Why do people from different cultures think differently? Explaining cultural variation in psychological traits

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Biosciences


Until recently, psychologists assumed that people from different societies all think in the same way as we do in the West - that there is a universal human psychology shared by everyone on the planet. However, when psychologists started testing non-Western people, rather than the American and British undergraduates who typically do psychology experiments, they found intriguing cultural differences. For example, there are differences in perception: Westerners focus on single objects, whereas non-Westerners focus on the relationships between objects. If you show a British and a Japanese person a scene containing lots of objects, the British person is subsequently better at recognising the objects if they are presented on their own, whereas the Japanese person has better memory if the object is presented in the original scene. Or differences in explaining other people's behaviour: Westerners explain behaviour of others in terms of fixed personality traits, whereas non-Westerners explain actions in terms of social contexts. A British teacher might explain a student's poor exam performance in terms of their laziness or lack of intelligence, whereas a Korean teacher might appeal instead to the overbearing pressure to succeed academically.

But why do people from different cultures think differently? This is the central question addressed by this project. Several explanations are possible: it could be that psychological variation is caused by genetic differences between populations, and cognitive style is inherited genetically from parents. Alternatively, parents could have a non-genetic influence, through direct teaching or passive observation. Or psychological traits could be transmitted non-parentally, via peers, formal schooling, or the mass media.

We will take advantage of a unique natural experiment to tease apart these factors: immigration. If the UK-born children of non-Western immigrants resemble their parents in their psychological traits, we can infer that those traits are transmitted from parents either genetically or culturally. If, on the other hand, they resemble local non-immigrants, then non-parental influence must be at work. We will then see whether this shift is associated with specific factors, such as years of schooling, exposure to mass media, or bilingualism.

Another way of explaining psychological variation is in terms of history. For example, it has been suggested that Western individualism arose in ancient Greece as a response to solitary herding, whereas Eastern collectivism arose in ancient China as a response to collective rice farming. We will test this by simulating these conditions in the lab, as an experimental "microcosm" of cultural history, to see whether solitary action stimulates individualism and collective action stimulates collectivism.

Finally, we will develop a web app that will let us test these ideas in multiple countries, beyond the UK, and specifically targeting immigrant groups. If these relationships hold across several regions, we can be more confident that they are valid. On the other hand, differences between regions might also be valuable. If immigrants acculturate faster in London than elsewhere, as suggested by pilot data, we can identify why this is, such as differences in mass media influence, bilingualism or family size.

This project has major potential benefits for the successful integration of immigrants to the UK. Psychological differences can constitute a barrier to successful social and economic integration. For example, non-Western students can find it difficult to cope in Western educational systems that favour autonomy and creative thinking. Knowing the origin of these differences can help to overcome them better, for example by targeting parents (if parents have an influence) or the media (if the media plays a role).

Planned Impact

The major beneficiaries of this research will be immigrants, particularly in and around East London, and the institutions that rely on the successful integration of immigrants (e.g. schools, local government, businesses). The project will improve social and economic integration of diverse immigrant communities by identifying the various factors that enhance or hinder psychological integration into UK society.

The successful social and economic integration of immigrants is a major and ongoing challenge for the United Kingdom. Every year since 2004 around 600,000 people have moved to the UK, and approx. 80% of these are non-British citizens (Office for National Statistics: http://www.statistics.gov.uk/). London receives a disproportionately high proportion of immigrants: non-White people make up 12.5% of the population of England, 30.3% of the population of London, and 42.9% of the London borough of Tower Hamlets where this study will be based (ibid). Immigrants contribute significantly to the UK economy: the last (2007) Home Office report estimates that migrants contributed around 15-20% of economic growth between 2001-2006, and £6 billion in 2006 alone.

Yet integration is far from optimal: immigrant communities tend to be poorer and suffer higher crime rates than other areas. Immigration comes with huge potential security risks if integration is unsuccessful, either through criminal or terrorist acts committed by alienated members of immigrant communities (e.g. the 7/7 bombings) or by extreme right groups/individuals who perceive a lack of integration due to immigration (e.g. the 2011 attacks in Oslo, Norway). Immigration also places strains on the educational system as teachers must deal with pupils' increasing cultural and linguistic diversity.

The psychological variation that is the topic of this proposal plays a crucial role in this integration. A non-Western immigrant who has grown up in a collectivist society with large and informal social support networks may find it difficult to adapt to a more individualist UK society. A non-Western immigrant who has previously relied on trust in economic exchanges may be exploited in equivalent interactions in the UK. A child who is used to formal rote learning in the classroom may fail to cope with the autonomy encouraged in UK schools.

