A final school, which takes a higher level of analysis and which has had substantial impact on psychology, can be broadly referred to as the social-cultural approach. The field of social-cultural psychology is the study of how the social situations and the cultures in which people find themselves influence thinking and behavior. Social-cultural psychologists are particularly concerned with how people perceive themselves and others, and how people influence each other’s behavior. For instance, social psychologists have found that we are attracted to others who are similar to us in terms of attitudes and interests (Byrne, 1969), 1 that we develop our own beliefs and attitudes by comparing our opinions to those of others (Festinger, 1954), 2 and that we frequently change our beliefs and behaviors to be similar to those of the people we care about—a process known as conformity.
An important aspect of social-cultural psychology are social norms—the ways of thinking, feeling, or behaving that are shared by group members and perceived by them asappropriate (Asch, 1952; Cialdini, 1993). 3 Norms include customs, traditions, standards, and rules, as well as the general values of the group. Many of the most important social norms are determined by the culture in which we live, and these cultures are studied by cross-cultural psychologists. A culture represents the common set of social norms, including religious and family values and other moral beliefs, shared by the people who live in a geographicalregion (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998; Markus, Kitayama, & Heiman, 1996; Matsumoto, 2001). 4 Cultures influence every aspect of our lives, and it is not inappropriate to say that our culture defines our lives just as much as does our evolutionary experience (Mesoudi, 2009). 5
Psychologists have found that there is a fundamental difference in social norms between Western cultures (including those in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) and East Asian cultures (including those in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, India, and Southeast Asia). Norms in Western cultures are primarily oriented toward individualism, which is about valuing the self and one’s independence from others. Children in Western cultures are taught to develop and to value a sense of their personal self, and to see themselves in large part as separate from the other people around them. Children in Western cultures feel special about themselves; they enjoy getting gold stars on their projects and the best grade in the class. Adults in Western cultures are oriented toward promoting their own individual success, frequently in comparison to (or even at the expense of) others.
Norms in the East Asian culture, on the other hand, are oriented toward interdependence or collectivism. In these cultures children are taught to focus on developing harmonious social relationships with others. The predominant norms relate to group togetherness and connectedness, and duty and responsibility to one’s family and other groups. When asked to describe themselves, the members of East Asian cultures are more likely than those from Western cultures to indicate that they are particularly concerned about the interests of others, including their close friends and their colleagues.
Another important cultural difference is the extent to which people in different cultures are bound by social norms and customs, rather than being free to express their own individuality without considering social norms (Chan, Gelfand, Triandis, & Tzeng, 1996). 6 Cultures also differ in terms of personal space, such as how closely individuals stand to each other when talking, as well as the communication styles they employ.
It is important to be aware of cultures and cultural differences because people with different cultural backgrounds increasingly come into contact with each other as a result of increased travel and immigration and the development of the Internet and other forms of communication. In the United States, for instance, there are many different ethnic groups, and the proportion of the population that comes from minority (non-White) groups is increasing from year to year. The social-cultural approach to understanding behavior reminds us again of the difficulty of making broad generalizations about human nature. Different people experience things differently, and they experience them differently in different cultures.