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Culture, social cognition and social influence: social psychology across cultures

What this chapter will teach you

  • • What is social cognition?
  • • What is social identity theory?
  • • Is self-serving attribution bias culturally universal?
  • • Is there global support for mainstream theories of prejudice?
  • • Is romantic love culturally universal?
  • • Do classic obedience and conformity studies replicate globally?
  • • Is independent behaviour spreading worldwide?
  • • Are loafing and striving global phenomena?

Does culture change the way we see ourselves - and others?

I am a middle-aged Scottish bus driver.

I am an eight-year-old Icelandic schoolgirl.

I am a retired diplomat from Angola.

How would you describe yourself in a sentence, beginning with lam...? As with these anonymous quotes, you might mention the various groups you belong to (age, nation, occupation). It is common for people to construe (perceive) themselves in this way, perhaps because much of our sense of identity derives from our perceptions about the in-groups (various groups such as the family, nation, age cohort with whom we share certain values) we belong to and the out-groups (groups whose values we don’t share) we don’t belong to. Furthermore, defining ourselves in terms of in-groups has implications for how we relate to the people around us.


Social cognition.

Blend of cognitive and social psychology that looks at our attitudes and our perceptions of those around us.

Liu et al. (2003) point out that our interpersonal relationships are affected by whether or not we perceive others as belonging to our ingroups. Another way of putting this is to say that our inter-group relations influence our interpersonal relations. We’re likely to treat someone differently after finding out they are ‘one of us’ (Oh, you’re a Quaker too, how nice to meet you).

The idea that our perception of ourselves and others is affected by group affiliations has been around for a while in social psychology (Tajfel, 1970), especially in the field of social cognition. This blend of cognitive and social psychology, which looks at our attitudes and our perceptions of those around us, also suggests that these attitudes and perceptions are culturally influenced.

Culture and self-construal

Am I me first, or am I one of us first?

Answering a question like this requires me to consider whether I construe (define or regard) myself primarily as an independent person or as an interdependent affiliate of one or more social group (Markus & Kitayama, 1991a), perhaps occupational, sporting, familial or religious (see Table 7.1).

In some cultural settings personal identity may be construed more from individual traits, while elsewhere it arises from the social networks to which we belong (Rhee et al., 1995). Early research suggests that people from more individualistic cultural settings (US, Western Europe)


Independent and interdependent self-construal styles: how do I see myself?

Independent self-construal

Interdependent self-construal

  • • Individual is seen as an autonomous free agent, relatively unaffected by social context
  • • Behaviour likely to remain consistent across situations due to core personality traits
  • • Associated with 'western' notions of self, common in US and Western Europe
  • • Self is perceived as interconnected with physical and social context
  • • Person aims to preserve harmony with physical and social world
  • • Behaviour seen as not necessarily consistent across situations, but affected by situational factors

are more likely to subscribe to an independent style of self-construal, with collectivist cultures fostering interdependent self-construal. Harrison et al. (1995) investigated this by comparing self-construal tendencies in Zimbabwean and US adolescents. Participants were asked to rate the contributions of their social relationships to their individual sense of worth. Zimbabweans showed firmer commitments to a wider social network than Americans did. They also relied more heavily on a wider group of social affiliates for intimacy and support than Americans did, and showed a greater tendency towards out-group denigration. The idea that we derive our sense of who we are from affiliation with social groups borrows heavily from Tajfel’s (1981) social identity theory, which asserts that we categorise ourselves according to which social groups we find attractive, and seek out those who belong to the same group as ourselves. According to this theory it would make sense for someone with an interdependent style of self-construal not only to gain their identity from group affiliation, but also to habitually denigrate out-group members, as Harrison et al. (1995) found in a Zimbabwean condition.

Another study required participants from cultures normally regarded as individualist or collectivist to complete the phrase / am ... 20 times (Bochner, 1994). Individualists mainly confined their answers to their own personality traits (/ am honest, / am laid-back) while collectivists were more likely to invoke the roles they played in society (/ am a good parent, I am a conscientious student). In similar vein Tafarodi et al. (2004) found Canadians to be more likely to judge their inner self as consistent across situations than were Chinese or Japanese participants, who saw contextual factors as influencing their behaviour. Furthermore, when asked what made them angry participants from collectivist cultures such as China and Japan were found to be more likely to cite incidents that happen to other people rather than themselves (Stipek et al., 1989), compared with US respondents.

This selection of early findings supports a link between independent- interdependent self-construal and individualism-collectivism (Triandis et al., 1988). It suggests that collectivist cultures encourage in their members a deeper commitment to a few all-pervading (familial or religious) groups, requiring a greater level of commitment than do the more numerous (sports, church or music) social groups that make up more individualistic cultures (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017). Interdependent self- construal encourages a heightened sense of the self as part of a wider social network, rather than as an autonomous entity. Further consequences of interdependence may include a willingness to denigrate outgroups in collectivist culture and reluctance to break social taboos, such as discussing sexual fantasies (Goodwin & Lee, 1994).

Limitations of the independent-interdependent self-construal theory

1 Independence and individualism are not synonymous

The link between individualism and independent self-construal is not universally supported. In some research, participants from the US



Inferences we make to explain behaviour

Fundamental attribution error.

