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Society Influences Behavior

Updated on September 25, 2014

Cultural Variations in Various Psychological Processes: Shinobu Kitayama

"1. How did you become interested in psychology?

>> Well, I was born in Japan and my father was a Buddhist priest. And I was brought up in a Buddhist temple. And lots of people come to the temple and naturally I became very interested and for those people might be thinking about. And Buddhism itself is interested in wellbeing and, you know, difficulties in life and what can save you and all that stuff. So I think that this background had deep impact on my decision to become a psychologist.

2. What is your current area of research?

>> Yeah. I'm interested in culture, cultural differences and similarities. Many years ago, oh, 25 years ago, I came to the United States [inaudible] the graduate school, and at the time, I was just astonished that some behaviors and some ways of thinking, American colleagues, American graduate students at the time, show remarkably different that I took for granted, so I became very interested in cross cultural differences and similarities in self thinking, feeling, those psychological processes.

3. What is cultural psychology? How are society and psychology related?

>> Well, I think, you know, social and behavioral scientists have always been interested in culture, and societal differences. But I think it's reactively [inaudible] that psychologists became really interested in culture, in part because I think lots of people believed that they can study culture or society quite separate from psychology and the vice versa. So you can separate psychological part, set it aside and study society, or sit society aside and study psychology. And to the extent that that's the case, and no problem, you can divide the job, but in more recent years, it became very clear, maybe it's a result of globalization, you know, big jumbo jet flying back and forth and all that, and immigration that people become -- began to suspect that some psychological processes may, may be shaped by society or culture, and then culture becomes a very important topic in psychology because ways in which you think or you feel or you define yourself, may be quite dependent on your cultural background.

4. Can you explain the different views of self in Eastern and Western cultures?

>> Yeah, I would say, you know, different societies have very different ideas or views of what a person is. A person a is biological entity, in a way, but, you know, ways in which we think about ourselves is already cultural. So some societies believe that the person is independent, separate from many such selves, and, you know, social relations are important, but social relations are considered as based on individual choice. So social relations become voluntary. Whereas many other cultures regard interdependence or social relationships as much more fundamental, so if who you are depends so much on your social roles, or, you know, location in the society, or some sort of social unit of which you are part.

5. What is the difference between individualist and collectivist societies, and which countries fall into each of these categories?

>> I think those views are very important, because often societies, many institutions [inaudible ] society, [inaudible] schools are ways in which, you know, manner social systems are created, say education systems are created, and so on, depends on what people believe about what it is to be a good person. So those cultural groups which believe independence, become more individualistic, because those societies emphasize individual rights and also individual freedom and so on, whereas, you know, societies emphasizing interdependence, more collectivistic because, you know, interest of collective are given much higher priority. Well, examples, well, the United States is a kind of prototypical individualistic culture, and west Europe is very much like that, even though I believe that America, particularly middle class America, is much more individualistic than much of Western Europe. Much of the rest of the world tends to be collectivists, more or less, but, typical collectivist cultures studied right now are often located in Asia.

6. Is there a downside to being too independent within these individualist societies? What are the drawbacks or weaknesses related to this view?

>> Well, clearly, independent cultures emphasize individual personality. So, you know, it's a good thing and often a very healthy thing to think about themselves in terms of their own interests, some attributes they have, their strengths and weaknesses and so on. One problem or one potential weakness of this kind of system is that people are often oblivious to social context, relational context, and often relationships are used to affirm the wealth of the self. So, you know, you try to find your friends, well, you may recognize only those people who praise you as your friends. And this becomes a very important criterion in, you know, finding your friends. Is this a problem? Maybe, because, this might suggest that the people are not appreciating more inherent value in the relationship itself. The relationship is therefore judged in terms of, you know, its usefulness in helping the person to define themselves.

7. What about the perception of relationships and friendships in collectivist societies? What is the downside to this view?

