Cross-cultural understanding – are we as wise as we think?

In some cross-cultural understanding training sessions – particularly in North America – a number of participants find the whole idea of our ways of thinking and behaviours being significantly influenced by cultural context uncomfortable.  They might intellectually grasp the idea in the abstract, but fail to recognize the depth of the influence, particularly on themselves. North American culture, of course, is driven by the belief of individual self-determination and independence from others.  The idea of being shaped by external or even internal forces doesn’t sit well (just look at badly we treat the mentally ill).

On the other hand,  the social sciences driven by scientific aspirations – particularly economics and psychology – have tended to drive our search for understanding  toward universal principles and explanations of in the manner of physics and chemistry.   A common assumption is that the results of social science tests and experiments are able to go beneath the specific content of cognition and behavior to reveal common human hardwiring.

But think about this: a 2008 survey of the top six psychological journals showed that 96% of subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners, with nearly 70% from the United States.  Ninety percent of neuroimaging studies have been performed in Western countries. Looked at another way, the subjects in these studies came from countries representing only 12% of the world’s population.

Cross-cultural psychology has been with us since at least the mid-19th century, but has always been something of a poor second cousin in the psychological mainstream.  That now may be changing.

In 1995, while a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA, Joe Henrich carried out fieldwork among the Machiguenga people of Peru.  Rather than carry out a traditional ethnographical study (aimed at producing an in-depth insiders view of a culture) he ran a behavioral experiment.  He used a ‘game’ (the Ultimatum Game) which is similar to the well-known Prisoner’s Dilemma.  These experimental games have been very influential in the fields of both economics and psychology.

In the Ultimatum game:

  • There are two players who are anonymous to each other
  • Player 1 is given an amount of money, e.g. $100
  • He/she is told that they must offer some of the cash – an amount of their choosing – to Player 2
  • Player 2 can accept or refuse the division of money. If the recipient refuses the offer, both players leave empty-handed

North Americans (the majority of subjects in previous experiments) typically offer a 50-50 split.  Those on the receiving end (Player 2) show an eagerness to punish Player 1 for uneven splits – even at their own expense.  The American subjects were demonstrating the tendency of other Westerners who have for generations been imbued with the workings of increasingly complex market economies.

Henrich didn’t have trouble finding volunteers for the game among the Machiguena (there was free money involved), but Machiguena behavior was dramatically different to that of the average American.

The offers of money from Player 1 were much lower.  On the receiving end, the Machiguena rarely refused even the lowest possible amount.  As Henrich says, “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.” Henrich led a similar study in 14 other small scale societies from Tanzania to Indonesia and the differences were significant.  The average offers varied widely from place to place, but in no society did he find people who were purely selfish (always offering the lowest amount, and never refusing a split).  In societies in which gift-giving is used consistently to gain favor or allegiance, Player 1 would often make offers in excess of 60%.  Player 2 would often reject them because they understood in their culture that such generosity resulted in ‘burdensome obligations’.

Established psychological findings are being revisited and reverse-engineered to gauge cultural influence.  The well-known Muller-Lyer Illusion (in which which subjects are shown two lines of equal length but with  either inward or outward facing arrow tips at their ends) turns out to be more complex than once thought:

Americans typically perceive the line with inward facing arrow tips (bottom line) to be longer than the line with the outward facing arrow tips.  The San foragers of the Kalahari are more likely to see the lines as they are – equal.  Americans are at the far end of the statistical distribution – seeing the illusion more vividly than other groups.  Research into cultural influences is also challenging the ‘universal’ findings related to the the Solomon Asch conformity tests in which subjects often make incorrect judgments to fit with group pressures.  Across 17 cultures, Americans were shown to have the least tendency to conform to group pressures.

One finding of new researchers like Joe Henlich is that cultural differences don’t have to be large to be important.  When reverse engineering, cultural content is looked at first and cognition and behavior second.  Only when we expand the cultural representation among subjects will we start to develop a deeper understanding of human cognition and behavior.

Meeting with a group of professional marketers recently, I was very impressed with their refusal to talk about overly general cultural differences.  To paraphrase: ‘What does it mean when someone talks to us about ‘Hispanic’ culture in the US?  Are we talking Miami (Cuban-American), Austin (Mexican-American), Los Angeles (a variety of Central and South American cultures)?  Not to mention the influences of Puerto Rican and Pilipino cultures in various parts of the US.  All these cultures have broad similarities, but can perceive the value of products differently as well as the desirability of various shopping environments.’

It would be blessing for us all – marketeers and academics alike – to recognize the fine-grained complexity of cultural differences and their influence in how we think and behave.  More sophisticated cultural differentiations will help us rid discourse of damaging stereotypes.

All of the above challenges us to question our own knowledge about ourselves and each other.

Are we as wise as we think we are?  There is a glimmer of hope.  How refreshing it was to end last year with a cultural paradigm shift in Paris.  I’m talking about the historic climate change agreement in December between 195 nations.  In a bid to smooth discussions on the most contentious issues, the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius who was chairing the UN negotiations made a bold move – he stepped outside of what would have been the habitual adversarial zone for many participants.  He introduced an inclusive consultation and negotiation approach called indaba.  Indaba is rooted in the South African Zulu and Xhosa communities; it is a gathering of community leaders to hear all views and discover common ground in resolving important issues. Ironically, shaking up the win/lose paradigm through an openness to difference can help reveal hidden commonality in views and interests.

About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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