Tendency to explain the actions of others using internal causes.

employ more interdependent self-construal than do those from what might be regarded as less individualistic European nations (Gudykunst & Lee, 2003). Furthermore, in research social media use and self- construal, it was found that self-construal on Facebook revealed no differences in relation to independence and interdependence in posts by Africans, Asians and North Americans (De Andrea et al., 2010).

2 Self-construal varies within the same individual

Independent and interdependent self-construals should not be regarded as discrete or mutually exclusive (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017). Independent-interdependent self-construal has been shown to vary within the same person according to whether they are at home or at work (Smith & Bond, 1998). Several researchers have shown that people from different cultures demonstrate multiple styles of self-construal across varying contexts and regions (Kashima et al., 2004; Kemmelmeier & Cheng, 2004). Consequently, it seems questionable to assert that participants from certain cultures construe themselves according to a distinct, consistent style.

Much of the evidence invites the conclusion that individualistic cultures are prone to more independent self-construal, while collectivist cultures foster more interdependence. So if our cultural background does influence how we see ourselves, we might logically ask how it affects our attitudes to others, especially those who lie beyond the limits of our in-groups.

Culture and attribution bias

We make attributions to explain the behaviour of ourselves and of those around us (She did that because ...). Attributions are inferences we make to explain behaviour. Psychological research and everyday experience both suggest that we are not always entirely fair when making them. Indeed, the phrase one rule for one, one for another springs to mind. Our attributions often betray our most personal biases. These are never more obvious than when we make what are termed internal and external attributions. Internal attributions explain behaviours in terms of dispositions or personality traits (He did it because he is kind). External attributions invoke situational, contextual causes (She did it because the weather was inclement). Our self-centred, self-serving bias might dictate that our own negative or unsuccessful behaviours tend to be externally attributed (I was unlucky), while similar behaviours by others receive internal attributions (He’s incompetent). Such attribution bias is an example of what is known as the fundamental attribution error (Miller, 1984), reflecting our biased tendency to explain the actions of others using internal causes, so ignoring the effect that situational factors on behaviour.

Is self-serving attribution bias culturally universal?

We can investigate this question by asking how people from different cultures explain their successes and failures, for instance in school- work. Some cultural differences have emerged, indicating that styles of attribution depend on where you come from. Kashima and Triandis (1986) found that when asked to explain their own success Japanese participants were more likely to invoke external attributions (/ was lucky). US participants favoured internal explanations (/ was skilful). A so-called self-effacing bias, displayed here in the Japanese condition, has also been observed in China, where participants were more likely to put their own successes down to external causes than were US participants (Lee & Seligman, 1997). Crittenden (1991) supports this notion by reporting Taiwanese students’ tendencies towards modestly attributing their own academic success to external factors, compared with US participants’ preferences for internal attributions. Modest self-effacement is perhaps part and parcel of a style of social cognition that favours explaining behaviour in terms of contexts for action, also known as allocentrism (Smith & Bond, 1998). This contextual style of social cognition is consistent with interdependent self-construal (see previous section). Arguably, allocentrism is a socialised characteristic of less individualistic cultures, rooted in parental practices that are particular to those regions (Bornstein et al., 1998).

Another ingenious demonstration of cultural differences in attribution style involved a comparison of US and Chinese newspaper reports of homicides. Chinese journalists favoured situational explanations (He did it because he comes from a rough district). Americans tended to highlight dispositional factors (He has a criminal personality) (Morris & Peng, 1994).

All of this suggests that people from Asia are socialised towards seeing themselves as less separable from the social fabric into which they are embedded (interdependent), thus tending to attribute their own success to contextual factors. Comparatively, individualistic cultures foster a more autonomous view of the self, fostering a greater tendency towards invoking internal explanations. So, as to the cultural universality of attribution bias, it appears that the practice of praising oneself for success is not universally widespread, as in some cultures self-effacement is more the norm.

Limitations of attribution bias research

1 Anyone can make any type of attribution

We should be wary of making a hard and fast link between collectivism, allocentrism and self-effacing attributions for fear of descending into the use of stereotypes. After all, it has also been shown that the same person can display both self-serving and self-effacing biases in differing contexts (Kagitcibasi, 1996).

2 Attributions are influenced by unique cultural contexts

The likelihood of making self-serving or self-effacing attributions can depend on cultural and contextual factors that override the individualism- collectivism dimension. For instance, within what are often represented as a collectivist cultures, self-serving and self-effacing attribution styles can coexist (Hewstone & Ward, 1985) and therefore have to be interpreted according to their unique social context.


Allocentrism. Style of social cognition that favours explaining behaviour in terms of contexts for action.

з Universality of self-serving bias


  • 1. What's the difference between internal and external attributions?
  • 2. Cite one piece of evidence to suggest that culture influences attribution styles.

To counter arguments about cultural differences in self-serving attributions, there is accumulated evidence to support universality in this tendency. A meta-analysis by Mezulis et al. (2004) showed a self- serving attributional bias across 266 groups, with no differences across European, African, Asian, multi-ethnic Americans and Hispanic groups. One caveat to this assumption about cultural universality of self-serving bias however comes from a study which found that religious affiliation (if not culture itself), can have an effect on attributional style (Norenzayan & Lee, 2010).

