How to Understand Culture & Weird People

How to Understand Culture & Weird People
Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor / Unsplash

First off, what is culture? Food, traditions, language, and so on, right? Well yeah, but we need a better explanation than that at Without Borders. So, let's get a bit academic here and use Richerson & Boyd's definition.

Culture is any information acquired from other members of one's species through social learning that can affect an individual's behaviour. In other words, culture is any idea, belief, technology, habit, or practice we acquire through learning from others.

Even if you've never left the street you grew up on, you're part of more than one culture. Cultures are people who exist within some shared context (Heine, 2020). So your school, workplace, gym, knitting club, S&M dungeon, abandoned warehouse rave crew or whatever it may be has a culture. So what the hell do people mean when they say things like The culture is so much richer here? Do they mean that there are more ideas, beliefs, technologies, habits, and practices? Do they mean that there are more groups of people mixing?

Throughout my life, I've heard Canadians and Europeans say, "There's more culture in Europe than in Canada." Sometimes, they even say "North America," meaning the handful of cities they visited (usually not including those in Mexico). When I ask them what they mean by that, they typically mention that there's more history and language diversity—and not as many strip malls. Saying that Europe has so much more history and language implies that Canada didn't have a culture till white folk came around. More than 70 indigenous languages are spoken across Canada (Statcan), and Clovis sites dated 13'500 years ago were discovered in western North America (Bonnichsen et al.). Now, you might argue that Europe has over 200 unofficial languages, and you can't really compare a prehistoric Paleoamerican like the Clovis to, let's say, the Greeks. But I will say that many indigenous cultures were traditionally oral, so unlike Europeans, they didn't have everything written down to show "how much culture" they had. Also, Europe is a continent, and Canada is a country. Now, if we're comparing continents, Africa has over 1000 languages and has the oldest civilizations to boot. But I doubt that I’m going to hear a Parisian say La culture de Mombasa est tellement plus riche que la nôtre “Mombasa’s culture is so much richer than ours” any time soon.

The point is, saying one place has more culture than the other doesn't get us anywhere. From my experience, it usually leads to people talking about the museums, galleries, and landmarks they visited. And as much as I enjoy learning about history and taking part in "high" culture activities such as gawking at all the artifacts Europeans stole from Africa and South America, it's only a tiny piece of the puzzle for how to understand people and culture.

To figure out how culture shapes us and what psychological phenomena are universal, let's start with a hierarchical framework created by Steven J. Heine and one of my favourite professors, Ara Norenzayan.

Cool, cool, but what does this mean?

  • Nonuniversal (cultural invention) = Cognitive tool not found in all cultures. For example, an abacus is a calculation tool used in some parts of the Middle East and Asia. Users tend to favour the odd-even distinction, think in base units of five, and make a particular pattern of errors not seen in non-abacus users (Miller & Paredes, 1996).
  • Existential universal = Cognitive tool found in all cultures but serves different functions in different cultures. For example, Westerners tend to find experiences with success to be motivating and experiences with failure to be demotivating (Feather, 1996). In contact, East Asians tend to show the opposite pattern whereby they work harder after failures than after successes (Heine et al., 2001)
  • Functional universal = Cognitive tool serves the same function in all cultures but is present in different degrees. For example, one large-scale investigation explored whether people from a variety of subsistence societies around the world tended to punish those who acted unfairly, even if that punishment was costly to the individual. Among the Tsimane of Bolivia, participants spent up to 28% of their earnings to punish others who were unfair. In contrast, among the Gusii of Kenya, participants spent more than 90% of their earnings. (Henrich et al., 2006). Then there's me; I don't think I'd spend any of my earnings to punish anyone—to rehabilitate and teach is a different story.
  • Accessibility universal = Cognitive tool equally accessible in, and serve the same purpose across, all cultures. For example, social facilitation—the tendency for individuals to do better at well-learned tasks and worse at poorly learned ones when in the presence of others—has been shown to occur in insects and humans (Zajonc, Heingartner, & Herman, 1969).

Now, let's take a look at the Müller-Lyer illusion.

Would you assume this illusion is universal, or does our culture affect how we see it? I'll give you a hint—people from foraging societies don't see the illusion. Why? Take a moment to think about it.

