Cross-Cultural Psychology: What it is and why it's so Important?

Clinical practice in the psychological field tends to be nourished by different schools and objects of study. Cross-cultural psychology has proven to be a valuable addition to this.
Cross-Cultural Psychology: What it is and why it's so Important?

Last update: 05 September, 2021

Cross-cultural psychology studies the differences and similarities of psychological functioning between groups from different ethnocultures. It’s a psychosocial area that focuses on analyzing how belonging to one or another culture influences us.

This discipline also studies the relationships between psychological, sociocultural, biological, and ecological factors both intraculturally and interculturally. Therefore, the main objectives of cross-cultural psychology are the following:

  • Check psychological models and theories in different cultures.
  • Discover cultural and psychological variations that may or may not be present in our own cultural experience.
  • Integrate common discoveries to build a more universal psychology.

In addition, to understand cross-cultural psychology, two fundamental aspects must be taken into account. On the one hand, that basic psychological processes (attention, memory, motivation, learning, etc.) are common to all humanity. On the other, that culture is the source of the behavioral variety that shapes personal characteristics.

“All cultures, in one way or another, reflect common human needs.”

-Bronislaw Malinowski-

Differences between cross-cultural and cultural psychology

Cultural psychology studies how social traditions and practices transform and regulate psychological functioning. In contrast, cross-cultural psychology considers that, due to cultural experiences, there are predictable and significant differences between different ethnocultural groups.

Man talking to his friend

The importance of the discipline

According to recent figures, there are 258 million migrants in the world. Out of these, 150.3 million migrate for work reasons and 68.5 million forcibly, due to conflicts or human rights violations.

Psychology was born and developed by adopting the perspective of Western culture as a point of reference. This led, in cases of studies of cultures with patterns different from those of the West, to erroneous interpretations or perspectives in the investigations.

One example of this is that, around World War I, it was claimed that people of African-American race were less intelligent.

One of the factors that make cross-cultural psychology a relevant component of human knowledge is the possibility of relativizing and normalizing psychosocial patterns different from ours when these differences are due to the mere fact of being from a different ethnoculture.

Implications of cross-cultural psychology findings

Today, we have a relatively extensive knowledge of what influence a person’s culture exerts at the individual level. Furthermore, regarding the adaptation processes of an individual as a natural mechanism.

Therefore, faced with the migrant world in which we live, and from a humanistic and integrative perspective, we must take into account certain cross-cultural aspects in clinical practice. For instance:

Patient information

As well as the characteristics of the patient, in order to undertake a psychological evaluation or intervention, it’s necessary to consider:

Ethnicity

Ethnicity refers to a group of common nationalities, religions, or histories. The differences between different ethnic groups help us to understand how people live certain experiences differently. For example, people of gypsy ethnicity don’t experience death in the same way as a person of Germanic ethnicity.

Language

The effects of language concern the possibility of interpersonal understanding, through the interpretation of different meanings, to the adaptation of evaluation tests. Therefore, in order to work with people with a different language, it’s important to either master that other language, or employ an interpreter.

Acculturation

Acculturation is the process by which the individual adapts, integrates, or conforms to a new culture. In this process, it’s essential to take into account why the subject abandoned their culture, their feelings toward the new culture, and also if the change is voluntary or forced.

Cultural experience

Taking into account what ethnicity means in each culture provides us with valuable information about how the person may be experiencing that culture. For example, a Hispanic in Miami won’t have the same experience as a Hispanic in the UK.

Test domain

This point is especially important in the case of neuropsychological evaluation. For instance, in some cultures, people are trained to be efficient in different kinds of cognitive tasks. In this way, we can’t always treat in the same way, for instance, the speed of executing a task.

Racial socialization or stereotypical treatment

Cross-cultural psychology has a lot to do with race or ethnicity

Some ethnicities or races suffer from stereotypical ideas about their abilities, beliefs, and feelings. These ideas must be considered in any evaluation or intervention. That’s because they can determine, in part, the behavior, attitude, and performance of patients.

The evaluation instruments

Construct validity

Many instruments have been made under the assumption of being free from cultural influence. However, the reality is, that not only are skills influenced by culture but, through education, culture itself “teaches” which skills are relevant and when and how they should be acquired.

Furthermore, psychological constructs don’t all manifest themselves in the same way in different cultures. For example, people from a Christian culture will experience guilt in a different way from a Buddhist.

Standardized scores

In relation to the previous section, it’s of utmost importance to prepare and use validated and graded tests in the relevant cultural population. Because the average results obtained on a sample from one culture aren’t applicable to samples from different cultures.

About the professional

Equally, or of more importance, are the aspects that professionals must take into account about themselves. Among them, are the following:

  • Be aware of their own beliefs and assumptions about stereotypes, values, and human behavior, and how these can negatively affect psychological practice.
  • Make an effort to understand the point of view of culturally different patients.

In addition, it’s important that the professional knows how to commit and strive to carry out a sensitive clinical practice, and with the appropriate communication tools and skills to work with culturally diverse populations.

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  • Olson, K. & Jacobson, K. (2014). Cross-cultural considerations in pediatric neuropsychology: a review and call to attention. Applied Neuropsychology: Child, 4, 166-177.
  • Berry, J.W., Poortinga, Y.H., Segall, M. H. & Dasen, P. R. (2002). Cross-cultural psychology: research and applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.