Why I believe psychology should be less Anglo Saxon

July 6, 2001

In 1973, cross-cultural psychologist Gustav Johoda said: "Psychology needs developing countries badly." But almost three decades later, psychology remains a product of western culture, dominated by the Anglo-Saxon world. Yet paradoxically, it claims to be universal.

The population of the Anglo-Saxon world is in the minority, but practically all psychology is based on its experience, experiments and research. This is problematic for the rest of the world, in terms of the application of theories and the relevance of fields of investigation.

The difficulties of trying to apply accepted pyschological theories in different cultures can be seen in many areas. One is the importance placed by the West on individualism - the development of the self as an entity distinct from the rest of society. An important teaching of western psychology is that it is unhealthy for a child not to develop a separate personality from its parents.

People from non-western cultures, however, often do not regard integrated, symbiotic relationships as unhealthy.

Family relationships where "selves" overlap are referred to in western psychology as "enmeshed". In terms of family therapy, enmeshed families are seen as unhealthy. Yet in Japan, it is common for a mother reasoning with a naughty child to say: "You and I are one. We can be and must be of the same mind."

Of course, this does not mean that the Japanese do not know how to raise their children.

Western psychological theories are not necessarily wrong. It is just that their application needs to be tested in a cultural context if psychology is ever to become truly international.

Another example, from American social psychology, involves the concept of "fundamental attribution error", which says our judgement of other people is often unreasonable, and is based on single observed actions.

So a person seen failing to help someone who has fallen in the street is perceived by the observer to be a bad person. This person may have donated blood, saved a child from a speeding car, or just have been in need of stronger glasses in order to see stricken pedestrians. Nevertheless, he or she will always be judged on the single act of failing to help.

But cross-cultural psychologists who have tested the concept discovered that Indian people were far more likely to take circumstantial factors into account and be less likely to judge a person so quickly. So this "fundamental" concept quite simply is not fundamental or universal.

Another problem with psychology is that its ever-specialising fields of investigation are not always relevant to the majority of the world. The number one priority for the non-western world is solving social problems. But psychology tends to address individual problems.

A Turkish project that has made psychology relevant is the Mother and Child Education Programme, which is offered free through adult education centres. Through this scheme, mothers learn the importance of playing with and reading to children to aid their development.

An international psychology will not develop individual psychologies for each culture. Rather, it will test existing theories within cultures before blindly applying them - and it will learn from the experiences of different cultures.

Cigdem Kagitcibasi gave a paper this week on the internationalisation of psychology at the seventh European Congress of Psychology in London. For more information: www.bps.org.uk/ecop/home.htm

Cigdem Kagitcibasi
Professor of psychology
Koc University

  • Interview by Liz Doig

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