>> Collectivist culture, I think, you know, relationships are both good and bad. Good, because relationships can be very comforting and very supportive, and can provide a source of security. And so in collectivist culture it's very hard to fail completely because somebody is more than happy to help you, even when you don't ask them to. Well, the negative side of that is almost a mirror image of it, because those supportive others may or may not, you know, hope you to be in the way you want to be. So sometimes, you know, those social relationships in collectives of those social units can interfere with your individual initiative, individual interests, and so on, and this can be very, very oppressive. I think that's clearly a negative side.

8. Can you discuss your study of self-esteem and culture based on individuals’ drawings of their social relationships?

>> How we have a training, that's our new task, we've been spending lots of time trying to find out very tacit implicit way about assessing self esteem and at one point a colleague of mine, Sean Duffy came up with this fascinating idea. How having subjects to draw a social gram using circles to designate people including self and lines to indicate social relationships among them. So by using circles and lines we ask that people to draw their own social gram and as it turned out, well, the degree to which self circle is drawn relative to other circles is very different so in many, in some individualistic countries including the United States and Germany, self circle tend to be much larger than circles for the self and, no, I'm sorry, circles for others, their friends. Whereas there was virtually no difference in let's say, collectiveness, interdependent societies including Japan and when we did it we kind of suspected that this might be due to some writing convention, so maybe in the United States there might be convention to draw a central thing bigger. And we asked people to draw a social gram for themselves so maybe in the United States because of this writing convention, or drawing convention people might have drawn themselves bigger and this might have nothing to do with self esteem. So we ask people to draw a social gram for their friends and still in that social gram drawing for the friends, self circle was still bigger so we decided that this has something to do with self esteem or, you know, kind of being closer to the worries or in the body, people ascribe to the self relative to other people.

9. How did you use drawings to study attention differences between Eastern and Western cultures?

>> Hi, okay, well, that's another project, a long time kind of project and this whole project started when we became interested in cultural differences in attention. And lots of suspicions that Westerners might be very, very focusing on objects whereas Easterners might be much broader in attention. So for example back in Japan when I was a student I was aware of some friend who can process multiple channels of information simultaneously almost in Japan but by the same type of multitasking here it appears to be much more difficult for lots of Americans I know. So we wanted to study attention differences cross-culturally and of course this may not be very easy without having a reasonable task. So one task we came up with is called frank line task. In that task subjects are shown a square, like this, and in the square there is a line drawn in the inside and then subjects are shown another squared of different size, sometimes bigger, other times smaller and they have to make one or two tasks or judgment. In one task they have to draw a line that is proportionately identical to the first. So here the size of the square changes, you really have to pay close attention to the surrounding square to perform this task well. Whereas in the other task we asked people to draw exactly the same line in terms of absolute length, but again because the square size changes you have to ignore the surrounding square. As a 10 year old Americans are very good in the absolute task, that is area. Size of the area is very small, whereas Japanese are just the opposite and Japanese performed the proportional task pretty well, but absolutely task up here did cause some problem.

10. How did your research results lead you to understand when in the lifespan cultural differences take place?

>> So next obvious question is exactly when those cultural differences might be managed? Even some people that I knew that this may have something to do with genetics and in that case you might expect something like that from the very beginning of life but we believe that some attentional differences like this may have more to do with socialization and you know, kind of things people do or people have to do in daily life. So we expected some sort of timing line for that which is critical in emergence of this cross culture difference and one time frame we looked into was 5, 6, 7 years of age simply because that's a time when people begin capable of using language, participating in some sort of arbitrary games and you know, after all, social life is a kind of arbitrary game. And so that's the time when people, or children become real cultural animal as opposed to biological animal. So that's the time point that we looked into and as we expected, at the age of 4 or 5 we found very little of cross cultural difference between Japanese children and American children. But by the age of 7, age of 7, there is a statistically significant cross cultural differences which are now as to the differences that we find are that much. so that the initial piece of evidence indicating that attention difference may at an age be the result of socialization and critical time point might be somewhere between 5 and 7.