In seeking to identify the proximate and ultimate factors responsible for maintaining and generating these psychological differences, this project can inform efforts in the public and third sector to foster the successful integration of immigrants in London and across the UK.

For example, if immigrant parents are found to transmit psychological traits to their UK-born children, then efforts should be targeted at parents to provide them with skills to better acculturate their children. If parents have little influence (as indeed suggested by pilot data) then targeting parents is a waste of money and resources. If the mass media has an influence then messages should be targeted to immigrant and non-immigrant media. If education is important then the focus should be on schools. Each of these is a potential route of transmission, but which actually matters when it comes to successful integration is currently unknown, and will be addressed here.

We will disseminate our findings to schools, local immigrant associations and charities to help them improve integration directly. This issue is also of wide public interest and importance given the potential social disruption caused by the perceived lack of integration of immigrants into wider society. To counter any misconceptions, we will disseminate our findings to the general public via media press releases, a website and a public event.

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/J01916X/1 06/04/2013 30/06/2015 £369,437
ES/J01916X/2 Transfer ES/J01916X/1 01/07/2015 05/07/2016 £111,696
Description The grant had three primary objectives.

1. To administer questionnaires to multiple generations of British Bangladeshis in East London, as well as non-migrant members of the East London community, mapping cultural and generational variation in psychological measures. These include analytic vs holistic categorisation style, independence vs interdependence of self, global vs local perspective taking, and individualist vs collectivist values.

Outcome: This work was published in the journal PLOS ONE in January 2016. We found that, on those measures where 1st generation British Bangladeshi respondents differed from non-migrants, 2nd generation British Bangladeshis were intermediate between the two former groups. This indicates that thinking styles are flexible and can shift in just one generation due to acculturation. The paper received much media attention (see outputs) and has been viewed 8446 times according to the PLOS ONE website.

2. To create an app version of the questionnaires used in (1) to map psychological styles worldwide, and specifically in immigrant populations.

Outcome: We collected data from 425 people primarily in the UK and Poland, with the aim of comparing British, Polish, and Polish migrants in the UK on our measures. The app was translated into Polish, and we used contacts in Poland (see Collaborations section) to obtain data from several hundred Polish respondents in both Poland and the UK. Data analysis is currently ongoing.

3. Lab experiments simulating the emergence of culturally variable psychological traits, aiming to test the 'ecocultural' hypothesis that such variation originally emerged as a result of different working styles: collaborative vs solitary. We had participants engage in collaborative or solitary tasks, and measured their thinking styles before and after these tasks.

Outcome: This work was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science in May 2017. We found no effect of our manipulations on thinking style in any direction, using two different kind of tasks: computer-based economic games and origami-folding exercises. This suggests either that the ecocultural hypothesis is incorrect, or that such thinking styles cannot be primed in this way in the lab. The latter finding counts against previous priming studies, but recent re-examination of priming within social psychology suggests that such effects may not be reliable. Our study adds to this debate over replication and reliability of research findings in social psychology. The paper has been viewed 2133 according to the Royal Society website.

Other outcomes:
The grant supported additional work on review papers/chapters published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, the Handbook of Cultural Psychology (Guildford Press), and the Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior. A modelling paper derived from the empirical findings from objective 1 was published in PLOS ONE in 2018, which explores the underlying mechanisms behind immigrant acculturation, and its long-term effects.

The Research Assistant employed during the first year of the grant, Dr Delwar Hussein, left early to take up a postdoctoral position at Edinburgh University. We did not replace him during the three months remaining on his position because the postdoc on the grant could effectively finish data collection in his place.

The postdoc on the grant, Dr Kesson Magid, is now working at the University of Oxford in the Department of Anthropology, using the statistical skills that he acquired via training courses funded by this grant.

We created a public-facing website, www.thinkingstylesproject.com, which presents our research aims and findings in an accessible manner to the general public.

There has been extensive media coverage on the grant, including a feature article on the project by novelist Ned Beauman for Al Jazeera America, the UK Government Gazette, Pacific Standard, BBC Future Magazine and The Conversation.

