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New Research from Cristina Salvador Challenges the East-West Binary

November 30, 2023 | By Cara August
Originally published by Trinity College Communications


“Decades ago, people would ask: ‘Why are you are even studying culture? That just doesn't matter. All humans are the same,’” said Cristina Salvador, assistant professor of Psychology and Neuroscience.

That didn’t sit well with her. Growing up in Quito, Ecuador and moving to the United States in high school, Salvador found herself questioning the psychological literature she was exposed to, based on her personal observations and cultural experiences.

“To me, it was always — this study is interesting, but I don’t think it would replicate in a different cultural context. It just doesn't make sense for Latin Americans, and maybe for a lot of other people in the world,” she said.

Indeed, cultural psychology — the field of study that examines the influence of culture on how people think, feel and act — includes decades of research, but the sample of participants in those studies is narrow.

“Around 95% of the work in psychology is based on samples of populations that are from Western, educated, rich, industrialized, democratic countries — the majority being white, college students on campuses like Duke,” said Salvador.

The stark lack of cultural representation in the research set Salvador on a path to challenge assumptions by including an understudied population: Latin Americans.

Now in her third year at Duke, and the director of the Duke Culture Lab, Salvador and a team of collaborators published their first sets of results focused on participants from Latin America.

Cultural psychology research tends to focus primarily on east-west comparisons between East Asians and European Americans. “We actually know much less about the rest of the world,” Salvador said.

What is known, is that cumulative research in the field surmises that Westerners are independent, having a self-view that emphasizes autonomy and uniqueness, while people in the ‘other parts of the world’ — which has been historically limited to East Asia — are interdependent, possessing a view of the self that emphasizes social relationships and downplays individualism.

Over time, Salvador noticed that a lot of associated assumptions in the field went untested. Drawing comparisons and identifying differences between groups are common methods for examining cultural influences, but can lead to dichotomous thinking — independent people do x, and interdependent people do y, the West is like this, and the East is like that.

“That thinking is what got us to begin this work,” she continued. “And this is something that I often tell undergraduate students to do, too — think about the questions that keep coming up for you when you’re learning about something new.”

The question that kept coming up for Salvador was: how do Latin Americans fit in? By interrogating the existing east-west binary, her newest research examines if Latin Americans differ from people in East Asia and the United States.

The series of studies — which includes Latin Americans from Chile, Mexico and Colombia, compared with European Americans in the United States and Japanese in Japan — asked participants to imagine a series of personal and social situations, and to self-report how likely they would be to express emotions when experiencing these situations. An example question would be: Something terrible just happened to your friend or family member. How much would you express the following emotions?

Study participants were provided a list of 12 different emotions to choose from, and “expressions” were defined for participants as how much they would show any outwardly facing, explicit form of communication like a facial tic or hand gesture.

students in Salvador's class

Salvador leads a weekly lab meeting with members of the Duke Culture Lab. (John West/Trinity Communications)

“There is a difference in emotional expressivity between Latin Americans and Japanese, such that Latin Americans are more likely to express emotions than Japanese,” she said. “So that finding is already different than what you would expect from the literature, which classifies both as interdependent.”

The studies also reveal differences in levels of expressed emotions and the specific types of emotions expressed, particularly socially engaging emotions, which help form or restore social relationships.

Salvador’s research asserts that Latin Americans and Japanese were both more likely to express socially engaging emotions, which suggests that their expressed emotions serve the goal of interdependence, while European Americans tend to express emotions to show what they feel, for the personal self, serving the goal of independence.

Salvador’s data reveals that Latin Americans exhibit a different style of interdependence than East Asians, known as expressive interdependence, which is characterized by higher levels of expressivity particularly of positive socially engaging emotions.

“These findings are important because other work in the literature suggests that Latin Americans might be independent rather than interdependent,” Salvador explained. “The rationale being, ‘Look, they're expressive of emotions, and you're not supposed to express emotions if you're interdependent.’ What I’m saying is, yes, Latin Americans are more expressive, but they're actually expressive of interdependent emotions. So, that’s a very different story.”

Salvador recognizes that this research is a starting point, not the finish line, in addressing the lack of cultural representation in psychological research.

“Part of what’s coming out of this new research is that it lends support to the idea that there are many ways to be interdependent,” she said. “It’s revising existing theories, and it’s a chance to include larger populations.”