Culture and prejudice

If culture affects the way we construe ourselves and attribute our successes and failures, we might also expect it to influence our attitudes towards those around us, such as in the practice of forming cultural or national stereotypes (see Figure 7.1). In other words, our self-serving biases (me against you) may be echoed in our inter-group relations (us against them). In-group biases, along with the out-group denigration that often accompanies them, are known as prejudice.


Prejudice. Attitudes (usually negative) towards particular social groups, based on their group membership.


Figure 7.1 Stereotypes

Social psychology has variously explained the origins of attitudes (usually negative) towards particular social groups (see Table 7.2). These models have been researched in their cultures of origin but, as the following section indicates, there is some support for them across cultures.

Global support for theories of prejudice

Minimal groups

Replications of Tajfel-like experiments across seven industrialised nations revealed cultural differences in the minimal groups effect, with a pronounced in-group bias effect in the US, Germany and The Netherlands and smaller one in the UK, Ireland and Switzerland (Mullen et al., 1992). However, in-group bias did not show up in groups that had been assigned low status. They often displayed out-group bias, which actually offers support for social dominance theory. Cultural differences in the minimal group effect have also emerged in a series of replications


Historical social psychological theories on the origins of prejudice

Minimal groups theory

(Tajfel, 1981)

Derived from Tajfel’s (1981) social identity theory, this theory argues that we are likely to compare in-groupers' attributes favourably with those of out-groupers simply because we perceive that the latter belong to a different social group. Prejudice against out-groups arises out of a perception of inter-group difference, however trivial the criteria are for those differences.

For example: Because your group supports a different football, team 1 am prejudiced against you.

Contact hypothesis

(Allport, 1954)

Lack of contact between social groups is associated with the development of negative inter-group attitudes. Animosity will decrease as contact increases because of the resulting erosion in mutual ignorance. To be meaningful, though, contact must be equal status (where no group holds power over the other), non-competitive, with the existence of superordinate goals (shared by both sides) and legitimised by authority. For example: Because 1 am ignorant of your group’s lifestyle and values,

1 am prejudiced against you.

Social dominance theory

(Sidanius & Pratto, 1999)

Prejudice is related to differing status between social groups. High-status groups often adopt a social dominance orientation (SDO) to legitimise their dominance. SDO promotes in-group identification and prejudice against out-groups. Interestingly, SDO can be adopted by low-status groups, resulting in-group derogation.

For example: Because 1 want to protect our elevated status, 1 am prejudiced against your group.

Realistic conflict theory

(Sherif, 1966)

Knowing that someone belongs to a different group from us may be a basis for prejudice, but only where there is competition for scarce resources between those groups. Where group goals can be achieved only at the expense of another group’s aspirations, conflict of interests will give rise to prejudice.

For example: Because there is only a limited amount of cake to be distributed between my group and yours, 1 am prejudiced against you.

Historical representation theory

(Liu etal.,2003)

From the perspective of cultural psychology (see Chapter 5), Liu et al„ 2003 see inter-group prejudice arising from conflicting interpretive representations of history. Past disputes over land claims or human rights abuses thus inform the development of present-day attitudes, perhaps precluding harmonious inter-group relations.

For example: Because of our ancient quarrels over land, 1 am prejudiced against your group.

in Australasia, suggesting that the maximum difference strategy is not universally preferred across cultures. Compared with a European condition which did adopt this strategy, Polynesian participants from Maori and Samoan communities were more likely to select the more egalitarian maximum joint rewards strategy (Wetherell, 1982). It follows from the minimal group theory that the existence of super-ordinate goals that may be seen to unite members of out-groups who are part of a larger shared in-group, may mediate prejudice. For example, in one study in Northern Ireland, it was found that a superordinate national identity (being Northern Irish) associated with conciliatory attitudes between religious denominations. Common in-group identity linked with positive social attitudes but not positive political attitudes (Lowe & Muldoon, 2017).


Does presence make the heart grow fonder? Cross-cultural testing of Allport’s hypothesis suggests that it might. Pettigrew and Tropp (2000) reviewed 515 studies from various cultural settings, in workplaces, schools and experimental laboratories. There was general support for the contact effect, with the authors concluding that optimal inter-group contact should be a critical component of any successful effort to reduce prejudice (Berry et al., 2011). Increased contact, specifically in the context of acculturation (the learning of a culture’s behavioural norms and beliefs following prolonged exposure), has been associated with reduced levels of prejudice in the European immigration context (Hammack, 2016). Yet paradoxically, it has also been suggested that acculturation can aggravate prejudicial attitudes towards immigrants (Phalet et al., 2018).

Building on such data, several worldwide policy initiatives have sought to improve relations by reducing inter-group segregation, notably among Northern Ireland’s Catholic and Protestant communities. Yet despite such efforts in the domains of education, sport and residence, census data still suggest that most citizens of the province prefer to socialise with ingroupers (Niens et al., 2003). Also, it seems that where inter-group friendships do exist, they often do not translate into changes in attitudes towards the out-group (Trew, 1986). Against this, research with ethnic minorities in Germany, Belgium and England has suggested that extended contact can reduce prejudice and inter-group anxiety (Binder et al., 2009). Niens et al. (2003) investigated the potential positive effects of increased (quality and quantity of) contact between Catholics and Protestants. Their questionnaire data showed opportunities for inter-group contact to be frequent, yet inter-group friendships were infrequent. Nevertheless, statistical analyses revealed patterns that supported contact as a force for good. Quantity and quality of contact were both inversely related to inter-group anxiety. Also, increases in all types of contact were moderately associated with positive attitudes towards out-group members.

