early age, but overcome this tendency through cultural training by the age of ten. Either way, folk psychology guides folk biology only in the absence of a well-developed folkbiological framework, as they argued to be the case in urban American culture (see also Atran, Medin, Lynch, Vapnarsky, Ucan Ek' & Sousa, 2001, regarding a similar pattern of results among rural Yucatec Maya children).

As compelling as this explanation for the cultural differences may be, the basic design of the two-cultures strategy makes it difficult to isolate the sociocultural variable that is at the core of the difference. For urban middle-class children in Massachusetts and Menomenee children in northern Wisconsin differ not only in their degree of exposure to the natural world, but in numerous other ways as well. The two-cultures strategy works well as long as findings point to universality. But the very strength of this strategy is its principal weakness when cultural differences are found. The three-cultures strategy, discussed next, addresses this limitation.

Generalizability across three cultures

The three-cultures or triangulation strategy entails a two-step process (see Bailenson et al, 2002, and Medin & Atran, 2004, for further discussion). In the first step, a psychological phenomenon is examined across two cultures A and B that are known to vary on a carefully selected theoretically relevant variable 1. In the second step, a third culture C is included that varies on another theoretically relevant variable 2 from one of the previous two cultures A or B. As a result, cultures A and B would be different on dimension 1, whereas cultures B and C would be different on dimension 2. The goal of this strategy is twofold. First, it facilitates generalization across two maximally different sociocultural contexts or theoretical dimensions that are known to affect psychological processes. Second, should researchers find a cultural difference, this design sheds light on the specific population variable that is implicated in the psychological difference. In this approach, different dimensions of cultural variation are relevant for a given cross-cultural study. In one case, a cultural difference in the availability of a linguistic structure may be most relevant, whereas in another case, the presence or absence of institutions that enforce cooperation may be most relevant. An important task for the researcher then is to start with good intuitions or theoretical expectations to guide the careful selection of the most appropriate samples.

Consider studies on category-based induction in folkbiology (Medin & Atran, 1999; Bailenson et al, 2002; see also Medin, & Atran, 2004). In these studies, the cross-cultural generality of an influential model of category-based induction, the Similarity-Coverage Model or SCM was explored (Osherson, Smith, Wilkie, Lopez, & Shafir, 1990). Two inductive reasoning phenomena predicted by the SCM, similarity and diversity, were examined among American college students and Maya villagers in the Petén region of Guatemala--a small-scale, non-industrialized, semi-literate society. Given the disproportionate reliance on university student samples in cross-cultural comparisons, this research program is an especially important investigation regarding the generality of psychological phenomena.

In the SCM of inductive inference, the similarity of premises to conclusions predicts the strength of inductive inference (the similarity phenomenon). Thus, given that robins have some unknown property, people feel more certain that sparrows also have that property than that crows have that property. Also, the more diverse are the premise categories, the stronger the inductive inference to a conclusion category that subsumes these premise categories (the diversity phenomenon). Given that White Pine and Weeping Willows get one new disease, and River Birch and Paper Birch get another new disease, people reason that the former disease is more likely to affect all trees, since Weeping Willows and White Pine offer better “coverage” of the category tree. It was found that, whereas both North American undergraduates and Maya villagers reasoned based on similarity, only North American undergraduates showed any evidence of reasoning based on diversity.

However this cultural difference is difficult to interpret, given that American undergraduates and Maya villagers differ in myriad ways, including ethnicity, language, education, SES, age, and knowledge of the natural environment. Medin and colleagues took the additional step of examining inductions of a third cultural group --American tree experts in suburban Chicago. These tree experts share similar cultural characteristics as college undergraduates, but differ mainly in the degree to which they are knowledgeable of the biological world and make daily use of this knowledge. Maya are similar to American tree experts in that they also possess a deep biological knowledge and use it on an everyday basis. However they differ from both American samples in that the Maya have scant exposure to Western philosophical ideas that have shaped Western perceptions of the natural world.

