Debates in Psychology: Cultural Differences

Specification: Describe and evaluate issues of ethnocentrism in psychological research, including the potential effect of cultural bias in the interpretation and application of cross-cultural studies.

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Cultural Differences 1

Ethnocentrism:This occurs in psychology when researchers look upon the world only from their own perspective.

Ethnocentrism is when psychologists devise theories based on their experiences and cultural backgrounds. These theories may then be used to explain the behaviour of different people from different cultural backgrounds.

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Cultural Differences 2

Ethnocentrism leads to cultural bias where it is assumed that all cultural norms and values of one’s own society are ‘normal’ everywhere or are in some way ‘better’ than alternatives in other cultures. This leads us to being prejudiced in favour of people we see as similar to ourselves and against those who are different.

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Cultural Differences 3

Related Theory: Social Identity

  • We categorise people into groups.
  • We identify with people we perceive as being in our in group.
  • We compare members of our in group more favourably with members of our out groups.
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Related Study: Sherif’s

Sherif’s study showed that boys at a summer camp quickly became prejudiced against boys in another group.

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Issues of Ethnocentrism in Psychological Research

Ethnocentrism has led to two main problems in psychology:

1. Most psychological research uses European and North American participants. In studies that measure universal characteristics e.g. the capacity of Short Term Memory (STM) it doesn’t really matter. But, since the environment has an impact on many psychological characteristics, it is invalid to generalise the findings of this research to people of different cultures.

2. The ideas based on research done in America and Western Europe may be inappropriately applied to different cultural groups because the researchers find it difficult to recognise or understand the differing experiences and behaviours of people which differ from their own.

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An example of this from Clinical Psychology is the DSM. The DSM was devised in America and is widely used in other cultures. In the DSM, hearing voices is seen as a sign of mental illness and can lead to a diagnosis of schizophrenia. However, in some cultures, hearing voices is interpreted as ancestors talking to you.

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Cross-Cultural Studies in Psychology

Doing research within different cultures can show us whether a characteristic is universal or unique to a particular culture.

A universal characteristic is likely to come from human nature, whereas, something that is unique to one culture is likely to come from nurture.

Milgram’s Study

Milgram’s study has been done in the USA, Germany, Australia and the children from Kikuyu of East Africa were found to be more obedient than in the USA.

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We may jump conclusions that there are large cultural differences in obedience, with some cultures doing what they are told and others being more independent.

The procedures, however, may mean different things in other cultures. In non-western cultures there may be more powerful authority figures e.g. Religious or Military leaders.

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The original study made the assumption that scientists are respected authority figures – this may be a western assumption based on the importance of science in the western world.

Sherif’s Study

Sherif’s study has been conducted in many countries. One study that did stand out is the one that was done in Lebanon. There was an unexpected ending to the study as one group were so resentful that they would not co-operate in the final stage of the study.

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We might assume that Lebanese children were more prejudiced and less co-operative if we did not analyse what the findings mean within the cultural context.

The boys were from a collectivistic culture and were not prepared for this kind of competitive conflict. Being isolated in a group of boys the same age would also be culturally alien for children who lived in extended families.

This shows that the competition and friendship groups that are assumed to be normal in individualistic cultures are not common elsewhere.

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Evaluation of Cross-Cultural Research


Cross-cultural research allows us to avoid ethnocentrism. It shows us that we cannot simply assume that our findings will generalise to other people from different backgrounds to ourselves.

Cross-cultural research can be used to identify different cultural approaches to many issues, so that what is useful to one culture can be introduced beneficially into another. For example, Eastern practices of meditation have successfully been used to reduce stress in Western countries.

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Evaluation of Cross-Cultural Research


If the same study is done in two different cultures, the methods used might be more appropriate for use in one culture than another. For example, methods of assessing babies’ development often show that western babies are more securely attached than babies from other cultures.

Taken at face value these findings suggest that western practises of childrearing are best and should be adopted in all cultures. However, the way of measuring attachment bonds is culturally biased and so securely attached babies from other cultures are measured as insecure by these western measuring techniques.

Cross-cultural research ignores the variation that can occur within a culture rather than between cultures, e.g. there are different attitudes between rural and urban dwellers. By ignoring the impact of sub-cultures, cross-cultural research can be reductionist.

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