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


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


In contrast, participants from Easterncountries will often sext the monkey and the banana, because these obxtsbelong in the same environment and share a relationship (monkeys eat bananas).This is a holistic thinking style, in which obxt 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 obxts, 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.


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 beenlixed 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


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.