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Is psychological research based on western culture?

February 6, 2012

Lots of the research carried out in psychology is undertaken on participants from western cultures. The findings are then generalised as a whole: one example is the Milgram study of obedience(1963) in which all the participants were from america. The findings were then generalised to all people.

However, it could be that you cannot generalise across cultures. A person brought up in a third world country such as Africa may not think the same as someone of a western culture. Research suggests that people’s brains work differently depending on where they are from.

Nisbitt focused on the difference between western cultures and Asian cultures. He showed through research that when showed pictures those from western cultures focused on the bigger objects and the front, whilst those from Asia concentrated on the background of the pictures. Asians grown up in a western culture processed the picture in the same way as western cultures did and vice versa. This shows that the difference in the way the mind works is separated by culture and not genetics. He found that there were big differences in the way Americans think and process information and the way Asians do. After being shown the same moving underwater animations, East Asians see the objects in context with each others for example, they would describe the animation by saying things such as ‘the blue fish swam past the rock’. Americans on the other hand would focus only on the big objects and not put them together: ‘there was a big blue fish’. This shows that East Asians find it much harder to single out main objects: they have a more holistic approach. Wheras most americans did not consider the background.

He also researched in to why American children learn language differently to those in East Asia.

Overall he found big differences in the way the different cultures brains worked. This means that we cannot generalise findings cross cultures when they are only studied on western people.



Nisbitt. R. The Geography of Thought,

Milgram. S. Study of obediance, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1963, Vol. 67, No. 4, 371-378


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