Chapter 2: Self, Culture and Social Comparisons

2.1 – Self, Culture and Social Comparisons


In this chapter, we focus on a few different components. The first is self—or how we form our personal identity. From a developmental perspective, when does a child first recognize themselves as a separate being? At what point can we take the perspective of others and start to empathize with them? What aspects of our identity are most salient to us? As we think about our identity development, we also want to examine the influence of culture. Throughout this section, you should reflect on your personal culture and how it has shaped your identity. Have you been taught to value more independent or individualistic ideals and goals or to focus more on group goals? What about social norms? How has your culture shaped your social norms? And finally, we discuss social comparisons. As we have an understanding of our own identity, we often tend to compare ourselves with others around us. We may engage in upward or downward comparisons and these comparisons can impact our overall self-esteem and self-concept.

Learning Objectives

  1. Differentiate between the social actor, the motivated agent, and the autobiographical author
  2. Identify the core differences between individualistic cultures and collectivist cultures
  3. Differentiate between upward and downward social comparison and the impact each has on our self-esteem
  4. Define the Frog Pond Effect and the Dunning-Kruger effect
A man stands in front of the bathroom mirror and reaches out to touch an altered reflection of himself.
Figure 2.1 Me in the mirror We work on ourselves as we would any other interesting project. And when we do we generally focus on three psychological categories – The Social Actor, The Motivated Agent, and The Autobiographical Author. Me in the mirror By: MakuKulden Source: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0
In the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the ancient Greeks inscribed the words: “Know thyself.” For at least 2,500 years, and probably longer, human beings have pondered the meaning of the ancient aphorism. Over the past century, psychological scientists have joined the effort. They have formulated many theories and tested countless hypotheses that speak to the central question of human selfhood: How does a person know who he or she is?
The ancient Greeks seemed to realize that the self is inherently —it reflects back on itself. In the disarmingly simple idea made famous by the great psychologist William James (1892/1963), the self is what happens when “I” reflects back upon “Me.” The self is both the I and the Me—it is the knower, and it is what the knower knows when the knower reflects upon itself. When you look back at yourself, what do you see? When you look inside, what do you find? Moreover, when you try to change your self in some way, what is it that you are trying to change? The philosopher Charles Taylor (1989) describes the self as a reflexive project. In modern life, Taylor agues, we often try to manage, discipline, refine, improve, or develop the self. We work on our selves, as we might work on any other interesting project. But what exactly is it that we work on?Imagine for a moment that you have decided to improve yourself. You might, say, go on a diet to improve your appearance. Or you might decide to be nicer to your mother, in order to improve that important social role. Or maybe the problem is at work—you need to find a better job or go back to school to prepare for a different career. Perhaps you just need to work harder. Or get organized. Or recommit yourself to religion. Or maybe the key is to begin thinking about your whole life story in a completely different way, in a way that you hope will bring you more happiness, fulfillment, peace, or excitement.Although there are many different ways you might reflect upon and try to improve the self, it turns out that many, if not most, of them fall roughly into three broad psychological categories (McAdams & Cox, 2010). The I may encounter the Me as (a) a social actor, (b) a motivated agent, or (c) an autobiographical author.

The Social Actor

An illustration of William Shakespeare
Figure 2.2 The Shakespeare, High Street, London In some ways people are just like actors on stage. We play roles and follow scripts every day. The Shakespeare, High Street, London By: Brian Source: Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Shakespeare tapped into a deep truth about human nature when he famously wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” He was wrong about the “merely,” however, for there is nothing more important for human adaptation than the manner in which we perform our roles as actors in the everyday theatre of social life. What Shakespeare may have sensed but could not have fully understood is that human beings evolved to live in social groups. Beginning with Darwin (1872/1965) and running through contemporary conceptions of human evolution, scientists have portrayed human nature as profoundly social (Wilson, 2012). For a few million years, Homo sapiens and their evolutionary forerunners have survived and flourished by virtue of their ability to live and work together in complex social groups, cooperating with each other to solve problems and overcome threats and competing with each other in the face of limited resources. As social animals, human beings strive to get along and get ahead in the presence of each other (Hogan, 1982). Evolution has prepared us to care deeply about social acceptance and social status, for those unfortunate individuals who do not get along well in social groups or who fail to attain a requisite status among their peers have typically been severely compromised when it comes to survival and reproduction. It makes consummate evolutionary sense, therefore, that the human “I” should apprehend the “Me” first and foremost as a social actor.

For human beings, the sense of the self as a social actor begins to emerge around the age of 18 months. Numerous studies have shown that by the time they reach their second birthday most toddlers recognize themselves in mirrors and other reflecting devices (Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979; Rochat, 2003). What they see is an embodied actor who moves through space and time. Many children begin to use words such as “me” and “mine” in the second year of life, suggesting that the I now has linguistic labels that can be applied reflexively to itself: I call myself “me.” Around the same time, children also begin to express social emotions such as embarrassment, shame, guilt, and pride (Tangney, Stuewig, & Mashek, 2007). These emotions tell the social actor how well he or she is performing in the group. When I do things that win the approval of others, I feel proud of myself. When I fail in the presence of others, I may feel embarrassment or shame. When I violate a social rule, I may experience guilt, which may motivate me to make amends.

Many of the classic psychological theories of human selfhood point to the second year of life as a key developmental period. For example, Freud (1923/1961) and his followers in the psychoanalytic tradition traced the emergence of an autonomous back to the second year. Freud used the term “ego” (in German das Ich, which also translates into “the I”) to refer to an executive self in the personality. Erikson (1963) argued that experiences of trust and interpersonal attachment in the first year of life help to consolidate the autonomy of the ego in the second. Coming from a more sociological perspective, Mead (1934) suggested that the I comes to know the Me through reflection, which may begin quite literally with mirrors but later involves the reflected appraisals of others. I come to know who I am as a social actor, Mead argued, by noting how other people in my social world react to my performances. In the development of the self as a social actor, other people function like mirrors—they reflect who I am back to me.

