Here versus there

Kevin Lewis

July 12, 2018

Culture and problem-solving: Congruency between the cultural mindset of individualism versus collectivism and problem type
Sharon Arieli & Lilach Sagiv
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, June 2018, Pages 789-814


This research investigates how the cultural mindset influences problem-solving. Drawing on the notion that cultural mindset influences the cognitive process individuals bring to bear at the moment of judgment, we propose that the congruency between the cultural mindset (individualistic vs. collectivistic) and problem type (rule-based vs. context-based) affects success in problem-solving. In 7 studies we incorporated the traditional approach to studying the impact of culture (i.e., comparing cultural groups) with contemporary approaches viewing cultural differences in a more dynamic and malleable manner. We first show that members of an individualistic group (Jewish Americans) perform better on rule-based problems, whereas members of collectivistic groups (ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs from Israel) perform better on context-based problems (Study 1). We then study Arabs in Israel using language (Arabic vs. Hebrew) to prime their collectivistic versus individualistic mindsets (Study 2). As hypothesized, among biculturals (those who internalize both cultures) Arabic facilitated solving context-based problems, whereas Hebrew facilitated solving rule-based problems. We follow up with 5 experiments priming the cultural mindset of individualism versus collectivism, employing various manifestations of the cultural dimension: focusing on the individual versus the collective (Studies 3, 6, and 7); experiencing independence versus interdependence (Study 4); and directing attention to objects versus the context (Studies 5a–b). Finally, we took a meta-analytic approach, showing that the effects found in Studies 3–6 are robust across priming tasks, problems, and samples. Taken together, the differences between cultural groups (Studies 1–2) were recreated when the individualistic/collectivistic cultural mindset was primed.

The Origins of WEIRD Psychology
Jonathan Schulz et al.
Harvard Working Paper, June 2018


Recent research not only confirms the existence of substantial psychological variation around the globe but also highlights the peculiarity of populations that are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD). We propose that much of this variation arose as people psychologically adapted to differing kin-based institutions — the set of social norms governing descent, marriage, residence and related domains. We further propose that part of the variation in these institutions arose historically from the Catholic Church’s marriage and family policies, which contributed to the dissolution of Europe’s traditional kin-based institutions, leading eventually to the predominance of nuclear families and impersonal institutions. By combining data on 20 psychological outcomes with historical measures of both kinship and Church exposure, we find support for these ideas in a comprehensive array of analyses across countries, among European regions and between individuals with different cultural backgrounds.

How Much Is Enough in a Perfect World? Cultural Variation in Ideal Levels of Happiness, Pleasure, Freedom, Health, Self-Esteem, Longevity, and Intelligence
Matthew Hornsey et al.
Psychological Science, forthcoming


The maximization principle — that people aspire to the highest possible level of something good if all practical constraints are removed — is a common yet untested assumption about human nature. We predict that in holistic cultures — where contradiction, change, and context are emphasized — ideal states of being for the self will be more moderate than in other cultures. In two studies (Ns = 2,392 and 6,239), we asked this question: If participants could choose their ideal level of happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and intelligence, what level would they choose? Consistent with predictions, results showed that maximization was less pronounced in holistic cultures; members of holistic cultures aspired to less happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and IQ than did members of other cultures. In contrast, no differences emerged on ideals for society. The studies show that the maximization principle is not a universal aspect of human nature and that there are predictable cultural differences in people’s notions of perfection.

Misperceived Social Norms: Female Labor Force Participation in Saudi Arabia
Leonardo Bursztyn, Alessandra González & David Yanagizawa-Drott
NBER Working Paper, June 2018


Through the custom of guardianship, husbands typically have the final word on their wives’ labor supply decisions in Saudi Arabia, a country with very low female labor force participation (FLFP). We provide incentivized evidence (both from an experimental sample in Riyadh and from a national sample) that the vast majority of young married men in Saudi Arabia privately support FLFP outside of home from a normative perspective, while they substantially underestimate the level of support for FLFP by other similar men – even men from their same social setting, such as their neighbors. We then show that randomly correcting these beliefs about others increases married men’s willingness to let their wives join the labor force (as measured by their costly sign-up for a job-matching service for their wives). Finally, we find that this decision maps onto real outcomes: four months after the main intervention, the wives of men in our original sample whose beliefs about acceptability of FLFP were corrected are more likely to have applied and interviewed for a job outside of home. Together, our evidence indicates a potentially important source of labor market frictions, where job search is underprovided due to misperceived social norms.