Social dominance

A social dominance orientation (SDO) involves high-status groups adopting a so-called ‘just world’ justification (/ am up here because I deserve it) for their elevated social position. Indeed, this theory sees powerful and relatively powerless groups as both likely to identify with the upper echelons, for example by attributing the failures of low-status groups to internal dispositions (Smith et al., 2006a). Using locally devised measures of prejudice, Pratto et al. (2000) tested this hypothesis in Canada, Israel and Thailand. As predicted, high-and low-status groups did identify more with those in power. In the light of such findings, we might expect outgroup identification by those in low-status groups to generate a desire to 'move into’ those groups (Smith et al., 2006a).

In another telling example of ‘just world’ identification with powerful groups, Levin et al. (2003) asked Lebanese participants whether they supported the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. As social dominance theory might predict, the most fervent supporters of the attacks were those with the least pronounced social dominance (just world) orientation. This indicates that the less you identify with the powerful groups (the US), the more sympathy you might have for those who attack their power.

Realistic conflict

In line with Sherif’s hypothesis, inter-group prejudice does seem to intensify where an out-group is seen as encroaching on one’s material resources or symbolic values. In other words, where groups are in competition for limited resources, negative attitudes ensue over ethnic lines (Hammack, 2016). Such threats can be realistic (over resources) or symbolic (relating to values or beliefs). Riek et al. (2006) showed that such threats predict negative attitudes towards out-group members. For example, a perceived sense of threat among European Union citizens who felt their resources and values were being eroded correlated with high levels of prejudice against ethnic out-groups (Jackson et al., 2001). A sense of threat also predicated a desire to clamp down on immigration, for example against Mexicans in the US (Stephan et al., 2000).

Historical representations

Not satisfied that existing social psychological theories adequately explain inter-group prejudice in diverse cultures, Liu et al. (2003) urge us to view each site of conflict in relation to its inhabitants’ unique cultural context and their particular representations of history. Liu and colleagues stress the influence of wars and land disputes on how we construe our identities in relation to other groups. For example, 12 cultural groups surveyed all identified the Second World War as the most important event in their history (Liu et al., 2003). Furthermore, it is argued that where different groups share a polemical (disputed) interpretation of such historical conflicts (as for example in Northern Ireland), this is a recipe for inter-group conflict and prejudice.

Limitations of research on culture and prejudice

1 Beware the imposed etic when applying imported theories

When assessing the replicability of theories of prejudice, we should remember that some of their key concepts - and the instruments used to assess them - were originally developed outside the replication context. Arguably, this gives rise to the setting up of experimental scenarios that, because they have not been devised with local knowledge, appear alien and meaningless to participants. For example, in the case of the minimal groups replications we might wonder whether Polynesian participants’ responses to this unfamiliar experimental scenario could produce entirely valid findings (Smith & Bond, 1998).

2 The theories may receive global support, they may not be mutually exclusive

While models are presented here as discrete explanations for the origins of inter-group prejudice, applying them across cultures alerts us to the possibility that they perhaps should not be regarded as mutually exclusive or entirely in opposition to one another, since elements within them often overlap. For example, ascribing prejudice to conflict over scarce resources (Sherif, 1966) is not incompatible with seeing it as conflicting representations of historical events (Liu et al., 2003; HammacK, 2016).


1. What is the difference between minimal groups and realistic conflict explanations of prejudice?

Having reviewed the cultural applicability of social psychological theories of prejudice and found that, though cultural and historical contexts clearly influence the emergence of intergroup conflict, certain psychological elements of prejudice do appear across cultures, we will now ask whether friendship and intimacy take similar forms in different cultures.

Culture, love and intimate relationships

The various marriage permutations worldwide (romantic, arranged, monogamous, polygamous) suggest that how we define, express and institutionalise love and intimacy is affected by culture. Researchers have explored issues of love and cultural variation in a number of ways, for instance by asking whether perceptions of attractiveness are the same the world over.

Are we all looking for the same thing?

Evolutionary psychologists have suggested that our taste in intimate partners is dominated by the reproductive instinct, not by the vicissitudes of culture. Thus, the pursuit of physically and reproductively fit partners would supposedly be a culturally universal practice (Montepare & Zebrowitz, 1993). Males would seek females with most reproductive potential, with females seeking males who were most able to provide for their family


Evolutionary psychology. A branch of psychology focusing on genetic and biological antecedents of behaviour.