Research has shown that when young children begin to make attributions about themselves, they start simple (Harter, 2006). At age 4, Jessica knows that she has dark hair, knows that she lives in a white house, and describes herself to others in terms of simple behavioral traits. She may say that she is “nice,” or “helpful,” or that she is “a good girl most of the time.” By the time, she hits fifth grade (age 10), Jessica sees herself in more complex ways, attributing traits to the self such as “honest,” “moody,” “outgoing,” “shy,” “hard-working,” “smart,” “good at math but not gym class,” or “nice except when I am around my annoying brother.” By late childhood and early adolescence, the personality traits that people attribute to themselves, as well as those attributed to them by others, tend to correlate with each other in ways that conform to a well-established taxonomy of five broad trait domains, repeatedly derived in studies of adult personality and often called the : (1) extraversion, (2) neuroticism, (3) agreeableness, (4) conscientiousness, and (5) openness to experience (Roberts, Wood, & Caspi, 2008). By late childhood, moreover, self-conceptions will likely also include important social roles: “I am a good student,” “I am the oldest daughter,” or “I am a good friend to Sarah.”

Traits and roles, and variations on these notions, are the main currency of the (McAdams & Cox, 2010). Trait terms capture perceived consistencies in social performance. They convey what I reflexively perceive to be my overall acting style, based in part on how I think others see me as an actor in many different social situations. Roles capture the quality, as I perceive it, of important structured relationships in my life. Taken together, traits and roles make up the main features of my , as I apprehend it in my own mind (Hogan, 1982).

If you have ever tried hard to change yourself, you may have taken aim at your social reputation, targeting your central traits or your social roles. Maybe you woke up one day and decided that you must become a more optimistic and emotionally upbeat person. Taking into consideration the reflected appraisals of others, you realized that even your friends seem to avoid you because you bring them down. In addition, it feels bad to feel so bad all the time: Wouldn’t it be better to feel good, to have more energy and hope? In the language of traits, you have decided to “work on” your “neuroticism.” Or maybe instead, your problem is the trait of “conscientiousness”: You are undisciplined and don’t work hard enough, so you resolve to make changes in that area. Self-improvement efforts such as these—aimed at changing one’s traits to become a more effective social actor—are sometimes successful, but they are very hard—kind of like dieting. Research suggests that broad traits tend to be stubborn, resistant to change, even with the aid of psychotherapy. However, people often have more success working directly on their social roles. To become a more effective social actor, you may want to take aim at the important roles you play in life. What can I do to become a better son or daughter? How can I find new and meaningful roles to perform at work, or in my family, or among my friends, or in my church and community? By doing concrete things that enrich your performances in important social roles, you may begin to see yourself in a new light, and others will notice the change, too. Social actors hold the potential to transform their performances across the human life course. Each time you walk out on stage, you have a chance to start anew.

The Motivated Agent

Anonymous people hurry by on a busy street.
Figure 2.3 When we observe others we only see how they act but are never able to access the entirety of their internal experience. By: CC0 Public Domain CCO 1.0

Whether we are talking literally about the theatrical stage or more figuratively, as I do in this module, about the everyday social environment for human behavior, observers can never fully know what is in the actor’s head, no matter how closely they watch. We can see actors act, but we cannot know for sure what they want or what they value, unless they tell us straightaway. As a social actor, a person may come across as friendly and compassionate, or cynical and mean-spirited, but in neither case can we infer their motivations from their traits or their roles. What does the friendly person want? What is the cynical father trying to achieve? Many broad psychological theories of the self prioritize the motivational qualities of human behavior—the inner needs, wants, desires, goals, values, plans, programs, fears, and aversions that seem to give behavior its direction and purpose (Bandura, 1989; Deci & Ryan, 1991; Markus & Nurius, 1986). These kinds of theories explicitly conceive of the self as a motivated agent.

To be an agent is to act with direction and purpose, to move forward into the future in pursuit of self-chosen and valued goals. In a sense, human beings are agents even as infants, for babies can surely act in goal-directed ways. By age 1 year, moreover, infants show a strong preference for observing and imitating the goal-directed, intentional behavior of others, rather than random behaviors (Woodward, 2009). Still, it is one thing to act in goal-directed ways; it is quite another for the I to know itself (the Me) as an intentional and purposeful force who moves forward in life in pursuit of self-chosen goals, values, and other desired end states. In order to do so, the person must first realize that people indeed have desires and goals in their minds and that these inner desires and goals motivate (initiate, energize, put into motion) their behavior. According to a strong line of research in developmental psychology, attaining this kind of understanding means acquiring a (Wellman, 1993), which occurs for most children by the age of 4. Once a child understands that other people’s behavior is often motivated by inner desires and goals, it is a small step to apprehend the self in similar terms.

Building on theory of mind and other cognitive and social developments, children begin to construct the self as a motivated agent in the elementary school years, layered over their still-developing sense of themselves as social actors. Theory and research on what developmental psychologists call converge to suggest that children become more planful, intentional, and systematic in their pursuit of valued goals during this time (Sameroff & Haith, 1996). Schooling reinforces the shift in that teachers and curricula place increasing demands on students to work hard, adhere to schedules, focus on goals, and achieve success in particular, well-defined task domains. Their relative success in achieving their most cherished goals, furthermore, goes a long way in determining children’s (Robins, Tracy, & Trzesniewski, 2008). Motivated agents feel good about themselves to the extent they believe that they are making good progress in achieving their goals and advancing their most important values.