Two types of American tree experts (taxonomists and park maintenance workers) showed a mixture of ecological and diversity reasoning; the amount of ecological reasoning depended on the type of expertise (Proffitt, Coley, & Medin, 2000). Whereas taxonomists reliably used diversity strategies, park maintenance workers, similar to Maya villagers, reasoned ecologically, showing little evidence of diversity. Ecological justifications of the park maintenance workers centered on the frequency and range of tree distribution, susceptibility and resistance to disease, or mechanisms of disease transmission (Profitt et al, 2000). The authors concluded that, immersion in the biological world is the key factor that affects ecological reasoning, and in the absence of such expertise, people revert to the diversity heuristic.

Finally, a particular strength of the triangulation strategy is that it circumvents what often are circular cultural explanations of behavior (e.g., “U.S. Southern males respond violently to insult because of their Southern culture of honor, which fosters insult-related violence.”) Such circularity arises when cross-cultural researchers fail to isolate and measure the ecological variables of interest, instead choosing a sample that “embodies” the ecological variable (see Bailenson et al., 2002). By targeting a third sample that is culturally similar to one sample but shares the ecological conditions of the other, triangulation sidesteps this circularity problem by disentangling an ecological variable from its conventional population. Consider, for example, inner city men in the US Northeast, who share a culture of honor and a similar ecological milieu as Southern US men (perceptions of scarcity of economic resources, coupled with distrust in state protection and feelings of vulnerability to predation). They are, however, arguably more similar to US Northern men in political and social attitudes, and other cultural characteristics. Nevertheless, they would be expected to behave more like Southern US men when faced with a public affront to their reputation (Nisbett & Cohen, 1996; see also Anderson, 1994).

Cross-cultural study

A strategy that affords both the strengths of the two-culture and three-culture comparison strategies is the cross-cultural study in which a wide array of the world’s cultures are assessed with the same measure. Whereas the two-culture approach targets universality by looking for similarities in two maximally-divergent groups, and the three-culture approach looks for universality by revealing commonalities along two psychological dimensions that vary greatly across cultures, the cross-cultural survey’s strength is its sheer coverage of the world’s cultures. Statements about universality are greatly strengthened when the findings apply to an approximation of the world’s database of cultures. This strategy has been pursued in a number of high-profile research projects (e.g., Buss, 1989; Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995; Hofstede, 1980; Russell, 1991; Schwartz, 1992). A compelling case for universality can be made when a phenomenon is clearly identifiable in a large and diverse array of cultures.

A prototypic example of the cross-cultural study is Daly and Wilson’s (1988) investigation into sex differences in homicide. They reviewed evidence from 35 samples in 19 different countries that covered the gamut of contemporary industrialized countries, to that of hunting and gathering cultures, to that of 13th century England. In each sample, men were found to engage in same-sex homicides far more than were women. The breadth of the coverage of their samples renders the evidence for some universality in sex differences in homicide to be rather unassailable, although there is room for debate regarding what particular underlying mechanisms are responsible for the universality (e.g., Eagly & Wood, 1999).

The cross-cultural study has the greatest potential for making compelling cases about universals. However, there are a number of challenges inherent in this strategy that can work against its effectiveness. Because it is, by nature, an especially costly and effort-intensive strategy, researchers inevitably are drawn to take some shortcuts in its application. For example, the data that tends to be most accessible to psychologists is that from student samples from universities in industrialized cultures. It is quite possible that any identified similarities across such samples would reflect the similar cultural experiences that people in these samples have had, rather than revealing broader underlying universals. A more compelling argument for universality would require the inclusion of samples that fall outside of these accessible ones, for example, a dataset that includes non-student samples and samples from subsistence societies (for some exemplars of this approach, see Atran, 1998; Brown, 1991; Henrich et al., in press; Medin & Atran, 1999; Berlin & Kay, 1969; Fiske, 1991; Russell, 1991; Segall et al., 1963). The Human Relations Area Files is a useful tool for gaining access to data from subsistence societies, although one is restricted at looking at the kinds of data that were collected by the original ethnographers. Another way to reduce the difficulty of conducting experiments in a diverse array of cultural contexts is by conducting meta-analyses on studies that have been conducted independently around the world (e.g., see Bond & Smith’s 1996 meta-analysis of conformity studies using the Asch paradigm).

