Culture, behaviour and cognition

Essential understandings

  • Culture can affect our cognition and behavior.
  • The effect of acculturation and enculturation on cognition and behavior.
  • Psychologists use both emic and etic approaches to studying culture.

    Definitions of culture

    tgagend public domainA cultural norm is a set of rules based on socially or culturally shared beliefs of how an individual ought to behave to be accepted within that group. Norms regulate behaviour within a group. When individuals deviate from social or cultural norms, they may be punished, marginalized, stigmatized, or—more positively—seen as creative and affecting change in the society. Being social animals, the need to belong plays a strong role in the desire to conform to group norms.

    Culture is a complex concept that is used in many different ways.  “Culture” is how we describe food and eating habits, gender roles, rituals, communication patterns and use of free time within a society. When we talk about culture, we refer to either surface culture or deep culture. 

    Surface culture is what we easily see as different when we have contact with another group. We notice that their food is different, that men and women are separated at dinner or that the music uses a different scale. What interests psychologists more is what is known as deep culture. Deep culture is the beliefs, attitudes, and values of a group. These may include a group’s perception of time, importance of personal space, respect for authority or the need to save money for the future. These cultural factors may lead to specific kinds of attitudes, beliefs and behaviour.

    ATL: International mindedness

    Public domainWhen looking at many of the things that we do, we see examples of both surface and deep culture.  For example, think about restaurant behaviours in your culture.  Here is a description of some of the common behaviours in the Czech Republic:

    • When you have a table reserved, it is for the whole evening.  It is not expected that someone is waiting to take your table when you are finished.
    • It is very common that each person at the table pays his or her own bill. It is common for the waiter to present separate bills to all people at the table simply by request. In many places, it is actually expected that this will be the case.
    • Tipping is not common.  Czechs often simply "round up."  So, if the bill comes to 290 crowns (approximately 12 USD), then it is rounded to 300 crowns.  If the bill is 590 crowns, it would be rounded up to 600 crowns.
    • It is common to have three courses, followed by coffee.

    All of these are examples of surface culture.  If we want to look at deep culture, we have to consider the values of this culture that would lead to these behaviours. 


    1.  What values of Czech culture do you think would explain the behaviours listed above?

    2.  How does your culture compare to the list above?  What does this say about the difference in values between your culture and Czech culture?

    Culture could simply be defined as a set of common rules that regulate interactions and behaviour in a group, as well as a number of shared values and attitudes in the group. Hofstede (2002) described culture as “mental software”, that is, cultural schemas that have been internalized so that they influence thinking, emotions, and behaviour. These schema are developed through daily interactions and by the feedback from other members of the group. The process of adopting or internalizing the schemas of your culture is a process known as enculturation. This process is also known as socialization; it takes place more or less unconsciously.

    Culture is defined by Matsumoto (2004) as “a dynamic system of rules, explicit and implicit, established by groups in order to ensure their survival, involving attitudes, values, beliefs, norms, and behaviours”. This is a complex definition, so we will look at it piece by piece.

    First, culture is dynamic - it changes over time in response to environmental and social changes. In a globalized society, we see the movement of people from one culture to another – whether as migrant workers, refugees or foreign students.  In addition, we are exposed to various cultures around the world through the Internet and film. As a result, most cultures are not isolated.  By interacting with other societies – either by choice or involuntarily – cultures evolve. The process by which someone comes into contact with another culture and begins to adopt the norms and behaviours of that culture is known as acculturation.

    Key definitions

    Acculturation: The process by which someone comes into contact with another culture and begins to adopt the norms and behaviours of that culture.

    Enculturation: the process of adopting or internalizing the schemas of your culture.

    Although we often think of culture on a national level, any distinct group could have a culture. So, we could talk about Italian culture, but also the culture of an individual school. A school or other large institution can have a set of guidelines that it works by - some of which are written (explicit) and some of which are simply understood (implicit). For example, it may be the rule in your school that men are not allowed to wear shorts to school.  That would be an explicit rule.  It is written in a handbook and there may even be some punishment for not following the rule.  It may also be the practice in your school that everyone greets each other in the morning with a friendly hello.  This is not a rule written in the handbook, but it is something that is implicitly understood in the community.  Those people who do not greet others may be seen as outsiders.

    The study of culture

    Understanding the role of culture in human behaviour is essential in a diverse, multicultural world. Many of the founding theorists of psychology took a solely western view – in other words, they were ethnocentric in their approach.  They saw other cultures through the lens of their own culture. They attempted to find universal behaviours—that is, they were looking for “rules” of human behaviour that could be applied to all cultures around the world. This is an etic approach to psychology. Etic approaches are typically taken within cross-cultural psychology where behaviour is compared across specific cultures. Etic study involves drawing on the notion of universal properties of cultures, which share common perceptual, cognitive, and emotional structures.

    Assuming that behaviours are universal means that you believe that depression in America is the same as depression in China or in Papua New Guinea.  This assumption about behavior has an effect on how cultures are studied.  An etic approach decides what to study and how to analyze it before arriving in the culture.  This is a deductive approach.  The hypothesis is already decided before the study begins.  Theories that are from the researchers culture – as well as the tests developed in that culture – will be used to study the people in the other culture.  In addition, the researchers are trained in a culture that is different from the culture being studied.  If you were to replicate Asch’s conformity study in Nigeria to see if you got the same results, this would be an example of etic research.