Goals and values become even more important for the self in adolescence, as teenagers begin to confront what Erikson (1963) famously termed the developmental challenge of . For adolescents and young adults, establishing a psychologically efficacious identity involves exploring different options with respect to life goals, values, vocations, and intimate relationships and eventually committing to a motivational and ideological agenda for adult life—an integrated and realistic sense of what I want and value in life and how I plan to achieve it (Kroger & Marcia, 2011). Committing oneself to an integrated suite of life goals and values is perhaps the greatest achievement for the . Establishing an adult identity has implications, as well, for how a person moves through life as a social actor, entailing new role commitments and, perhaps, a changing understanding of one’s basic dispositional traits. According to Erikson, however, identity achievement is always provisional, for adults continue to work on their identities as they move into midlife and beyond, often relinquishing old goals in favor of new ones, investing themselves in new projects and making new plans, exploring new relationships, and shifting their priorities in response to changing life circumstances (Freund & Riediger, 2006; Josselson, 1996).

There is a sense whereby any time you try to change yourself, you are assuming the role of a motivated agent. After all, to strive to change something is inherently what an agent does. However, what particular feature of selfhood you try to change may correspond to your self as actor, agent, or author, or some combination. When you try to change your traits or roles, you take aim at the social actor. By contrast, when you try to change your values or life goals, you are focusing on yourself as a motivated agent. Adolescence and young adulthood are periods in the human life course when many of us focus attention on our values and life goals. Perhaps you grew up as a traditional Catholic, but now in college you believe that the values inculcated in your childhood no longer function so well for you. You no longer believe in the central tenets of the Catholic Church, say, and are now working to replace your old values with new ones. Or maybe you still want to be Catholic, but you feel that your new take on faith requires a different kind of personal ideology. In the realm of the motivated agent, moreover, changing values can influence life goals. If your new value system prioritizes alleviating the suffering of others, you may decide to pursue a degree in social work, or to become a public interest lawyer, or to live a simpler life that prioritizes people over material wealth. A great deal of the identity work we do in adolescence and young adulthood is about values and goals, as we strive to articulate a personal vision or dream for what we hope to accomplish in the future.

The Autobiographical Author

Even as continues to develop a sense of as both a social actor and a motivated agent, a third standpoint for selfhood gradually emerges in the adolescent and early-adult years. The third perspective is a response to Erikson’s (1963) challenge of identity. According to Erikson, developing an identity involves more than the exploration of and commitment to life goals and values (the self as motivated agent), and more than committing to new roles and re-evaluating old traits (the self as social actor). It also involves achieving a sense of temporal continuity in life—a reflexive understanding of how I have come to be the person I am becoming, or put differently, how my past self has developed into my present self, and how my present self will, in turn, develop into an envisioned future self. In his analysis of identity formation in the life of the 15th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther, Erikson (1958) describes the culmination of a young adult’s search for identity in this way:

“To be adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and prospect. By accepting some definition of who he is, usually on the basis of a function in an economy, a place in the sequence of generations, and a status in the structure of society, the adult is able to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it. In this sense, psychologically we do choose our parents, our family history, and the history of our kings, heroes, and gods. By making them our own, we maneuver ourselves into the inner position of proprietors, of creators.”

— (Erikson, 1958, pp. 111–112; emphasis added).

In this rich passage, Erikson intimates that the development of a mature identity in young adulthood involves the I’s ability to construct a retrospective and prospective story about the Me (McAdams, 1985). In their efforts to find a meaningful identity for life, young men and women begin “to selectively reconstruct” their past, as Erikson wrote, and imagine their future to create an integrative life story, or what psychologists today often call a . A narrative identity is an internalized and evolving story of the self that reconstructs the past and anticipates the future in such a way as to provide a person’s life with some degree of unity, meaning, and purpose over time (McAdams, 2008; McLean, Pasupathi, & Pals, 2007). The self typically becomes an autobiographical author in the early-adult years, a way of being that is layered over the motivated agent, which is layered over the social actor. In order to provide life with the sense of temporal continuity and deep meaning that Erikson believed identity should confer, we must author a personalized life story that integrates our understanding of who we once were, who we are today, and who we may become in the future. The story helps to explain, for the author and for the author’s world, why the social actor does what it does and why the motivated agent wants what it wants, and how the person as a whole has developed over time, from the past’s reconstructed beginning to the future’s imagined ending.

By the time they are 5 or 6 years of age, children can tell well-formed stories about personal events in their lives (Fivush, 2011). By the end of childhood, they usually have a good sense of what a typical biography contains and how it is sequenced, from birth to death (Thomsen & Bernsten, 2008). But it is not until adolescence, research shows, that human beings express advanced storytelling skills and what psychologists call (Habermas & Bluck, 2000; McLean & Fournier, 2008). In autobiographical reasoning, a narrator is able to derive substantive conclusions about the self from analyzing his or her own personal experiences. Adolescents may develop the ability to string together events into causal chains and inductively derive general themes about life from a sequence of chapters and scenes (Habermas & de Silveira, 2008). For example, a 16-year-old may be able to explain to herself and to others how childhood experiences in her family have shaped her vocation in life. Her parents were divorced when she was 5 years old, the teenager recalls, and this caused a great deal of stress in her family. Her mother often seemed anxious and depressed, but she (the now-teenager when she was a little girl—the story’s protagonist) often tried to cheer her mother up, and her efforts seemed to work. In more recent years, the teenager notes that her friends often come to her with their boyfriend problems. She seems to be very adept at giving advice about love and relationships, which stems, the teenager now believes, from her early experiences with her mother. Carrying this causal narrative forward, the teenager now thinks that she would like to be a marriage counselor when she grows up.

