Nature and Nurture: How Culture Shapes Us
Insights from cultural psychology
By Marianna Pogosyan Ph.D.
A well-known analogy developed by anthropologist Edward T. Hall in the 1970s imagines culture as an iceberg. What typically grabs the attention – the way people talk, dress, and behave in any given culture – is merely the visible tip. The vast majority of it – values, attitudes, perceptions – remains under the surface, hidden from view.
There is a lot to discover about the deeper parts of the iceberg, including how culture is engrained in our minds and brains.
“Nature is nurtured,” says cultural psychologist Cristina Salvador. “That means that repeated engagement in our cultural environments can shape not only our psychology, but also our physiology, neural responses, the structural volume of our brains, and even our genes.”
Here are various ways that our cultures shape us, according to the latest research in cultural psychology.
1. Cultural values and agriculture. The crops that were traditionally grown in different communities may have given rise to large-scale differences in cultural values. For example, growing labor-intensive rice fostered collectivism because it required cooperation among populations. Conversely, lands that were more suitable for low-labor crops like wheat, and where people therefore didn’t need to depend on each other as much, nurtured individualism. Our environments can affect us in more ways than we imagine. In fact, 20 percent of the differences between cultures have been attributed to various aspects of our ecology.
2. The church says no. Another surprising link between our psychology and the environment comes from the ban on incest that the Roman Catholic Church initiated during the Middle Ages in Europe. While protecting family assets, cousin marriages fostered “conformity, nepotism, tradition and obedience to authority.” Researchers believe that by shifting the focus away from kin-based institutions, Western societies began moving toward individualistic values and traits, including “independence, creativity, and willingness to trust strangers.” Apparently, the “Speak now or forever hold your peace” part of modern-day wedding ceremonies has its origins in sixth-century C.E. Back then, the inquiry for any last-minute objections to the marriage by church officials probably included the question, “Is anyone here aware whether these two are cousins?”
3. Tight and loose cultures. Societies that historically endured higher levels of threat – from natural disasters to wars – have stricter social norms, are considered more tight than loose, and are more likely to punish citizens for going against social norms. Since infectious diseases spread easily from person to person, research shows that certain norms, particularly a country’s tendency to be open to strangers and freely choose friendships (relational mobility) predicted a faster spread of COVID-19.
Our inner lives
1. Daily emotions. “The relative prominence of what emotions you experience might be shaped by your culture,” says Salvador. People in interdependent cultures have a tendency toward expressing socially engaging emotions. Whether positive (friendliness) or negative (shame), these emotions foster social connectedness with others. Recent research points to interesting variations in these tendencies among different interdependent cultures. For example, Latin Americans tend to express more positive engaging emotions, while the Japanese are more expressive of negative engaging emotions. In contrast, European Americans express more socially disengaging emotions that promote personal autonomy. “You can display pride because you did something great, or frustration because something didn’t work out. But they don’t really help you with your connections,” says Salvador.
2. Flavors of happiness. Most of us value happiness. Yet, we might define, conceptualize, and express happiness differently depending on where we are from. “In some cultures, happiness is understood as more dialectical, almost contradictory – the good comes with the bad,” says Salvador. Even our preferences for the flavor of happiness can vary depending on our cultures. For example, research on ideal affect has shown that people from some cultures (e.g. Hong Kong) ideally prefer to experience low arousal positive emotions like calm, while others (e.g. European Americans) want to feel more high arousal positive emotions like excitement. These preferences can shape various aspects of daily life – from health to social judgments.
3. Explaining others' behavior. The analytical vs. holistic distinction of cognitive styles can impact how we explain others’ behavior. “When someone cuts you off on the road, you could think of it in two different ways,” says Salvador. “You might automatically ascribe a trait to them (What a jerk!). Or you could think about the situational factors that prompted them to act in that way (Maybe they’re having an emergency and need to rush to the hospital.).” In the first way of thinking (analytical), you are focusing on people’s internal traits by making quick judgments about their dispositions (dispositional attributions). In the second case, you are giving more weight to external, contextual factors (situational attributions). The dispositional bias is weaker in interdependent cultures.
Independent self vs. interdependence
1. Different goals. What impacts your self-esteem more, success or failure? Depending on our cultural contexts, our tendencies for self-enhancement or self-improvement can shape how we construct our sense of self. In a recent study, Salvador and her colleagues explored the neural measures of classical findings on the differences between self-enhancement and self-criticism across cultures. “Americans showed an increase in alpha-wave brain responses when they encountered successes rather than failures. Not only were they more impacted by their successes, but they also spontaneously incorporated their successes into self-knowledge.” The Taiwanese participants in their study showed the opposite pattern and were impacted by failures more than successes. According to Salvador, the differences in our cultural goals regarding the self – how important it is for our self-worth to maximize positive feelings and internal attributes – can affect how we maintain our self-esteem.
2. Stress and coping strategies. Stress is a ubiquitous companion of daily existence. Yet, culture can play a key role in how people interpret stress, as well as what strategies they use to cope with it. For example, a recent study showed that European Canadians relied more on primary rather than secondary control strategies to cope with stress. Primary control orientation allows individuals to exert direct influence on the external environment in order to make it less stressful for them, as opposed to merely accommodating the demands of the situation (secondary control). The study further showed that the Japanese had more flexibility in the way they coped with daily stressors, using both primary and secondary control strategies. Culture can also influence how people make meaning of stressful experiences, in turn affecting their coping style (for example, by using acceptance or positive reframing).
3. Self-compassion. Self-compassion refers to the way we relate to ourselves when we are suffering. According to Kristin Neff, a pioneering psychologist in self-compassion research, self-compassion consists of three main elements: “how people emotionally respond to suffering (with kindness or judgment), how they cognitively understand their predicament (as part of the human experience or as isolating), and how they pay attention to suffering (in a mindful or overly identified manner)” (Neff, 2023). Over the past two decades, thousands of studies have established a robust link between self-compassion and various facets of well-being – from reducing psychopathology to improving physical and mental health. While culture can influence the way people relate to themselves (for example, research points to differences in self-compassion scores across cultures), interventions that promote self-compassion appear to yield similar benefits. Being kind to ourselves is good for all of us.
Many thanks to Cristina Salvador for her time and insights. Dr. Salvador is Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University where she heads the Duke Culture Lab.