Is there evidence for this evolutionary stance? One large-scale international study of partner preferences certainly shows high levels of consensus in tastes in both genders. Surveying 10,000 participants in 37 nations, Buss (1989) found that females rated partners with good financial prospects more highly than males did in 36 of those nations. Displaying similar levels of unanimity, males preferred younger (more fertile) female mates than females did in every nation. Youth and health were high on the desirability agenda for males. Industry and earning potential were both valued by females. Buss et al. (2000) found that males expressing a preference for more children opted for younger partners. Schmitt et al. (2003) found that males wanted more sexual partners than females did, perhaps reflecting a biological need for multiple fathering. Bech-Sorensen and Pollet (2016) have found the Buss et al. study to have been largely replicable, with some interesting developments in terms of willingness to marry someone from a different ethnicity. Indeed, they revealed no significant sex difference in willingness to marry someone of a different ethnicity, contrary to earlier work by Sprecher et al. (1994). This may reflect social change in cultural stereotypes, with interethnic marriages becoming more common in recent years (Bech- Sorensen & Pollet, 2016). Overall, these findings invite an evolutionary interpretation, indicating culturally universal tastes in potential partners.

Yet critical voices have been raised against evolutionists. A reexamination of Buss’s survey data revealed cultural variations that in some cases exceeded gender differences (Smith et al., 2006a). For example, national levels of affluence predicted differences in selection criteria for intimate partners. Specifically, participants from richer countries showed a greater preference for love (rather than status), for intelligence (rather than domesticity), for dependability (rather than good looks) and for sociability (rather than religion) (Chan, 2004). The influence of socio-economic factors on intimate partner choice is endorsed by Georgas (2011). It seems then that the evolutionary proposition that all humans are biologically predisposed towards making similar partner choices should be treated with caution.

Is beauty more than culture-deep?

It is not the sole prerogative of evolutionary theory to identify cross- cultural agreement about intimate partner choice. Many researchers have produced data suggesting that the criteria for physical beauty are agreed worldwide. Cunningham et al. (1995) found consensus among Europeans, Asians and Hispanics about which facial features were attractive among participants rating photographs of female models (drawn from many cultures). Elsewhere, when asked to rate physical characteristics for their attractiveness, Japanese and Koreans showed some overlap in their tastes. Koreans reported large eyes, high noses and thin faces to be typically attractive. Japanese participants agreed about the large eyes, yet were also aroused by small noses and small chins (Daibo et al., 1994). Interestingly, there are also positive correlations between judgements about physical beauty and desirable personality traits (Feingold, 1992). In other words, beautiful people are often perceived as being good, even though our ideas about which traits are good may vary across cultures (Wheeler & Kim, 1997).

From a relativist perspective, it has been argued that partner preference may be culturally constructed (Al-Darmaki et al., 2014) and manifest itself differently in different cultures (see Figures 7.2 and 7.3). For example, there is evidence of differing perceptions of physical beauty across cultures and throughout history. For instance, slender figures have not always been regarded as normally desirable, even in Western Europe (Smith et al., 2006a). Contemporary data show UK residents from Caribbean and West African countries to rate larger female body size


Figure 7.2 Polygyny

as most desirable (Hodes et al., 1996; Cogan et al., 1996). Indigenous Ugandan males and females endorse this preference for plumpness (Furnham et al., 2002). This casts doubt on evolutionary or universal- ist approaches to mate selection. Yet we should perhaps allow for the possibility that as more cultural groups are exposed to western media images, a ‘consensualisation’ of opinion about what is attractive may develop (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017).

Is love necessarily romantic the world over?

Loving relationships may be a global phenomenon, but their nature and importance seemingly vary from culture to culture. Romantic love, characterised by passion and intimacy though not necessarily commitment (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017), is not necessarily the preferred form of intimacy everywhere (Dissa, 2016). Simmons et al. (1986) found romantic love to be less valued in Japan than in Germany or the US, with close family ties more important in the Asian context. Furnham (1984) also found romantic love to be associated with a European, rather than an Asian or South African, outlook. French and US participants in intimate partner relationships reported more private disclosure (confiding) and greater feelings of belonging than did intimate Japanese partners. In line with these findings, Chinese and Asian participants equated intimacy more with friendship than did Europeans, with excitement being more of a priority for lovers in the US (Dion & Dion, 1993).

Love too, it seems, is more idealistic in some places than in others. Danes subscribed more to so-called idealistic intimacy (no one else can love him like I do) than did English and North American respondents (Landis & O’Shea, 2000). While selecting a partner because of being passionately attracted to their personal qualities may be a prerequisite for romantic love, one large-scale international survey found these criteria not to be universally applied (Levine et al., 1995). Participants were asked how important love was to marriage, and those from countries associated with an individualist outlook (generally the more affluent ones) appeared to value love more than did those from collectivist and less affluent ones.

Arranged marriage

Figure 7.3 Arranged marriage

However, this association between so-called individualism and romantic love is not cut and dried. Anthropological evidence collected in over 180 societies suggests that in some more traditional societies, while attraction to personal characteristics was felt, cultural taboos such as arranged marriages can inhibit its expression (Jankowiak & Fischer, 1992). Furthermore, some participants in Levine et al.’s (1995) survey who were from collectivist contexts were reluctant to marry without love (Smith et al., 2006a).

Whilst there is clearly evidence for universality in partner preference, we would be unwise to assume that intimate attachments necessarily take similar forms across cultures.

Limitations of research on culture, love and intimate relationships

1 Beware the imposed etic when applying imported theories. Conclusions about culture and intimacy are often drawn from data based on psychometric instruments and concepts such as ‘romantic love’ and ‘secure attachments’ which are imported from outside the cultures where they are used (Smith et al., 2006a). In short, western notions of love and intimacy have arguably been used as a yardstick against which to measure intimacy in diverse cultures. Arguably a more emic approach might involve developing ways to explore culturally diverse conceptions of intimate attachment. This might for instance involve an acknowledgement of the diverse media used to express love, such as an analysis of the content of popular songs in different cultures (Rothbaum & Tsang, 1998).