Two teens with colorful Mohawk hairstyles and punk rock clothes
Figure 2.4 2014 Edmonton Pride Parade Young people often “try on” many variations of identities to see which best fits their private sense of themselves. 2014 Edmonton Pride Parade. By: Sangudo Source: Fickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Unlike children, then, adolescents can tell a full and convincing story about an entire human life, or at least a prominent line of causation within a full life, explaining continuity and change in the story’s protagonist over time. Once the cognitive skills are in place, young people seek interpersonal opportunities to share and refine their developing sense of themselves as storytellers (the I) who tell stories about themselves (the Me). Adolescents and young adults author a narrative sense of the self by telling stories about their experiences to other people, monitoring the feedback they receive from the tellings, editing their stories in light of the feedback, gaining new experiences and telling stories about those, and on and on, as selves create stories that, in turn, create new selves (McLean et al., 2007). Gradually, in fits and starts, through conversation and introspection, the I develops a convincing and coherent narrative about the Me.

Contemporary research on the emphasizes the strong effect of culture on narrative identity (Hammack, 2008). Culture provides a menu of favored plot lines, themes, and character types for the construction of self-defining life stories. Autobiographical authors sample selectively from the cultural menu, appropriating ideas that seem to resonate well with their own life experiences. As such, life stories reflect the culture, wherein they are situated as much as they reflect the authorial efforts of the autobiographical I.

As one example of the tight link between culture and narrative identity, McAdams (2013) and others (e.g., Kleinfeld, 2012) have highlighted the prominence of in American culture. Epitomized in such iconic cultural ideals as the American dream, Horatio Alger stories, and narratives of Christian atonement, redemptive stories track the move from suffering to an enhanced status or state, while scripting the development of a chosen protagonist who journeys forth into a dangerous and unredeemed world (McAdams, 2013). Hollywood movies often celebrate redemptive quests. Americans are exposed to similar narrative messages in self-help books, 12-step programs, Sunday sermons, and in the rhetoric of political campaigns. Over the past two decades, the world’s most influential spokesperson for the power of redemption in human lives may be Oprah Winfrey, who tells her own story of overcoming childhood adversity while encouraging others, through her media outlets and philanthropy, to tell similar kinds of stories for their own lives (McAdams, 2013). Research has demonstrated that American adults who enjoy high levels of mental health and civic engagement tend to construct their lives as narratives of redemption, tracking the move from sin to salvation, rags to riches, oppression to liberation, or sickness/abuse to health/recovery (McAdams, Diamond, de St. Aubin, & Mansfield, 1997; McAdams, Reynolds, Lewis, Patten, & Bowman, 2001; Walker & Frimer, 2007). In American society, these kinds of stories are often seen to be inspirational.

At the same time, McAdams (2011, 2013) has pointed to shortcomings and limitations in the redemptive stories that many Americans tell, which mirror cultural biases and stereotypes in American culture and heritage. McAdams has argued that redemptive stories support happiness and societal engagement for some Americans, but the same stories can encourage moral righteousness and a naïve expectation that suffering will always be redeemed. For better and sometimes for worse, Americans seem to love stories of personal redemption and often aim to assimilate their autobiographical memories and aspirations to a redemptive form. Nonetheless, these same stories may not work so well in cultures that espouse different values and narrative ideals (Hammack, 2008). It is important to remember that every culture offers its own storehouse of favored narrative forms. It is also essential to know that no single narrative form captures all that is good (or bad) about a culture. In American society, the redemptive narrative is but one of many different kinds of stories that people commonly employ to make sense of their lives.

What is your story? What kind of a narrative are you working on? As you look to the past and imagine the future, what threads of continuity, change, and meaning do you discern? For many people, the most dramatic and fulfilling efforts to change the self happen when the I works hard, as an autobiographical author, to construct and, ultimately, to tell a new story about the Me. Storytelling may be the most powerful form of self-transformation that human beings have ever invented. Changing one’s life story is at the heart of many forms of psychotherapy and counseling, as well as religious conversions, vocational epiphanies, and other dramatic transformations of the self that people often celebrate as turning points in their lives (Adler, 2012). Storytelling is often at the heart of the little changes, too, minor edits in the self that we make as we move through daily life, as we live and experience life, and as we later tell it to ourselves and to others.


For human beings, selves begin as social actors, but they eventually become motivated agents and autobiographical authors, too. The I first sees itself as an embodied actor in social space; with development, however, it comes to appreciate itself also as a forward-looking source of self-determined goals and values, and later yet, as a storyteller of personal experience, oriented to the reconstructed past and the imagined future. To “know thyself” in mature adulthood, then, is to do three things: (a) to apprehend and to perform with social approval my self-ascribed traits and roles, (b) to pursue with vigor and (ideally) success my most valued goals and plans, and (c) to construct a story about life that conveys, with vividness and cultural resonance, how I became the person I am becoming, integrating my past as I remember it, my present as I am experiencing it, and my future as I hope it to be.



When you think about different cultures, you likely picture their most visible features, such as differences in the way people dress, or in the architectural styles of their buildings. You might consider different types of food, or how people in some cultures eat with chopsticks while people in others use forks. There are differences in body language, religious practices, and wedding rituals. While these are all obvious examples of cultural differences, many distinctions are harder to see because they are psychological in nature.

A group of Malaysian fashion models pose in colorful headscarves, long-sleeved blouses, and floor-length dresses.
Figure 2.5 RnR Collection & FAREEDA Culture goes beyond the way people dress and the food they eat. It also stipulates morality, identity, and social roles. RnR Collecton & FAREEDA. By: Faizal Riza MOHD RAF Source: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Just as culture can be seen in dress and food, it can also be seen in morality, identity, and gender roles. People from around the world differ in their views of premarital sex, religious tolerance, respect for elders, and even the importance they place on having fun. Similarly, many behaviors that may seem innate are actually products of culture. Approaches to punishment, for example, often depend on cultural norms for their effectiveness. In the United States, people who ride public transportation without buying a ticket face the possibility of being fined. By contrast, in some other societies, people caught dodging the fare are socially shamed by having their photos posted publicly. The reason this campaign of “name and shame” might work in one society but not in another is that members of different cultures differ in how comfortable they are with being singled out for attention. This strategy is less effective for people who are not as sensitive to the threat of public shaming.

