Cultural Differences are not always Reducible to Individual Differences

2781790829_44ac7fb049This post is based on the paper: “Cultural differences are not always reducible to individual differences,” written by Jinkyung Na, Igor Grossmann, Michael E. W. Varnum, Shinobu Kitayama, Richard Gonzalez, and Richard E. Nisbett p 6192-6197 | PNAS | April 6, 2010 | vol.107.

As people, I think that we want to believe that cultural differences can be reduced to individual differences. But is it actually true? The authors studied whether or not cultural constructs can be conceptualized as psychological traits at the individual level.

According to the authors, cultural psychology has placed a heavy emphasis on two constructs: social orientation and cognitive style. These two constructs seem applicable to decision making and make me want to apply them when there are international negotiations going on. Some cultures, such as the United States, are characterized by a social orientation valuing independence: emphasizing uniqueness, having relatively low sensitivity to social cues, and encouraging behaviors that affirm autonomy. In contrast, other cultures including China, Japan, and Korea tend to value interdependence: emphasizing harmonious relations with others, promoting sensitivity to social cues, and encouraging behaviors that affirm relatedness to others. Similarly, cultures have been shown to vary along the analytic holistic dimension in cognitive style. Some cultures are analytic: detaching a focal object from the perceptual field, categorizing objects taxonomically, and ascribing causality to focal actors or objects. Other cultures are holistic: paying attention to the entire perceptual field, especially relations among objects and events, categorizing objects on the basis of their thematic relations, and attributing causality to context.

The validity of these cultural constructs has been well established. First, previous studies have shown that both dimensions can be used to differentiate a diverse range of cultural groups including East Asians vs. Americans and Eastern vs. Western Europeans. Second, the constructs of social orientation and cognitive style are coherent as descriptors of group characteristics. If a group is high on one measure of a construct, the group is also likely to be high on other measures of the construct. Individuals who are high on one measure of the respective construct might be expected to also be high on other measures of the same construct. Psychologists often do find individual differences that correspond to group differences and vice versa.  The authors provide the example of Serbians score high on extraversion and Japanese score high on neuroticism. Thus differences in personality (an individual-level variable) and in national character (a group-level variable) are captured by the same constructs. Relying on these observations, we may often assume that cultural differences in social orientation and cognitive style are reducible to individual differences.

From a statistical standpoint, correlations at one level pose no constraint on correlations at another level. Group-level coherence of variables is independent of their individual-level coherence. Thus it is an empirical question whether social orientation and cognitive style are also meaningful individual-difference constructs. In the present study the researchers examined the coherence of social orientation and cognitive style at the individual level.

cultural measures

They selected 10 measures of social orientation and 10 measures of cognitive style on the basis of their past success in detecting group differences at the cultural level (See Table 1 above). They used these measures to determine if they would differentiate individuals, but overall they were not successful individual constructs.


The authors provide the example shown in Figure 2 of how associations can be can be significant between certain measures at the cultural level and yet no association exists at the individual level. One measure of Analytic vs. Holistic Mode of Thought is the FLT framed line test (vertical axis above).  Analytic attention focuses on a central, salient object, whereas holistic attention is diffused to the entire field. East Asians generally attend more closely to the entire field, Westerners to the most salient objects. In the framed line test (FLT) , participants saw a square with a line drawn inside it and were asked to reproduce the line inside a new square of a different size either by duplicating its absolute length (ignoring the context of the square) or its length relative to the square (by drawing a line with the same proportion as in the original square). The score was the error in millimeters for the absolute judgments minus the error in millimeters for the relative judgments.

One measure of causal inference is the attribution test (horizontal axis above). Because Americans pay relatively little attention to contexts, they make more dispositional attributions for events that emphasize intrinsic properties of the person or object, and fewer situational attributions that emphasize the causal role of contextual factors, than do East Asians. In the causal attribution task, participants read several vignettes describing either positive or negative behavior of a target and were asked how much the behavior was caused by his or her disposition and how much was caused by the situation. The score was their ratings for situational attributions minus those for dispositional attributions.

As you can see in Figure 2, there is a strong correlation between FLT and attribution of .82 between Japan, Croatia, UK, Germany, and the U.S.  In other words, a country with lower FLT also tends to score lower on the attribution measure, while a country with a higher FLT score tends to score higher on the attribution measure.

Does the failure to find coherence for the social orientation and cognitive style variables at the individual level call into question their coherence at the cultural level. As one colleague wrote to the authors: “I propose a new construct which I’ll label “Asianness,” which is based on a tolerance for dense crowds, skill using chopsticks, having dark hair color, and a preference for soy products. I imagine that if I investigated this, I would find pronounced cultural differences between East Asia and North America on each of these individual measures, yet there would likely be no correlations between these individual measures. Is Asianness a cultural construct?” Of course it would not be. No one would assume that dark-haired people in general have unusual skill in using chopsticks or marked preference for soy products.

Why do the constructs of social orientation and cognitive style have validity only at the level of the group and not at the level of the individual? A more appropriate question might be to ask why any construct would be expected to have consistent differences at both levels. Groups and individuals differ in a host of potentially relevant ways.