11. How does being bicultural or multicultural affect a person’s view of self?

>> Clearly, in this age of multiculturalism and, you know, massive immigration, ethnic diversity, people have multiple selves, and multiple selves associated with very different kinds of identities. So, well, now, I'm a Japanese living in the United States, so I have a Japanese self, and yet I have another self associated with, say, American professional. And often when I fly back to Japan I need to switch around to institute or to activate my Japanese self before I can speak to my old friends, and just likewise, to participate in professional conference, you really have to have the right step in your head. And I think, you know, many people associated with different culture groups are likely to have multiple self identities, and those self identities are very much like operation systems of the computer you have, so that you really have to have the right kind of operation system if you are to operate just in the right way, in the right context. And so really, you know, the interesting question is exactly how people switch around, switch back and forth, and some people have difficulty, and some other people are extremely good. And I think it's a very hot area of research for future work in this area.

12. What specific global issues or conflicts do you hope to address and measure in your research?

>> We are also interested in more [inaudible] implicit of cross cultural differences and the reason is that as a result of globalization, massive Western influences and so on, lots of Asians, say Japanese, Koreans, Chinese under very strong Western influences and so maybe not too surprisingly lots of people are westernized and that's exactly what you might observe especially when you just listen to what other people say. But physiologists are very fortunate to have very implicit tacit measures and often those measures reveal some habits of mind which are more in line with a traditional culture. So that's where very interesting conflict can arise. That is, you are habitual way of being and maybe more independent whereas you are more explicit, more value rating way of defining yourself, yet very explicit conscious level. Maybe more independent.

13. What direction do you see your research heading?

>> So well, this is kind of biculturalism but biculturalism happening at the time or rapid cultural change and I'm very interested in this how people maintain kind of personality, coherence and [inaudible] at the time of cultural change and I think it's one useful way is to look into those both explicit aspects of self and implicit aspects of self.

14. What has surprised you in your research with Asian subjects?

>> Well, that's--that's interesting surprises. Well, let me talk about once piece of research we did recently and that surprised me considerably. Well you know why it's surprising? Surprising because the effects we predicted came out in very massive way which is not typically the case, I think, in the science like this. Well, the topic has to do with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is kind of emotional, negative emotion that you experience when you make a choice, when you make a decision. Why choice give rise to a negative emotion? The reason is very simple. Whenever you make a choice, you are choosing between 2 equally attractive things. You know, if you clearly like this one over the other one, you'll never make a choice. You already, you know what to do. Whenever you make a choice, you are not sure what to do. In a case like this, choice can give rise to a problem simply because by making a choice, you have to give up what's very desirable in the other thing and also you have to accept what is less than optimal in the item that you are going to choose. And as a consequence, people often worry about their self-esteem. Am I a right decision maker? Was I stupid by making this choice and so on, and Leon Festinger called this kind of thing cognitive dissonance. And once you experience cognitive dissonance, you are threatened and as a consequence you try to justify the choice you have made. So, and as a consequence, you show self-justification effect. You end up liking the item you have chosen and you end up disliking the item that you rejected. We became interested in the question of whether this effect is cross culturally universal. An initial indication was that it's not. It's not because when you do to this kind of study in Japan, among Japanese or even Asian Americans, those people do not show this effect. That's interesting. Do they show cognitive dissonance? Do they not experience cognitive dissonance? Well, I know from my own experience, that Asian folks do experience cognitive dissonance of some sort. So something is wrong. So one clue was that Asians might be more or less interdependent, more relationally committed, and so Asians might experience cognitive dissonance and yet this dissonance might be more relational. So I told you that when people make a choice, people worry that they might be stupid or they might be crazy to have made this choice and so on. This is very much independent, individualistic way of worrying about your choice. If you are collectivist or interdependent people, what would you worry about? Well, you may not worry so much about what you think about yourself to be but what other people might think about yourself. So, oh, do they think I'm stupid if they know that I have made this choice? Well, if you think about this whole thing in this way and the reason why Asians didn't show a cognitive dissonance effect in the initial experiment seem to make sense because the experiment doesn't have anybody set in place to look at the subjects. So, you know, subjects didn't worry about what other people are thinking about themselves because of the choice because there are no other people who are watching. So, we did--what we did was very, very simple and straightforward. We simply wanted to prime eyes of others. That is eyes of others available to the subjects in very subtle way. Well, what we did was simply to present subjects with 3 dots like this, kind of reverse triangle. And reverse triangle can be integrated as a face. And in fact, after the study we asked people to complete a picture and about 50 percent of the people, subjects draw a human face. And the rest of the subjects didn't draw the face. So we can compare you know, those people who perceive the face looking at them when they are making a choice and people who did see the same stimulus but they didn't see the face. And as it turned out Asians who saw the face did show a massive cognitive dissonance effect. Of course, you know, if you follow the logic, this is exactly what you might expect simply Asians experience cognitive dissonance only when they make a choice under public scrutiny. Public scrutiny is necessary for them to experience dissonance because the dissonance they experience is much more interpersonal. So this makes sense but when this happened, oh my gosh, this is surprising. Only 3 dots, 3 dots can make such a huge difference that surprise one.