The psychological aspects of culture are often overlooked because they are often invisible. The way that gender roles are learned is a cultural process as is the way that people think about their own sense of duty toward their family members. In this module, you will be introduced to one of the most fascinating aspects of social psychology: the study of cultural processes. You will learn about research methods for studying culture, basic definitions related to this topic, and about the ways that culture affects a person’s sense of self.

Learning Objectives

  • Appreciate culture as an evolutionary adaptation common to all humans.
  • Understand cultural processes as variable patterns rather than as fixed scripts.
  • Understand the difference between cultural and cross-cultural research methods.
  • Appreciate cultural awareness as a source of personal well-being, social responsibility, and social harmony.
  • Explain the difference between individualism and collectivism.
  • Define “self-construal” and provide a real life example.

Social Psychology Research Methods

Social psychologists are interested in the ways that cultural forces influence psychological processes. They study culture as a means of better understanding the ways it affects our emotions, identity, relationships, and decisions. Social psychologists generally ask different types of questions and use different methods than do anthropologists. Anthropologists are more likely to conduct . In this type of research, the scientist spends time observing a culture and conducting interviews. In this way, anthropologists often attempt to understand and appreciate culture from the point of view of the people within it. Social psychologists who adopt this approach are often thought to be studying . They are likely to use interviews as a primary research methodology.

For example, in a 2004 study Hazel Markus and her colleagues wanted to explore class culture as it relates to well-being. The researchers adopted a cultural psychology approach and interviewed participants to discover—in the participants own words—what “the good life” is for Americans of different social classes. Dozens of participants answered 30 about well-being during recorded, face-to-face interviews. After the interview data were collected the researchers then read the transcripts. From these, they agreed on common themes that appeared important to the participants. These included, among others, “health,” “family,” “enjoyment,” and “financial security.”

The Markus team discovered that people with a Bachelor’s Degree were more likely than high school educated participants to mention “enjoyment” as a central part of the good life. By contrast, those with a high school education were more likely to mention “financial security” and “having basic needs met.” There were similarities as well: participants from both groups placed a heavy emphasis on relationships with others. Their understanding of how these relationships are tied to well-being differed, however. The college educated—especially men—were more likely to list “advising and respecting” as crucial aspects of relationships while their high school educated counterparts were more likely to list “loving and caring” as important. As you can see, cultural psychological approaches place an emphasis on the participants’ own definitions, language, and understanding of their own lives. In addition, the researchers were able to make comparisons between the groups, but these comparisons were based on loose themes created by the researchers.

Cultural psychology is distinct from , and this can be confusing. are those that use standard forms of measurement, such as Likert scales, to compare people from different cultures and identify their differences. Both cultural and cross-cultural studies have their own advantages and disadvantages (see Table 1).

Advantages and disadvantages of two types of cultural study. 1. Ethnographic Study. Advantages: Culturally sensitive; studies people in their natural environment. Disadvantages: Difficult to make comparisons between cultures. 2. Cross-Cultural Study. Advantages: Able to make comparisons between groups. Disadvantages: Vulnerable to ethnocentric bias.
Table 2.1: Summary of advantages and disadvantages of ethnographic study and cross-cultural study.

Interestingly, researchers—and the rest of us!—have as much to learn from as , and both require comparisons across cultures. For example, Diener and Oishi (2000) were interested in exploring the relationship between money and happiness. They were specifically interested in cross-cultural differences in levels of life satisfaction between people from different cultures. To examine this question they used international surveys that asked all participants the exact same question, such as “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” and used a  for answers; in this case one that asked people to use a 1-10 scale to respond. They also collected data on average income levels in each nation, and adjusted these for local differences in how many goods and services that money can buy.

The Diener research team discovered that, across more than 40 nations there was a tendency for money to be associated with higher life satisfaction. People from richer countries such as Denmark, Switzerland and Canada had relatively high satisfaction while their counterparts from poorer countries such as India and Belarus had lower levels. There were some interesting exceptions, however. People from Japan—a wealthy nation—reported lower satisfaction than did their peers in nations with similar wealth. In addition, people from Brazil—a poorer nation—had unusually high scores compared to their income counterparts.

One problem with cross-cultural studies is that they are vulnerable to  This means that the researcher who designs the study might be influenced by personal biases that could affect research outcomes—without even being aware of it. For example, a study on happiness across cultures might investigate the ways that personal freedom is associated with feeling a sense of purpose in life. The researcher might assume that when people are free to choose their own work and leisure, they are more likely to pick options they care deeply about. Unfortunately, this researcher might overlook the fact that in much of the world it is considered important to sacrifice some personal freedom in order to fulfill one’s duty to the group (Triandis, 1995). Because of the danger of this type of bias, social psychologists must continue to improve their methodology.

What is Culture?

Defining Culture

Like the words “happiness” and “intelligence,” the word “culture” can be tricky to define. is a word that suggests social patterns of shared meaning. In essence, it is a collective understanding of the way the world works, shared by members of a group and passed down from one generation to the next. For example, members of the Yanomamö tribe, in South America, share a cultural understanding of the world that includes the idea that there are four parallel levels to reality that include an abandoned level, and earthly level and heavenly and hell-like levels. Similarly, members of surfing culture understand their athletic pastime as being worthwhile and governed by formal rules of etiquette known only to insiders. There are several features of culture that are central to understanding the uniqueness and diversity of the human mind:

  1. Versatility: Culture can change and adapt. Someone from the state of Orissa, in India, for example, may have multiple identities. She might see herself as Oriya when at home and speaking her native language. At other times, such as during the national cricket match against Pakistan, she might consider herself Indian. This is known as
  2. Sharing: Culture is the product of people sharing with one another. Humans cooperate and share knowledge and skills with other members of their networks. The ways they share, and the content of what they share, helps make up culture. Older adults, for instance, remember a time when long-distance friendships were maintained through letters that arrived in the mail every few months. Contemporary youth culture accomplishes the same goal through the use of instant text messages on smart phones.
  3. Accumulation: Cultural knowledge is cumulative. That is, information is “stored.” This means that a culture’s collective learning grows across generations. We understand more about the world today than we did 200 years ago, but that doesn’t mean the culture from long ago has been erased by the new. For instance, members of the Haida culture—a First Nations people in British Columbia, Canada—profit from both ancient and modern experiences. They might employ traditional fishing practices and wisdom stories while also using modern technologies and services.
  4. Patterns: There are systematic and predictable ways of behavior or thinking across members of a culture. Patterns emerge from adapting, sharing, and storing cultural information. Patterns can be both similar and different across cultures. For example, in both Canada and India it is considered polite to bring a small gift to a host’s home. In Canada, it is more common to bring a bottle of wine and for the gift to be opened right away. In India, by contrast, it is more common to bring sweets, and often the gift is set aside to be opened later.

Understanding the changing nature of culture is the first step toward appreciating how it helps people. The concept of is the ability to understand why members of other cultures act in the ways they do. Rather than dismissing foreign behaviors as weird, inferior, or immoral, people high in cultural intelligence can appreciate differences even if they do not necessarily share another culture’s views or adopt its ways of doing things.

Thinking about Culture

One of the biggest problems with understanding culture is that the word itself is used in different ways by different people. When someone says, “My company has a competitive culture,” does it mean the same thing as when another person says, “I’m taking my children to the museum so they can get some culture”? The truth is, there are many ways to think about culture. Here are three ways to parse this concept:

  1. Progressive cultivation: This refers to a relatively small subset of activities that are intentional and aimed at “being refined.” Examples include learning to play a musical instrument, appreciating visual art, and attending theater performances, as well as other instances of so-called “high art.” This was the predominant use of the word culture through the mid-19th century. This notion of culture formed the basis, in part, of a superior mindset on the behalf of people from the upper economic classes. For instance, many tribal groups were seen as lacking cultural sophistication under this definition. In the late 19th century, as global travel began to rise, this understanding of culture was largely replaced with an understanding of it as a way of life.
  2. Ways of Life: This refers to distinct patterns of beliefs and behaviors widely shared among members of a culture. The “ways of life” understanding of culture shifts the emphasis to patterns of belief and behavior that persist over many generations. Although cultures can be small—such as “school culture”—they usually describe larger populations, such as nations. People occasionally confuse national identity with culture. There are similarities in culture between Japan, China, and Korea, for example, even though politically they are very different. Indeed, each of these nations also contains a great deal of cultural variation within themselves.
  3. Shared Learning: In the 20th century, anthropologists and social psychologists developed the concept of to refer to the ways people learn about and shared cultural knowledge. Where “ways of life” is treated as a noun “enculturation” is a verb. That is, enculturation is a fluid and dynamic process. That is, it emphasizes that culture is a process that can be learned. As children are raised in a society, they are taught how to behave according to regional cultural norms. As immigrants settle in a new country, they learn a new set of rules for behaving and interacting. In this way, it is possible for a person to have multiple .
This table outlines 3 ways to view culture: as progressive cultivation, as a way of life, and as shared learning. Examples are given for each. These concepts are described in detail in the main text.
Table 2.2: Culture concepts and their application

The understanding of culture as a learned pattern of views and behaviors is interesting for several reasons. First, it highlights the ways groups can come into conflict with one another. Members of different cultures simply learn different ways of behaving. Modern youth culture, for instance, interacts with technologies such as smart phones using a different set of rules than people who are in their 40s, 50s, or 60s. Older adults might find texting in the middle of a face-to-face conversation rude while younger people often do not. These differences can sometimes become politicized and a source of tension between groups. One example of this is Muslim women who wear a hijab, or head scarf. Non-Muslims do not follow this practice, so occasional misunderstandings arise about the appropriateness of the tradition. Second, understanding that culture is learned is important because it means that people can adopt an appreciation of patterns of behavior that are different than their own. For example, non-Muslims might find it helpful to learn about the hijab. Where did this tradition come from? What does it mean and what are various Muslim opinions about wearing one? Finally, understanding that culture is learned can be helpful in developing self-awareness. For instance, people from the United States might not even be aware of the fact that their attitudes about public nudity are influenced by their cultural learning. While women often go topless on beaches in Europe and women living a traditional tribal existence in places like the South Pacific also go topless, it is illegal for women in some of the United States to do so. These cultural norms for modesty—reflected in government laws and policies– also enter the discourse on social issues such as the appropriateness of breast-feeding in public. Understanding that your preferences are—in many cases—the products of cultural learning might empower you to revise them if doing so will lead to a better life for you or others.

The Self and Culture

A Buddhist woman with a baby on her lap places food into the alms bowl of a young Buddhist priest dressed in traditional orange robes.
Figure 2.6 Bowl of the Buddhist priest In a world that is increasingly connected by travel, technology, and business the ability to understand and appreciate the differences between cultures is more important than ever. Psychologists call this capability “cultural intelligence”. Bowl of the Buddhist priest. Source: Flickr CCO 1.0
Traditionally, social psychologists have thought about how patterns of behavior have an overarching effect on populations’ attitudes. Harry Triandis, a cross-cultural psychologist, has studied culture in terms of individualism and collectivism. Triandis became interested in culture because of his unique upbringing. Born in Greece, he was raised under both the German and Italian occupations during World War II. The Italian soldiers broadcast classical music in the town square and built a swimming pool for the townspeople. Interacting with these foreigners—even though they were an occupying army—sparked Triandis’ curiosity about other cultures. He realized that he would have to learn English if he wanted to pursue academic study outside of Greece and so he practiced with the only local who knew the language: a mentally ill 70 year old who was incarcerated for life at the local hospital. He went on to spend decades studying the ways people in different cultures define themselves (Triandis, 2008).