Our data has been re-analysed by two University of Exeter psychologists, Miriam Koschate-Reis and Mark Levine, who have invited the PI to co-author a new publication based on this re-analysis. This paper is under review at Nature Communications.
Exploitation Route Our project has potential relevance for immigration debates and policy. Our finding that second generation British Bangladeshi immigrants substantially acculturate to local thinking styles in just one generation suggests that fears over a lack of immigrant integration may often be unfounded, and that expensive programmes to facilitate integration may even be unnecessary. On the other hand, such rapid acculturation raises concerns over the loss of cultural identity in certain groups, as traditional strengths (e.g. a strong sense of family and community identification) may be lost.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://www.thinkingstylesproject.com/
Description The first research paper from the grant was published in January 2016 and received much attention within the mainstream media and on social media. Long form pieces have been written in The Conversation, Pacific Standard, Al Jazeera USA, and BBC Future magazine. We will maintain relevant contacts to develop impact from the research.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Title Global Village App 
Description The Global Village App is an iOS app available on the Apple Store that captures data on thinking styles in people from different countries. The app has been translated into Polish to target Polish-speakers in the UK and in Poland. 
Type Of Material Model of mechanisms or symptoms - human 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The data collected using this app will be analysed and written up for publication. 
URL https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/global-village-discover-your/id996235832?mt=8
Title British Bangladeshi thinking styles 
Description Data from 330 residents of East London, made up of three groups: 1st generation British Bangladeshis, 2nd generation British Bangladeshis, and non-migrants living in the same area. The data contains results of a set of psychological tests designed to measure culturally-variable psychological processes, including individualism-collectivism, self-enhancement bias, holistic-analytic categorisation, social closeness to others, drawing style, and dispositional-situational attribution. It also includes various demographic details regarding sex, age, age of migration (where relevant), religiosity, media use, and family contact. The database is available via the PLOS ONE website and will be released on UK DataService ReShare (record number 852201) when the grant is complete. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Unknown 
URL http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0147162#sec008
Description Collaboration with Miriam Koschate-Reis and Mark Levine 
Organisation University of Exeter
Department Medical School
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Miriam Koschate-Reis and Mark Levine of University of Exeter Department of Psychology re-analysed our British Bangladeshi dataset resulting from this grant, resulting in a collaboration on a publication to be submitted shortly.
Collaborator Contribution Re-analysis of our dataset, preparation of a publication.
Impact Soon to be submitted publication
Start Year 2017
Description Polish collaboration 
Organisation Jagiellonian University
Department Jagiellonian University Medical College
Country Poland 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We provided a research app translated into Polish to collect research data
Collaborator Contribution They have assisted with data collection in Poland using our research app
Impact None so far
Start Year 2015
Description Al Jazeera USA piece 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Alex Mesoudi travelled to London to be interviewed by author Ned Beaumann for a longform article to appear on Al Jazeera's USA website. This article focused on the entire research project, and the piece will appear later this year.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description BBC Future 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Interviewed and quoted for a BBC Future magazine online article entitled "How East and West Think in Profoundly Different Ways"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170118-how-east-and-west-think-in-profoundly-different-ways
Description Conversation article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Alex Mesoudi and Kesson Magid wrote an article for The Conversation web magazine:
According to the Conversation website this article has been accessed 1649 times, has been tweeted 136 times and it received 9 comments on the website.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://theconversation.com/migrant-communities-think-more-like-non-migrants-after-just-one-generati...
Description Edinburgh mini-symposium 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Alex Mesoudi and Kesson Magid gave talks at a mini-symposium held between Durham University and Edinburgh University researchers interested in cultural evolution. Research results were presented to a group of postgraduates and academics.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014
Description Pacific Standard article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An article written in Pacific Standard (USA) about our research paper published in PLOS ONE:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.psmag.com/books-and-culture/another-reason-to-fear-immigrants-debunked
Description Polish Express article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An article in the UK-based Polish Express on our research in the Polish community:
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.polishexpress.co.uk/sprawdz-swoj-styl-myslenia-pomoz-polskim-naukowcom/
Description Talk at European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Kesson Magid gave a talk entitled "Cultural transmission and evolution of psychological traits in Bengali migrants to the UK" reporting results of the research to an audience of academics
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://ehbea.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/EHBEAProgramme2015Helsinki.pdf
Description Talk at European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Postdoc Kesson Magid gave a talk entitled "Solitary activity as an ecocultural driver of cognitive variability" reporting the results of our experimental studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0ahUKEwjej9bZlMHPAhUOnRQKHSdUByY...
Description Talk at Human Behavior and Evolution Society 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Kesson Magid gave a talk entitled "Transmission dynamics and cultural evolution within a multigenerational Bengali migrant community in the UK", describing results of the research to an academic audience
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0ahUKEwjd8eTzrfzKAhWH7RQKHVxUC...