A second challenge for the cross-cultural study is the trade-off between the amount of experimental rigor that can be applied in a given study and the number of cultures that are included. It is challenging and costly, for example, to run a laboratory study in many different cultures at once and maintain a high degree of experimental control and faithfulness to the local cultural meanings of the variables and experimental procedures. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of psychological studies that target a large number of cultures do so by the way of brief questionnaire measures. There are many methodological challenges to comparing cultures, and cross-cultural comparisons of mean responses to subjective Likert scales is a method that is especially prone to methodological artifacts. Without proper experimental controls, such comparisons suffer from moderacy response biases (e.g., Chen & Stevenson, 1995), acquiescent response styles (e.g., Choi & Choi, 2002), deprivation effects (Peng et al., 1997), and reference-group effects (Heine et al., 2002). Because of these shortcomings that are inherent in cultural comparisons of Likert scale measures which are used in so many applications of the cross-cultural survey, this method for exploring universals has rarely been used to its full potential. The cross-cultural survey is a powerful tool when used in conjunction with experimental methods that are not contaminated by these methodological shortcomings (see Heine et al., 2002, for a review).

A third challenge facing the cross-cultural study method is to broaden the scope of psychological variables under investigation sufficiently so that many culture-specific conceptions of the variable are not missed. This is especially problematic when a single method is used to assess a variable across cultures; the problem can be alleviated somewhat by multimethod measurement. In either case, however, a narrow conceptualization of a psychological variable can hinder the discovery of universals. With sufficient expansion of the construct to include the diversity of ways in which it is manifested across cultures, genuine universals as well as culture-specific patterns can be identified with greater confidence. For example, subjective well-being and happiness have been fruitfully investigated, and some potentially universal predictors of subjective well being, as well as cultural differences in these predictors, have been identified across cultures (e.g., Diener et al, 1995; Oishi, Diener, Lucas, & Suh, 1999). Nevertheless, it is conceivable that, without adequate examination of a construct’s applicability in different cultures, other cultural manifestations of what psychologists consider happiness may be missed, for example spirituality, a sense of connection or union with the natural world, or a sense of living a meaningful yet difficult life.

Section Summary and Conclusions

Psychologists need not canvass all the world’s myriad cultures in search of empirically-grounded psychological universals. Cross-cultural comparisons, designed with precision and based on the theoretically relevant selection of cultural samples, can yield profound insights into universals. We listed several relatively simple and cost-effective research strategies that can be used to test the degree of generality of a psychological process or phenomenon.

Although we focused on cross-cultural comparisons as the indispensable and definitional tool for establishing the degree of universality of psychological phenomena, we note briefly that several non-cross-cultural research strategies are also available to make a case for universality. These may include cross-species comparisons, such as those identifying the widespread nature of kin selection mechanisms across species (e.g., Hamilton, 1963); studies tracking psychological tendencies such as female sexual attraction or male aggressiveness as a function of biochemical or hormonal fluctuations (e.g., Gangestad, 2004); studies highlighting the neural bases of psychological structures, such as numerical reasoning, drawing on neuroimaging techniques or examining patients with selective brain injuries (Dehaene, 1997); and infant studies, establishing the early emergence of psychological expectancies in infants, such as intuitions regarding physical causation (e.g., Spelke, Phillips, & Woodward, 1995). However encouraging these approaches are for exploring universality, by themselves they are inadequate for establishing the cross-cultural generality of psychological phenomena. Cultural experience can exert its effects from early infancy, perhaps even in the womb, as is the case for discriminating speech sounds (Mehler et al, 1988; Polka & Werker, 1994), and throughout adulthood. Furthermore, it is probable that cognitive primitives—whether or not shared with other species—would be elaborated, added to, and possibly modified by cultural experience. Also, many innate tendencies undergo maturational development, and may not emerge at all until later when the child’s mind is already fully immersed in, and dependent on, a cultural environment. Finally, to the extent that sociocultural practices diverge, so will the psychological structures (e.g., Carey, 2004, Cole, 1996; Vygotsky, 1978), often leading to neural specialization of culturally acquired abilities such as reading (Polk et al, 2002). For these reasons, it is critical to combine evidence from these approaches with cross-cultural data that speaks directly to the degree and nature of cross cultural generality. Cross-cultural comparisons are of central importance in the quest for psychological universals, a matter to which we turn next.

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