    There are some strengths to etic research. Since this type of research often uses standardized procedures and materials, the research can be easily replicated, increasing its reliability.  In addition, since the researchers use the same surveys and tests, it increases the validity of the study.  We know that it was not because we used a different test that we observed a difference in behavior. Finally, if we find that a behavior is universal, it means that there could be a global application that could improve the lives of many people.

    However, there are also limitations of etic research. The research may seem very “foreign” to the culture; strangers coming in to do the research may be viewed with suspicion and the participants may not be willing to disclose much to the researchers. In older research, psychologists often assumed that their culture’s behavior was “correct” or “normal.” Their interpretations of the participants’ behavior may have been biased.  Today researchers have a greater awareness of cultural differences and they try to minimize their own biases.  However, researchers may be somewhat blind to the complexities within cultures.  For example, a researcher carrying out a study on “Chinese” participants may fail to see significant cultural differences between different subgroups – such as Chinese in Hong Kong, urban vs. rural Chinese or religious vs secular Chinese.

    Modern cultural psychologists often use an emic approach to look at behaviours that are culturally specific. Emic approaches use a more inductive approach to the study of culture. They challenge psychologists to re-examine their ideas of “truth” with regard to culture.

    In an emic approach, the researchers first immerse themselves in the culture that they want to study in order to develop understanding. Research questions are developed by interacting with the local people. The researchers use local people with local knowledge of the culture and language skills to help carry out the research.  The researchers also adapt and create new tests in order to carry out the research. For example, the researcher may come up with a different “checklist” of symptoms for a disorder based on conversations with local people.  The goal of emic research is not to draw universal conclusions about human behavior, but to understand and apply the findings to the culture in which the research was done. A researcher  could, for example, develop a culturally adapted psychotherapy for a specific population based on the findings of an emic study.  

    Some of the strengths of an emic approach are that it is problem focused and comes up with solutions that can be directly applied to the community being studied.  In addition, the researchers develop a relationship with the community so that there is a sense of trust and openness that can be lacking in etic research. Finally, it is rare that a study is purely emic. It is perhaps not reasonable to expect that researchers would immerse themselves in a culture with no idea of what they would want to study and only develop a research question after a totally objective long-term interaction with a local culture.

    One significant limitation is that emic research takes a long time to complete and may have limited application. And since the tests are created specifically for that culture, it is not possible to establish a high level of reliability.

    Etic vs Emic approaches

    Etic approachEmic approach
    Plans out research before arriving in the fieldDevelops research question after spending time with the local community
    Applies their research findings globally; assumes that behaviours are universal.Applies their findings to the local community that is being investigated.
    Uses standardized tests and theories from their own culture and applies them to the local people.Develops tests in consultation with local experts to apply to the community. Theories are generated after spending time within the culture.
    Begins gathering data as soon as they arrive in the field.Collects data only after they are familiar with the local culture.

    Checking for understanding

    What of the following is an example of surface culture?

    Musical traditions are an example of surface culture.  Surface culture includes food, flags, performing arts, literature, language or fashion.  All of the other examples above are beliefs.  These are examples of deep culture.

    Which of the following is an example of how culture is dynamic?

    The word "dynamic" means that there is change over time. Attitudes are an example of deep culture.  It is true that hair styles and fashions change over time, but this is surface culture and is not usually an example of the dynamism of culture.  When clothing is rooted in deep cultural values, this is less to be dynamic.  When behaviour is mandated to be changed, this may or may not result in a change of cultural values.


    The process by which someone comes into contact with another culture and begins to adopt the norms and behaviours of that culture is known as

    Acculturation occurs through coming into contact with other another culture.  This may happen through globalization, but it may also occur because one moves to another country as a refugee, for work or for study.


    Which of the following in not characteristic of an etic approach to studying culture?

    An etic approach is deductive - so it is based on theory and research already conducted.  It also believes that behaviors are universal; therefore, much of the research is "cross-cultural."  Etic researchers do not feel that it is necessary to "immerse onself" in the culture to study it.


    Which of the following would most likely be an emic study of behaviour?

    Emic studies tend to study a singular culture in depth with the goal of improving some aspect of the lives of individuals in that culture.  It does not have the goal of generalizing to the entire human population.  Also, emic researchers create 'tools" that are used with regard to the culture they are studying.  When the same test or survey is given to people regardless of culture, it is most likely an etic study.


    Which of the following is a problem with carrying out emic research, but generally not a problem with etic research?

    Researchers often make use of translators - whether they are carrying out etic or emic research.  Also, as there is a history of mistrust between developing countries and the developed world, finding a sample that is willing to disclose information to a stranger for one of those cultures is a real consideration in all cultural research.  The exposure to the Internet and the globalized world is changing culture.  It is questionable whether there is something like a "pure" Czech culture, for example, that is not influenced by the globalized world we live in.  Because emic researchers often do not use experimental methods - and when they do, the task is adapted for the culture being studied - the research is difficult to replicate, making it difficult to determine if the results are reliable.


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    Cultural dimensions  

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