So, what exactly were these two patterns of culture Triandis focused on: and ? Individualists, such as most people born and raised in Australia or the United States, define themselves as individuals. They seek personal freedom and prefer to voice their own opinions and make their own decisions. By contrast, collectivists—such as most people born and raised in Korea or in Taiwan— are more likely to emphasize their connectedness to others. They are more likely to sacrifice their personal preferences if those preferences come in conflict with the preferences of the larger group (Triandis, 1995).

Both individualism and collectivism can further be divided into vertical and horizontal dimensions (Triandis, 1995). Essentially, these dimensions describe social status among members of a society. People in vertical societies differ in status, with some people being more highly respected or having more privileges, while in horizontal societies people are relatively equal in status and privileges. These dimensions are, of course, simplifications.

Neither individualism nor collectivism is the “correct way to live.” Rather, they are two separate patterns with slightly different emphases. People from individualistic societies often have more social freedoms, while collectivistic societies often have better social safety nets.

Contrasting four types of culture. 1. Vertical Individualistic – Example: United States. People are unique; some distinguish themselves and enjoy higher status. 2. Horizontal Individualistic – Example: Denmark. People are unique; most people have the same status. 3. Vertical Collectivist – Example: Japan. People emphasize their connectedness and must do their duty; some enjoy higher status. 4. Horizontal Collectivist – Example: Israeli kibbutz. People emphasize their connectedness and work toward common goals; most people have the same status.
Table 2.3: Individualist and collectivist cultures

There are yet other ways of thinking about culture, as well. The cultural patterns of individualism and collectivism are linked to an important psychological phenomenon: the way that people understand themselves. Known as , this is the way people define the way they “fit” in relation to others. Individualists are more likely to define themselves in terms of an . This means that people see themselves as A) being a unique individual with a stable collection of personal traits, and B) that these traits drive behavior. By contrast, people from collectivist cultures are more likely to identify with the . This means that people see themselves as A) defined differently in each new social context and B) social context, rather than internal traits, are the primary drivers of behavior (Markus & Kitiyama, 1991).

What do the independent and interdependent self look like in daily life? One simple example can be seen in the way that people describe themselves. Imagine you had to complete the sentence starting with “I am…..”. And imagine that you had to do this 10 times. People with an independent sense of self are more likely to describe themselves in terms of traits such as “I am honest,” “I am intelligent,” or “I am talkative.” On the other hand, people with a more interdependent sense of self are more likely to describe themselves in terms of their relation to others such as “I am a sister,” “I am a good friend,” or “I am a leader on my team” (Markus, 1977).

The psychological consequences of having an independent or interdependent self can also appear in more surprising ways. Take, for example, the emotion of anger. In Western cultures, where people are more likely to have an independent self, anger arises when people’s personal wants, needs, or values are attacked or frustrated (Markus & Kitiyama, 1994). Angry Westerners sometimes complain that they have been “treated unfairly.” Simply put, anger—in the Western sense—is the result of violations of the self. By contrast, people from interdependent self cultures, such as Japan, are likely to experience anger somewhat differently. They are more likely to feel that anger is unpleasant not because of some personal insult but because anger represents a lack of harmony between people. In this instance, anger is particularly unpleasant when it interferes with close relationships.

Culture is Learned

It’s important to understand that culture is learned. People aren’t born using chopsticks or being good at soccer simply because they have a genetic predisposition for it. They learn to excel at these activities because they are born in countries like Argentina, where playing soccer is an important part of daily life, or in countries like Taiwan, where chopsticks are the primary eating utensils. So, how are such cultural behaviors learned? It turns out that cultural skills and knowledge are learned in much the same way a person might learn to do algebra or knit. They are acquired through a combination of explicit teaching and implicit learning—by observing and copying.

Cultural teaching can take many forms. It begins with parents and caregivers, because they are the primary influence on young children. Caregivers teach kids, both directly and by example, about how to behave and how the world works. They encourage children to be polite, reminding them, for instance, to say “Thankyou.” They teach kids how to dress in a way that is appropriate for the culture. They introduce children to religious beliefs and the rituals that go with them. They even teach children how to think and feel! Adult men, for example, often exhibit a certain set of emotional expressions—such as being tough and not crying—that provides a model of masculinity for their children. This is why we see different ways of expressing the same emotions in different parts of the world.

Brazilian soccer fans dressed in the colors of the national team cheer wildly from the stands during a match.
Figure 2.7 Brazil and Colombia match at the FIFA World Cup Culture teaches us what behaviors and emotions are appropriate or expected in different situations. Brazil and Colombia match at the FIFA World Cup. By: Portal de Copa Source: Wikimediacommons CC BY 3.0

In some societies, it is considered appropriate to conceal anger. Instead of expressing their feelings outright, people purse their lips, furrow their brows, and say little. In other cultures, however, it is appropriate to express anger. In these places, people are more likely to bare their teeth, furrow their brows, point or gesture, and yell (Matsumoto, Yoo, & Chung, 2010). Such patterns of behavior are learned. Often, adults are not even aware that they are, in essence, teaching psychology—because the lessons are happening through .

Let’s consider a single example of a way you behave that is learned, which might surprise you. All people gesture when they speak. We use our hands in fluid or choppy motions—to point things out, or to pantomime actions in stories. Consider how you might throw your hands up and exclaim, “I have no idea!” or how you might motion to a friend that it’s time to go. Even people who are born blind use hand gestures when they speak, so to some degree this is a universal behavior, meaning all people naturally do it. However, social researchers have discovered that culture influences how a person gestures. Italians, for example, live in a society full of gestures. In fact, they use about 250 of them (Poggi, 2002)! Some are easy to understand, such as a hand against the belly, indicating hunger. Others, however, are more difficult. For example, pinching the thumb and index finger together and drawing a line backwards at face level means “perfect,” while knocking a fist on the side of one’s head means “stubborn.”

