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Emerging Issues in Multicultural Psychology

Updated on March 17, 2014

Issues in Multicultural Psychology

Multicultural psychology is a division of psychology that makes a focused effort to understand people and behavior by looking at and comparing individuals from different cultures. Even though multicultural psychology can be an exciting area of study it is also one that presents psychologists with many real-world challenges. There are differences between groups based on race and culture, but there are also differences between individuals which could cause misunderstandings to occur. Cultural differences in expressing and interpreting emotion can account for some of the confusion, not only in a treatment setting but also in all areas of an individuals’ life.

Race, Culture, and Individual Differences

When dealing with individuals from diverse backgrounds, no matter the setting, the possibility of confusing cultural influences with individual differences or the effect of other factors like race or socioeconomic status is always there. Stereotypes are short cuts people use to categorize groups of people. Care is needed, especially in a professional environment, to ensure that people are not defined using these oversimplifications and generalizations that tend to accentuate only the most obvious characteristics based on visible differences. In a counseling setting there could be ethical violations if the psychologist overlooks individual factors while using general classifications in an effort to understand behavior. Clients and people in general, are influenced by many factors that could include race, ethnicity, gender, age, social class, sexual identity, religious affiliation, education as well as others. In a psychological setting, it is important that treatment is based on a more pluralistic outlook that incorporates all possible influences and not just built on a preset cultural framework (Bolton-Brownlee, 1987).

Understanding the difference between race and culture is an important consideration for multicultural psychology. Although race and culture are connected, they are not the same thing. There is often confusion about the difference between the meanings of race and culture. There are five racial groups. They are Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native American, and White. Each racial group is made up of numerous ethnicities. For example, Hispanic could refer to those of Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Spanish descent. The Native American race can include different American Indian tribes like Hopi, Cherokee, or Zuni or it can apply to Alaskan Native tribes like Eskimos, Inuit, or Aleut. Even the White race includes many cultures, including people who came have English, Swedish, Dutch, German, or Irish ancestry. A person from the individual ethnicities listed above can share physical characteristics of the race he or she is classified under with others in that group, but there could be many differences in belief systems and values. Assuming all people from a specific race share the same cultural background is as inaccurate as assuming all people in a specific culture are the same; everyone has individual differences, which must be taken into account (Bolton-Brownlee, 1987).

Emotional Expression and Perception

There have been many studies conducted regarding the differences and similarities in expression and perception between cultures. Understanding these differences and similarities is one way to isolate universal emotions and provides a better understanding of the role emotion plays in social interaction. This is particularly important concerning social interaction between people from diverse backgrounds. It is a foundation for improving cross-cultural understanding and cooperation (Matsumoto, 2001).

Six facial expressing representing different emotions are thought to be inherent. Those expressions are happiness, sadness, surprise, anger, fear, and disgust. These expressions are used universally not only among people from different cultures but also those born blind and non-human primates. Even though these emotions are considered to be innate cultural rules about displaying emotion can cause changes to occur in how they are expressed. These cultural rules are learned behaviors that take into account different social situations when determining appropriate ways to express emotion (Matsumoto, 2001).

Contemporary studies have determined other similarities between cultures involving consequences from expressing certain emotions as well as other studies that have identified cultural differences in emotion expression and perception. Whether the findings are positive or negative, they all help to increase understanding on facial expressions and expressing emotion as a biological process with environmental influences (Matsumoto, 2001).

Impact on Society and Effect on Interaction between Culturally Diverse Groups

Understanding the difference between race and culture as well as differences unique to an individual, is a first step in the process of developing cultural competency and avoiding the negative impact of stereotypes. This is important to society as well as in specific areas like education, business, and mental health services. According to Bramble-Cora (n.d.) “Cultural competence is a set of attitudes, skills, behaviors, and policies that enable organizations and staff to work effectively in cross-cultural situations”. The knowledge attained about different cultures allows for better understanding and improves services given to diverse populations as well as community relationships in general.

Something as simple as being able to recognize and understand emotions can significantly impact society as well as improve cross-cultural communication and relationships between people from diverse backgrounds. Cultural differences can affect basic understanding of even universal expressions. For instance because of differences in cultural rules Americans are more likely to recognize anger, disgust, fear, and sadness than people of Japanese descent, but both groups recognize emotions like happiness and surprise. This is in part because of America being a country more open to individualism, while in Japan group dynamics are seen as more important. Negative emotions could have a destructive effect on the group so in Japan expressing these types of emotions is considered to be inappropriate (Matsumoto, 2001). Failure to identify the correct emotions between people interacting in all aspects of life can lead to misunderstandings and conflict.


While multicultural psychology makes an effort to understand people and behavior by looking at and comparing individuals from different cultures, there are many factors to take into consideration. The differences between groups based on race and culture, and the differences between individuals, need to be taken into consideration when dealing with diverse populations. Not only can misunderstandings occur, they can lead to discomfort and uneasiness, or even be a precursor to more intense reactions. Even such differences as the way different ethnicities express and interpret emotions can cause confusion between people from different cultural backgrounds in many aspects of a person’s life.


Bolton-Brownlee, A., (1987). Issues in Multicultural Counseling. Retrieved on December 7,

2012 from

Bramble-Cora, D. (n.d.). What is Cultural Competence? Retrieved on December 7, 2012 from

Matsumoto, D., (2001). Cultural Influences on Emotional Expression and Perception. Retrieved

on December 7, 2012 from

Matsumoto, D. and Leong-Jones, C. A., (2008). ETHICAL ISSUES IN CROSS-CULTURAL

PSYCHOLOGY. Retrieved on December 7, 2012 from


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