15. What has surprised you in your research with American subjects?

>> Surprise two happened when we did the same study by using Caucasian American people as [inaudible] subjects. But those people also -- about half the people did perceive the face out of three dots, and about half of them didn't see the face. When they didn't see the face, they show massive cognitive dissonancy effect. That's very consistent with the previous research, that demonstrate that they show cognitive dissonancy fact when they make a choice in kind of private conditions, right. But really interesting, and that's -- that's really surprised me is that Caucasian American subjects stopped showing any cognitive dissonancy effect when they saw a face. Almost they, you know, it's public scrutiny makes Japanese show the cognitive dissonance when the same thing, just human face stopped Americans -- Caucasian Americans to show the cognitive dissonancy effects. And that really surprised me. And the reason why something like this is happening is very interesting to find out. And the answer we have is that when in American context -- when Caucasian Americans are being watched by somebody else, there appears to experience some sort of social pressure, or some sort of social constraint. And choice made under social constraint is not revealing of the self. They can blame somebody else, and, you know, they can attribute any mistake made to that social context and so on. And of course -- but really surprising is that all this appears to be happening automatically, and almost sub -- subconsciously"(Kitayama).

Society and culture have always influenced people’s lives. Edwin Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Association shows how society can teach people to act in ways that they themselves don’t like. Sutherland’s book mainly focuses on criminal behavior, but I believe if the behavior that took place in both books happened today it would be considered criminal. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinua Achebe’s books; Purple Hibiscus and Things Fall Apart showcase the fact that society’s influence over human lives is not restricted to the United States. Both books demonstrate how people will go to vast lengths to confirm what society says is acceptable even at the cost of losing what is most important to them.

Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Association, while focused primarily on criminal behaviors, can be applied to both books. The first of nine principles theorizes that most criminal behaviors are learned from watching and interacting with other criminals. In Things Fall Apart Okonkwo learned how to act and how to treat others by watching and interacting with people in his village; he thus learned how to behave in ways that would be considered criminal today. Okonkwo learned it was acceptable to beat one’s wives because that is what he would have seen other husbands doing when he was a child. This is demonstrated when “Okonkwo’s second wife had merely cut a few leaves off it to wrap some food, and she said so. Without further argument Okonkwo gave her a sound beating and left her and her only daughter weeping. Neither of the other wives dared to interfere” (Achebe 38). In this instance Okonkwo accused his second wife, Ekwefi, of killing a banana tree even though she had only taken a few leaves. It is my belief that this proves that Okonkwo learned from others that beating people was acceptable. If it was not acceptable, then one of his other wives, or a neighbor, would have intervened.