Beyond observational learning, cultures also use  to teach people what is important. For example, young people who are interested in becoming Buddhist monks often have to endure rituals that help them shed feelings of specialness or superiority—feelings that run counter to Buddhist doctrine. To do this, they might be required to wash their teacher’s feet, scrub toilets, or perform other menial tasks. Similarly, many Jewish adolescents go through the process of bar and bat mitzvah. This is a ceremonial reading from scripture that requires the study of Hebrew and, when completed, signals that the youth is ready for full participation in public worship.

Cultural Relativism

When social psychologists research culture, they try to avoid making value judgments. This is known as and is considered an important approach to scientific objectivity. But, while such objectivity is the goal, it is a difficult one to achieve. With this in mind, anthropologists have tried to adopt a sense of empathy for the cultures they study. This has led to , the principle of regarding and valuing the practices of a culture from the point of view of that culture. It is a considerate and practical way to avoid hasty judgments. Take for example, the common practice of same-sex friends in India walking in public while holding hands: this is a common behavior and a sign of connectedness between two people. In England, by contrast, holding hands is largely limited to romantically involved couples, and often suggests a sexual relationship. These are simply two different ways of understanding the meaning of holding hands. Someone who does not take a relativistic view might be tempted to see their own understanding of this behavior as superior and, perhaps, the foreign practice as being immoral.

Despite the fact that cultural relativism promotes the appreciation for cultural differences, it can also be problematic. At its most extreme it leaves no room for criticism of other cultures, even if certain cultural practices are horrific or harmful. Many practices have drawn criticism over the years. In Madagascar, for example, the famahidana funeral tradition includes bringing bodies out from tombs once every seven years, wrapping them in cloth, and dancing with them. Some people view this practice as disrespectful to the body of a deceased person. Another example can be seen in the historical Indian practice of sati—the burning to death of widows on their deceased husband’s funeral pyre. This practice was outlawed by the British when they colonized India. Today, a debate rages about the ritual cutting of genitals of children in several Middle Eastern and African cultures. To a lesser extent, this same debate arises around the circumcision of baby boys in Western hospitals. When considering harmful cultural traditions, it can be patronizing to the point of racism to use cultural relativism as an excuse for avoiding debate. To assume that people from other cultures are neither mature enough nor responsible enough to consider criticism from the outside is demeaning.

Two boys walk together down a busy street in Bangalore, India while holding hands.
Figure 2.8 Friendship Day In some cultures, it’s perfectly normal for same-sex friends to hold hands while in others, handholding is restricted to romantically involved individuals only. Friendship Day. By: Subharnab Majumdar Source: Flickr CC BY-2.0

Positive cultural relativism is the belief that the world would be a better place if everyone practiced some form of intercultural empathy and respect. This approach offers a potentially important contribution to theories of cultural progress: to better understand human behavior, people should avoid adopting extreme views that block discussions about the basic morality or usefulness of cultural practices.


We live in a unique moment in history. We are experiencing the rise of a global culture in which people are connected and able to exchange ideas and information better than ever before. International travel and business are on the rise. Instantaneous communication and social media are creating networks of contacts who would never otherwise have had a chance to connect. Education is expanding, music and films cross national borders, and state-of-the-art technology affects us all. In this world, an understanding of what culture is and how it happens, can set the foundation for acceptance of differences and respectful disagreements. The science of social psychology—along with the other culture-focused sciences, such as anthropology and sociology—can help produce insights into cultural processes. These insights, in turn, can be used to increase the quality of intercultural dialogue, to preserve cultural traditions, and to promote self-awareness.

Reflection: Think about the following:


What is culture and what does the word culture mean to you? Often times when we hear the word culture, we tend to connect it with our race or our ethnic identity. While this is a piece of our culture, it is not a comprehensive view. Culture encompasses gender, age, religion, sexuality, social norms, family, tradition, etc. There are a multitude of factors that create your personal culture or what makes you who you are as an individual. What aspects of your culture are most salient to you? How has your family, upbringing, experiences shaped you into the person you are today? Do you find that you prefer and value individual goals or think about group or family goals when making a decision? For example, if you have chosen your college major already, what factors did you consider when making this decision? Did you make this decision independently or with influence from family and friends, or both?

Activity: “I am”

Think about the following and be prepared to discuss your responses in class:

  • How does social media influence social comparisons?
  • Does it tend to influence more upward or downward comparisons?

Be prepared to support your answer.

Social Norms

Social Norm Violations

In the chapter, we discussed how our culture can influence the development of social norms, or expected ways of behaving in certain situations. For example, the expected norm for a classroom may include raising your hand when you have a question and not talking during a lecture. A norm when waiting in a line is to face the front of the line. But what happens when someone violates a social norm? Have you personally ever violated a social norm? If so, what happened? How did you feel? How did others around you respond? These brief videos below illustrate a few social norm violations. How do you think you would respond if you saw someone violating these social norms?


Self and Identity Resources

Resource 1

McAdams, D. P. (2020). Self and identity. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from Self and identity

Outside Resources

Web: The website for the Foley Center for the Study of Lives, at Northwestern University. The site contains research materials, interview protocols, and coding manuals for conducting studies of narrative identity.
Foley Center for the Study of Lives, at Northwestern University


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Culture Resources

Resource 1

Biswas-Diener, R. & Thin, N. (2020). Culture. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from Culture

Outside Resources

Articles: International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology (IACCP) [Wolfgang Friedlmeier, ed] Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (ORPC)
Read about psychology and culture on the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology
Database: Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) ‘World Cultures’ database
Read about Human Relations Area Files (HRAF)
Organization: Plous, Scott, et al, Social Psychology Network, Cultural Psychology Links by Subtopic
Additional links to cultural psychology on Social Psychology Network
Study: Hofstede, Geert et al, The Hofstede Center: Strategy, Culture, Change
Learn more on Geert Hofstede website


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