(Drum roll). If people aren't exposed to carpenters' corners as children, they don't learn that the corners provide depth cues and are not susceptible to the illusion (McCauley & Henrich, 2006). Now, you might be thinking that's pretty weird. But it turns out you might be the weird one.

Google WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic), and you'll find a bunch of information from Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan. Fun fact, this research ended up on major news outlets such as the Atlantic, and Norenzayan told me (well, all his students) that they came up with the acronym while shooting the shit. Of course, he didn't actually say shooting the shit, but something along those lines.

What's the problem with WIERD people? Well, WIERD people are often louder, more expressive and give more extreme responses. In other words, WIERD people don't represent the world (even though we often think we do). Approximately 70% of all psychology study participants are undergraduate students, which means that a randomly selected American undergraduate is more than 4,000 times more likely to be a research participant in a  psychology study than a randomly selected participant outside of the West (Heine, 2020). So, next time you pick up an article that states STUDY SHOWS (INSERT CLICKBAIT), remember that it's likely not a universal truth.

Okay, a lot of research is weird; I get it. But aside from the hierarchal framework, how do we figure out how culture influences and shapes us? Well, unless you're a researcher, you're probably not too interested in setting control groups, using back-translation methods, standardizing your data, between and within-groups manipulations, situational sampling, and all that jazz. By the way, if you are, please comment to get a discussion going. However, travellers and people interested in culture need to understand some psychological underpinnings and methods to form more accurate opinions.

Here's a list to get us started.

Pluralistic ignorance is the tendency for people to collectively misinterpret the thoughts that underlie other people's behaviours (Heine, 2020). For example, in college student samples, people believe their peers are more interested in "hooking up" than they are (Lambert, Khan & Apple, 2003) and that people hold more politically correct beliefs than they do (Van Boven, 2000). Now, I don't know if that's still true in 2022, and from personal experience, I doubt it, but then again, I might be pluralistically ignorant. The point is, don't believe everything people tell you.

The same same, but different method. Okay, I made this up, but as Heine mentions in his book Cultural Psychology, that if you're interested, for example, in understanding the way collectivism shapes how people view their relationships, you should visit two cultures that vary in their degree of collectivism.

Read, but also don't. Okay, another term I pulled out of my ass, but again, Heine mentions that reading ethnographies are great for complementary information, but keep in mind that ethnographic observations are filtered through the ethnographer's own beliefs, biases, and values.

Acquiescence bias is the tendency to agree with most statements. In other words, don't put words in someone's mouth, especially if they come from an East Asian culture, because they have a more holistic way of looking at the world which means there are more possible truths.

Reference-group effect. Different cultures tend to evaluate themselves by comparing themselves to different reference groups/different standards. For example, one study during the civil rights movement found that African-American soldiers in the North were less satisfied than those in the South because they compared themselves to civilian African-Americans who were better off in the North than in the South (Stouffer et., al, 1949). Here, the reference-group effect leads one to the exact opposite conclusion—Southern African-American soldiers were better off than Northern ones).

Deprivation effects. Who values enjoying life and pleasure more, East Germans or Italians? Man, think about the patios, the time spent eating and soaking up the sun–the answer is obvious. Well, it turns out that East Germans scored the third highest of all countries on this dimension, while Italians scored the second lowest (Schwartz, 1994). Another study found that Americans value "humility" more than the Chinese do, whereas the Chinese value "choosing one's own goals" more than Americans (Peng et al., 1997). Are you confused AF right now? I was when I first read this. One way to make sense of this is to consider what people actually have compared to what they would like to have (Heine). So, again, don't believe everything people tell you.

Well, there ya have it, folks, an introduction to cultural psychology and how to think about culture in a more fruitful way. I hope these few examples (and there will be many more at show how culture is far more than traditions, museums, customs and language. Culture shapes how we see the world and understand ourselves. We are all subject to illusions, biases, and another psychological phenomena. Hopefully, being aware of some of these will help us better understand ourselves and each other. If any of you were too lazy or rushed to read all of this, I'll try to sum it up with one quote.

"Those who only know one country know no country."

- Martin Lipset

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