Okonkwo religiously conformed to society his entire life. Okonkwo was terrified of becoming a village failure and had sought to emulate the warrior type life style that his village was known for. Okonkwo is consumed by the idea of being a success in his village and he was willing to sacrifice everything, even his adopted son. “He heard Ikemefuna cry, ‘My father they have killed me’ as he ran towards him. Dazed with fear, Okonkwo drew his machete and cut him down. He was afraid of being thought weak.”(Achebe 61). Okonkwo was so fearful of failing his village that he followed his warrior like culture and killed his son because that is what his village decreed. Okonkwo conformed to society and it cost him the life of his son.

The fourth principle of the Theory of Differential Association explains that people learn how to rationalize their criminal behavior by watching and listening to how other criminals rationalize their behavior. The fourth principle specifically applies to Eugene Achike a character in the novel Purple Hibiscus. In the novel Eugene clearly finds the act of harming or punishing his children distasteful, yet he does it because he can still rationalize the behavior to himself. His rationalization is that he is saving his family from eternal damnation in hell. The primary hole in his rationalization is that there is no one to punish him for his sins.

In Purple Hibiscus Eugene Achike learned how to justify his behavior from the fathers at St. Gregory. They would punish him for what they perceived as his sins. Eugene thus learned to excuse his own deviant behavior towards his family by convincing himself and his family that he was punishing them for their sins. Eugene Achike tells his daughter, Kambili “‘I committed a sin against my own body once’ he said, ‘And the good father, the one I lived with while I went to St. Gregory’s, came and saw me. He asked me to boil water for tea. He poured the water in a bowl and soaked my hands in it’” (Adichie 196). This is how he rationalizes himself to Kambili after he “poured the hot water on my feet, slowly, as if he were conducting an experiment and wanted to see what would happen” (Adichie 194). He did this is response to her not informing him that she was sleeping in the same house as a heathen. The fact that said heathen was his own father was paid no mind in his rationalization.

The fifth principle asserts that some people interpret words and actions differently than others; specifically some people believe that certain things that are incorrect may actually be acceptable. In this case Eugene Achike does not see that pouring boiling water on his daughter’s feet is clearly wrong. He instead follows what society has taught him and wrongly sees his action as acceptable. He even believes that he is doing so to save her from the “fires of hell”.

Society can influences men to commit actions that they themselves find reprehensible. Okonkwo drank himself into a stupor for two days after he killed his own son. He killed his son because he did not want to be seen as weak in a village that prized strength. His act of killing his adopted son still depressed him. Eugene cried every time he beat, hurt, or punished his family. Yet he continued to beat them because it was what the fathers at St. Gregory had taught him was acceptable in society.

Society can pressure men to commit atrocities that they themselves despise because they believe that what they are doing is the right thing. Edwin Sutherland’s Theory of Differential Association says some people have difficulty understanding the difference between right and wrong. Society then further confuses such people by having different standards on what is considered acceptable; there is morally acceptable and society acceptable. Society should learn to prize morals above conforming to society.

Works Cited
Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Purple Hibiscus: A Novel. Chapel Hill: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 2003. Print.
Woods, Maribeth. "Theories about How Society Influences Behavior." Helium. Helium, 21 Dec. 2007. Web. 25 Sept. 2012. <>.


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    • m abdullah javed profile image

      muhammad abdullah javed 2 years ago

      Hi Misty wonderful thoughts over the societal influences. Yes the theory of differential association explains the difficulty in understanding the conceptual details with regard to right and wrong. To add to the owes there are moral and societal acceptable standards. I think the concept of social controls do play a pivotal role here that specifically let us know that it is human nature to understand the right and wrong notions, and adhere to universally acceptable standards. Thank you very much for the share. Voted useful.

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