A lovers' tiff

An argument between two partners in an intimate relationship develops, with the male partner insisting that their relationship is no different from any other the world over and they should simply accept this. She insists that there is no blueprint for love, and that it can blossom in multitudinous ways. Suggest two pieces of psychological research that each protagonist might cite to support their argument.


2 Romantic love can take various forms. When considering whether romantic love is a global phenomenon, we should be aware that romantic attachment is not itself a homogeneous category Intimate, loving relationships that may be considered romantic by the protagonists may assume different styles in different places.

For example, an international sample of over 18,000 respondents (Schmitt et al.,

2003) showed that in most nations, if you are in an intimate relationship you typically hold positive feelings about yourself and others - known as a stable attachment type. The same survey also suggested that in nations such as Japan and India, loving relationships characterised by negative attitudes towards one self in relation to others (a so-called preoccupied or self-effacing attachment style) are more common.

Our biological reproductive drives necessitate some degree of conformity in terms of mate selection, though cultural variations in behaviours relating to love and intimacy invite us to conclude that our love preferences owe something to upbringing.

Culture and social influence


Social influence.

Processes by which people affect the actions and attitudes of others.

To conclude this chapter, we will look at how social psychology’s classic social influence studies have fared cross-culturally. The term ‘social influence’ refers to processes by which people affect the actions and attitudes of others. This area of social psychology has traditionally focused on how much of our behaviour arises from the instructions of others (in the case of obedience), the example of others (in the case of conformity), or the mere presence of others (in the case of social facilitation). These three areas were famously studied in the mid-twentieth century in the US in what are regarded as classic experiments in social psychology. As we shall see, subsequent replications and modifications have explored the global applicability of these classics.

Culture and obedience



Behaviour affected by instruction.

If a system of death camps were set up in the US of the sort we had seen in Nazi Germany, one would be able to find sufficient personnel for those camps in any medium-sized American town.

(Stanley Milgram, CBS news, 1973)

Milgram (1963) conducted over 1000 trials of his notorious obedience experiments. He wanted to find out if people would obey instructions even if it resulted in fatally injuring a colleague. Participants were drawn from a range of skilled and unskilled occupations. They responded to a newspaper advertisement requesting volunteers ‘for a study of memory’. On the day of the experiment each participant reported to Yale University Psychology Department, where they were greeted by a lab-coated man in his thirties who then introduced them to ‘Mr Wallace'. Mr Wallace was a confederate playing the role of another participant. The participant and Mr Wallace were informed that they would be working together on an investigation into ‘punishment and learning’ and that one of them would be assigned the role of ‘learner’ and the other the role of ‘teacher’. Milgram ensured that the participant always got the role of ‘teacher’.

Mr Wallace, by now strapped into a (fake) electric chair, was given a (fake) memory test in which he had to demonstrate to the ‘teacher’ that he had learned a sequence of words. The participant was instructed to give Mr Wallace progressively more intense (fake) electric shocks after each mistake he made. Each time a shock was administered the participant would hear (fake) screams of pain coming from the adjoining room, where Mr Wallace was sitting. Each time he complained of not wanting to continue, the lab-coated official, who was standing only a few feet away from him, would issue verbal prods such as ‘please continue’ or ‘you must go on’. Milgram wanted to find out how many of the 40 participants would follow the instructions up to the maximum reading on the (fake) voltage board, by which point Mr Wallace’s screams had, rather ominously, faded to silence. The answer was 26, or 65%.

Milgram claimed that certain situational precursors can drive ordinary people to commit acts of torture and murder. A crucial feature of the obedience scenario is the agentic state, wherein a participant’s responsibility for action is projected onto an authority figure (/ was just following orders). But do Milgram’s findings resonate beyond the American towns he spoke of? Would a 65% obedience level show up in research carried out elsewhere? Milgramesque studies have taken place in numerous nations with comparable and often higher obedience rates. In a comparison, Blass (2012) compared average obedience rates in studies conducted across several nations outside North America. He found these to be very similar; and significantly not different outside the US: 66%, with percentage in the US 61%.

One of the highest obedience levels has been recorded in The Netherlands (Meeus & Raaijmakers, 1986), and a closer look at this study highlights its unique design. While Milgram’s participants used physical violence (electric shocks) to punish their victim, Meeus and

Raaijmakers saw psychological violence as more commonplace in the modern world in the form of verbal bullying. They wanted to know if words could be as hurtful as actions, so electric shocks were replaced with verbal haranguing. Their 91.7% obedience level suggests that psychological violence may be easier to deliver than physical violence. Perhaps the consequences of psychological violence are less disconcerting for a perpetrator. This is interesting in itself, yet when making cross-cultural obedience comparisons we should bear in mind the lack of standardisation in the designs of these studies. At first glance of Table 7.3 we might conclude that people from, say, The Netherlands, are on average more obedient than those from Australia. But this would ignore variations in the testing scenarios across these studies. The samples used, the confederates and the instructions given to participants were not held constant from place to place.

