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Holistic thinking, common in Japan, leadsto a certain way of memorising.


The academic discipline of psychology wasdeveloped largely in North America and Europe. Some would argue it’s beenremarkably successful in understanding what drives human behaviour and mentalprocesses, which have long been thought to be universal. But in recent decadessome researchers have started questioning this approach, arguing that manypsychological phenomena are shaped by the culture we live in.


Clearly, humans are in many ways verysimilar – we share the same physiology and have the same basic needs, such asnourishment, safety and sexuality. So what effect can culture really have onthe fundamental aspects of our psyche, such as perception, cognition andpersonality? Let’s take a look at the evidence so far.


Experimental psychologists typically studybehaviour in a small group of people, with the assumption that this can begeneralised to the wider human population. If the population is considered tobe homogeneous, then such inferences can indeed be made from a random sample.


However, this isn’t the case. Psychologistshave long disproportionately relied on undergraduate students to carry outtheir studies, simply because they are readily available to researchers atuniversities. More dramatically still, more than 90% of participants inpsychological studies come from countries that are Western, Educated,Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic (W.E.I.R.D). Clearly, these countries areneither a random sample nor representative for the human population.


Thinking styles


Consider which two of these objects gotogether: a panda, a monkey and a banana. Respondents from Western countriesroutinely select the monkey and the panda, because both objects are animals.This is indicative of an analytic thinking style, in which objects are largelyperceived independently from their context.


In contrast, participants from Easterncountries will often select the monkey and the banana, because these objectsbelong in the same environment and share a relationship (monkeys eat bananas).This is a holistic thinking style, in which object and context are perceived tobe interrelated.


Holistic thinking is prent in Asiancultures, such as India.


In a classic demonstration of culturaldifferences in thinking styles, participants from Japan and the USA werepresented with a series of animated scenes. Lasting about 20 seconds, eachscene showed various aquatic creatures, vegetation and rocks in an underwatersetting. In a subsequent recall task, both groups of participants were equallylikely to remember salient objects, the larger fish. But the Japaneseparticipants were better than American participants at recalling backgroundinformation, such as the colour of the water. This is because holistic thinkingfocuses on background and context just as much as foreground.


This clearly demonstrates how culturaldifferences can affect something as fundamental as memory – any theorydescribing it should take that into account. Subsequent studies have shown thatcultural differences in thinking styles are pervasive in cognition – affecting memory,attention, perception, reasoning and how we talk and think.


The self


If you were asked to describe yourself,what would you say? Would you describe yourself in terms of personalcharacteristics – being intelligent or funny – or would you use preferences,such as “I love pizza”? Or perhaps you would instead base it on socialrelationships, such as “I am a parent”? Social psychologists have longmaintained that people are much more likely to describe themselves and othersin terms of stable personal characteristics.


However, the way people describe themselvesseems to be culturally bound. Individuals in the western world are indeed morelikely to view themselves as free, autonomous and unique individuals,possessing a set of fixed characteristics. But in many other parts of theworld, people describe themselves primarily as a part of different socialrelationships and strongly connected with others. This is more prent inAsia, Africa and Latin America. These differences are pervasive, and have beenlinked to differences in social relationships, motivation and upbringing.


Zulu people are more likely to think ofthemselves in terms of social relationships.


This difference in self-construal has evenbeen demonstrated at the brain level. In a brain-scanning study (fMRI), Chineseand American participants were shown different adjectives and were asked howwell these traits represented themselves. They were also asked to think abouthow well they represented their mother (the mothers were not in the study),while being scanned.


In American participants, there was a cleardifference in brain responses between thinking about the self and the mother inthe “medial prefrontal cortex”, which is a region of the brain typicallyassociated with self presentations. However, in Chinese participants there waslittle or no difference between self and mother, suggesting that theself-presentation shared a large overlap with the presentation of the closerelative.


Mental health


Another domain that was originallydominated by studies on W.E.I.R.D. samples is mental health. However, culturecan affect our understanding of mental health in different ways. Because of theexistence of cultural differences in behaviour, the framework – based ondetecting deviant or non-normative behaviours – isn’t complete. What may beseen as normal in one culture (modesty) could be seen as deviating from thenorm in another (social phobia).


In addition, a number of culture-specificsyndromes have been identified. Koro sufferers (mostly in Asia), are men whichhave the mistaken belief that their genitalia are retracting and willdisappear. Hikikomori (mostly Japan) is a condition that describes reclusiveindividuals who withdraw from social life. Meanwhile, the evil eye syndrome(mostly in Mediterranean countries) is the belief that envy or other forms ofmalevolent glare will cause misfortune on the receiver.


The existence of such culture-boundsyndromes has been acknowledged by both the World Health Organization and theAmerican Psychiatry Association recently, as some of these syndromes have beenincluded their respective classifications of mental illnesses.


Clearly culture has a massive effect on howwe view ourselves and how we are perceived by others – we are only justscratching the surface. The field, now known as “cross-cultural psychology”, isincreasingly being taught at universities across the world. The question is towhat extent it will inform psychology as a discipline going forward – some seeit as an extra dimension of it while others view it as an integral and centralpart of theory making.


With more research, we may well find thatcultural differences pervade into even more areas where human behaviour waspreviously thought of as universal. But only by knowing about these effectswill we ever be able to identify the core foundations of the human mind that weall share.


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1、avid Morley
Attitudes to sex and sexuality are clearlyanother fertile area for exploration. The common thread of sexual Puritanism in the west, running fromreligion, through social purity movements to modern feminism has often beenremarked on. The ideology and therationalisation has changed, but the underlying attitudes and feelings remain -often accompanied by strange unresolved contradictions.


Japanese attitudes, for example, areclearly very different.
People from a Christian cultural backgroundare rather shocked by Mohamed’s multiple wives, and especially by the claimthat he could satisfy them all every night. To us this seems entirely at odds with spirituality, which we tend tosee as anti-sexual or at least asexual.


2、Paul Burns
I studied Social Anthropology as wellPsychology. Is that why I am not surprised by the article?


Cultures influence behaviours in many ways.And that includes local cultures, sub-cultures and micro-cultures, such as a small workplace.


In terms of medical diagnoses andtreatments, one only has to go from the UK to France or Germany to findcultural differences, such as the French predisposition to use analsuppositories for medication or the German concept of “heart insufficiency”.


3、Geoffrey Watson
Since monkeys don’t often eat bananas inthe wild, this particular difference is best explained by (a) Eastern cultureswatching too many cartoons or (b) Western cultures being more familiar withzoology.


4、Tony Somera
I’m not sure this is really a culturalissue. In particular, I did not grow up with a holistic preference, but in the60’s opened myself up to that kind of thinking after being convinced of itssuperiority. It was a deliberate choice for me, and I’m convinced we all makesimilar choices, often in spite of our particular home culture.


For another example, I was exposed to thekind of strong group identification described as typical for Latin-Americans,Asians and Africans. But I was much more strongly attracted to anindividualistic sense of self and have lived my whole life like that.


You might consider me an outlier, but I’venever felt all that alone. There’s always been other ways to connect withthings greater than myself, and I’ve seen many others do the same.


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