So, what can we learn from cross-cultural obedience research? We should recognise that the majority if replications of Milgram’s obedience study have taken place in westernised contexts (Bierbrauer, 2014), and that the cultural meaning of ‘blind obedience’ may well resonate differently in the Global South. While conclusions about national obedience levels may be suspect, there are indications from these studies that some of the factors influencing levels of acquiescence in the original studies apply universally. For example, Milgram found that where participants were able to instruct a confederate to press the decisive ‘shock’ button instead of pressing it themselves, obedience rose significantly. This effect was endorsed in Australia (Kilham & Mann, 1974). Similarly, the presence of a dissenting peer, refusing to obey orders, depressed obedience levels in Germany and The Netherlands, as it did at Yale. It seems, then, that doing as you’re told is, to an extent, a global phenomenon. Furthermore, how far people will go may depend not just on culture but also on the prevailing testing conditions and on certain interpersonal properties of the prevailing obedience scenario.


Is obedience culturally universal? (based on Smith & Bond, 1998)

Who (and when)?



Participants obeying to maximum level

Milgram (1963)




Ancona and Pareyson (1968)




Mantell (1971)




Kilham and Mann (1974)


Male students Female students

  • 40%
  • 16%

Burley and McGuinness (1977)


Male students


Shanab and Yahya (1978)




Miranda et al. (1981)




Schurz (1985)




Meeus and Raaijmakers (1986)

The Netherlands



Culture, conformity and independent behaviour



Behaviour affected by example.

Just like everybody else, I tend to think of myself as unique. The reality, however, is that from time to time we all display behaviour affected by example, or yielding to group pressure known as conformity (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017). Perhaps more than any other research in social psychology, Asch’s (1955) conformity experiments alert us to this tendency to deny the evidence of our own eyes in the interests of not standing out from a crowd. In the classic conformity study conducted by Solomon Asch (1955) student participants were shown an array of lines (see below) and asked whether X was most similar in length to A, В or C. Prior to making an estimate each participant witnessed six confederates make obviously incorrect answers (‘C’). Asch found that participants were induced to conform to the incorrect response on 37% of trials.

Are Asch’s findings a child of their time and place, or do they apply beyond 1950s America? To investigate this question, Bond and Smith (1996) conducted a meta-analysis of Asch-style conformity studies from 17 nations. Table 7.4 ranks the resulting cross-cultural conformity effects from highest to lowest. In these samples at least, conformity was more pronounced outside Europe and North America. We might conclude from this that conformity is associated with life in technologically and economically less developed nations, those towards the collectivist end of the individualism-collectivism dimension. Indeed, Punetha et al. (1987) noted a greater endorsement of non-conformist values among British participants than among those from Asia. This endorses the view that non-conformist attitudes are more prevalent in region where individualism is more culturally acceptable, such as in the US (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017). Arguably, conformity is to some extent a necessary behaviour in societies, facilitating increased social cohesion (Berry et al., 2011).

However, conclusions from cross-cultural meta-analyses should be drawn cautiously. Several design factors were not held constant across studies, so variables other than culture probably affected the temptation to conform. Indeed, Bond and Smith found that when more confederate judges took part in the study, conformity increased. More face-to-face contact between judges and participants had a similar effect. Nevertheless, despite these variations in design there are grounds for arguing that societies that are organised in certain ways


A meta-analysis of conformity studies (based on Bond & Smith, 1996)

Ranked size of average conformity effects, where rank ‘1' is the largest average conformity effect

Number of studies

1. Fiji


2. Hong Kong


3. Zimbabwe, Ghana, DR Congo


6. Brazil


7. Japan


8. Canada


9. Kuwait, Lebanon


11. Asch studies


12. Belgium


13. Germany


14. US (excluding Asch)


15. UK


16. Netherlands


17. Portugal


18. France


lend themselves to the socialisation of conformity. It seems reasonable to suggest that a society with a dense population and a more stratified organisation would engender more habitual conformity than would less stratified, less populous ones (Berry et al., 2011). Berry and colleagues explored this link between conformity and societal organisation by focusing on how these effects were manifest in different types of subsistence economies.

When performances on Asch-like tasks were observed, participants from hunter-based societies (with looser forms of social organisation) produced fewer conforming responses than did farmers from societies with tighter levels of social organisation. Arguably, socialisation in more rigorously organised societies facilitates less assertive, more compliant attitudes.

(Stropes-Roe & Cochrane, 1990)

Culture and social loafing

The more cooks, the worse potage

(anonymous proverb)

The mere presence of others can affect how we behave, whether they are doing the same thing as us or simply watching. This effect, known as social facilitation, takes many forms and can either improve performance on a task or fluster us and force blunders. For example, it has been found that on familiar, relatively straightforward tasks, being watched can inspire us to do better than we would alone (Zajonc, 1966). But the social facilitation effect that has most occupied cross-cultural psychologists is social loafing, which occurs when an individual’s performance on a task deteriorates when working with others. Anyone who’s participated in a group tug o’ war will recognise the opportunity to slack a little and let others take the strain. Latane et al. (Latane et al., 1979) demonstrated this effect by asking participants to make as much noise as possible either alone or in a group. When measured individually, participants’ noise levels far exceeded that which they made when in groups.

Social loafing studies from across cultures suggest some interesting cultural differences. Earley (1993) compared managerial trainees in the US with their nearest equivalents in China on tasks for which they were either individually accountable or working alongside colleagues to achieve a group goal. Loafing was significantly more common in the US than in the Chinese sample. Indeed, among Chinese schoolchildren enhanced performance when working alongside others (known as social striving) (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017), has even been observed (Gabrenya et al., 1985).

It has been demonstrated that cultural differences in these effects are more common with more difficult tasks. Karau and Williams (1993) found few cultural differences between US and Pacific Asian participants in social loafing on simple tasks such as hand-clapping and generally being noisy. Yet when the same groups were challenged with more difficult tasks, Pacific Asian groups showed social striving when working in groups. In another study Israeli and Chinese managers were motivated to greater things when they thought they were part of a group, while US participants were inspired by the thought of working alone (Earley, 1993). Earley went on to correlate loafing scores with a measure of individualism-collectivism (see Chapter 1), and a tendency towards loafing was significantly predicted by positions on this dimension; more individualistic responses correlated positively with loafing, irrespective of a respondent’s nationality. This suggests that individualism-collectivism is a reliable index of social loafing, which actually indicates that we can reliably predict behaviour to some degree without resorting to discussions of nationality (Smith et al., 2006a).

The differences in social loafing that we have discussed here, between participants in Asia and America, reflect historically acknowledged cultural norms of collectivism and individualism in these two regions. Yet such differences should not be taken for granted. The global rise of (individualistic) capitalism may erode collectivist attitudes in Asian regions and this may have a knock-on effect on social striving tendencies. Indeed, it has been suggested that the tendency to over-work, to become a workaholic and suffer work-life imbalance, is present in most cultures (Aziz et al., 2009). By the same token, some US companies are embracing collectivist, team-based management styles from Asia (Matsumoto & Juang, 2017). This may conceivably have some effect on social loafing in the US. These cultural exchanges of ideas may explain why Westaby (1995) found no real differences between American and

Japanese participants on social loafing tasks. On the contrary, the presence of others improved performance in both cultural groups in this study. It would, in summary, be no surprise if future research were to show cultural differences in social loafing becoming less polarised.


Social loafing.

When an individual's performance on a task deteriorates when working together with others.

Limitations of research culture and social influence

  • 1 Experiments on social influence underplay human agency. Some social psychologists have argued that classic laboratory research into obedience and other aspects of social influence has underestimated the way humans carry out independent behaviour under their own agency in more natural contexts. Haslam and Reicher (2003) argue that despite what has been found in the laboratory, harmful action is often initiated from lower down the social hierarchy not necessarily by an authority figure. Equally, in everyday exchanges instructions are often given and obeyed between people of equal rank. We might therefore suggest that occupants of lower rungs of the social ladder (prisoners, children, military personnel) are not simply passive respondents to social pressure (Mandel, 1998). They can instigate destructive, harmful, or pro-social acts from the bottom up. When analysing research findings from the world’s laboratories, it may be worth remembering that they do not successfully mimic everyday conduct.
  • 2 It’s easy to get hooked on the classics. Critics of cross-cultural replications of social psychology’s classic studies might legitimately argue that dwelling on this research as a means of exploring the relationship between culture and social influence shows a reluctance to decentre from psychology’s American mainstream. In other words, to cling to global replications of the admittedly very influential work of Milgram and Asch may be to ignore the development of indigenous questions about social behaviour that arise from around the world. Arguably, too much reliance on research questions that were originally devised at American universities fuels the view that mainstream psychology is really only the indigenous psychology of Americans (Markus & Kitayama, 2003).

So does culture change the way we see ourselves - and others?

This chapter has shown us that self-construal, attribution, love, obedience and a variety of other social behaviours are mediated by culture, or at least our personal endorsement of values such as individualism and collectivism. Interestingly, these are two separate phenomena since actually, while individualist values may be more predominant in some regions of the world, all nations are likely to have individuals who vary along these scales. We cannot therefore glibly use ‘nation’ as a predictor of social behaviour. Arguably though, cultural variations in social behaviour may owe much to differential childrearing practices across cultures. These will be reviewed in the next chapter.


Chapter 7 reviews social psychology’s forays into global research. Several classic studies of obedience, conformity, social loafing and other aspects of social facilitation have been widely replicated across cultures. Descriptions and evaluations of these replications are covered here, as are more contemporary studies of non-conformity, minority influence and independent behaviour. You will also find an overview of the global applicability of established theories of prejudice.

Besides these ‘classics’ of social psychology, Chapter 7 examines the global application of psychological research on social cognition. In particular, researchers have sought to establish whether the way we perceive ourselves and attribute causes to behaviour varies from culture to culture. Self- construal (how we see ourselves) and attribution bias (how we explain actions) appear to manifest themselves differently the world over.

Another area of social behaviour that appears culturally relative is love and relationships. Institutions such as monogamy, polygamy and arranged marriages are evidence for this. Several studies into cultural differences in relationships are described and evaluated here. All in all, this chapter reflects a wide diversity of social behaviour from the annals of global psychology.



Match up the definitions on the right with the terms on the left (see p. 209 for answers)


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A Thematic Analysis. Manchester Metropolitan University’s Research Repository, Manchester.

Culture and development

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