Gendered Language
Pamela Jakiela & Owen Ozier
World Bank Working Paper, June 2018


Languages use different systems for classifying nouns. Gender languages assign many -- sometimes all -- nouns to distinct sex-based categories, masculine and feminine. Drawing on a broad range of historical and linguistic sources, this paper constructs a measure of the proportion of each country's population whose native language is a gender language. At the cross-country level, this paper documents a robust negative relationship between the prevalence of gender languages and women's labor force participation. It also shows that traditional views of gender roles are more common in countries with more native speakers of gender languages. In African countries where indigenous languages vary in terms of their gender structure, educational attainment and female labor force participation are lower among those whose native languages are gender languages. Cross-country and individual-level differences in labor force participation are large in both absolute and relative terms (when women are compared to men), suggesting that the observed patterns are not driven by development or some unobserved aspect of culture that affects men and women equally. Following the procedures proposed by Altonji, Elder, and Taber (2005) and Oster (2017), this paper shows that the observed correlations are unlikely to be driven by unobservables. Using a permutation test based on the structure of the language tree and the distribution of languages across countries, this paper demonstrate that the results are not driven by spurious correlations within language families. Gender languages appear to reduce women's labor force participation and perpetuate support for unequal treatment of women.

Relational mobility predicts social behaviors in 39 countries and is tied to historical farming and threat
Robert Thomson et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming


Biologists and social scientists have long tried to understand why some societies have more fluid and open interpersonal relationships and how those differences influence culture. This study measures relational mobility, a socioecological variable quantifying voluntary (high relational mobility) vs. fixed (low relational mobility) interpersonal relationships. We measure relational mobility in 39 societies and test whether it predicts social behavior. People in societies with higher relational mobility report more proactive interpersonal behaviors (e.g., self-disclosure and social support) and psychological tendencies that help them build and retain relationships (e.g., general trust, intimacy, self-esteem). Finally, we explore ecological factors that could explain relational mobility differences across societies. Relational mobility was lower in societies that practiced settled, interdependent subsistence styles, such as rice farming, and in societies that had stronger ecological and historical threats.

Impact of Culture on the Pursuit of Beauty: Evidence from Five Countries
Shilpa Madan et al.
Journal of International Marketing, forthcoming


Human beings have always coveted beautiful objects, but the desire to look good is touching new heights worldwide. Although the pursuit of beauty appears to be universal, industry evidence suggests that it is particularly strong in Asia. This research examines the effect of culture on the pursuit of beauty. Three studies provide converging evidence that interdependent self-construal increases the likelihood of using appearance-enhancing products. Study 1 operationalizes culture through nationality and self-construal and shows that Easterners (more interdependent) are more likely to use appearance-enhancing products compared to Westerners (less interdependent). This is driven by interdependents' tendency to conform to societal norms, which in turn leads to heightened self-discrepancy (Study 2). The use of appearance-enhancing tools helps to minimize this discrepancy. Lastly, Study 3 shows that the impact of interdependence on usage of appearance-enhancing tools is moderated by strength of norms. When norms are loosely defined and adherence is not strictly enforced, interdependents' appearance enhancement tendency is reduced. This research offers actionable insights into the pursuit of beauty, marketing of beauty brands, policymaking, and consumer well-being.

Coming Apart? Cultural Distances in the United States over Time
Marianne Bertrand & Emir Kamenica
NBER Working Paper, June 2018


We analyze temporal trends in cultural distance between groups in the US defined by income, education, gender, race, and political ideology. We measure cultural distance between two groups as the ability to infer an individual's group based on his or her (i) media consumption, (ii) consumer behavior, (iii) time use, or (iv) social attitudes. Gender difference in time use decreased between 1965 and 1995 and has remained constant since. Differences in social attitudes by political ideology and income have increased over the last four decades. Whites and non-whites have converged somewhat on attitudes but have diverged in consumer behavior. For all other demographic divisions and cultural dimensions, cultural distance has been broadly constant over time.

Who smiles while alone? Rates of smiling lower in China than U.S.
Thomas Talhelm, Shigehiro Oishi & Xuemin Zhang
Emotion, forthcoming


Previous studies have found that Westerners value high intensity positive emotions more than people in China and Japan, yet few studies have compared actual rates of smiling across cultures. Particularly rare are observational studies of real-time smiling (as opposed to smiling in photos). In Study 1, raters coded student ID photos of European American and East Asian students in the U.S. In Study 2, observers coded people’s smiles as they walked outside in the U.S. and China. Both studies found that people from East Asia smiled much less — about 50% less. These differences could reflect differences in happiness across cultures, norms of smiling, or differences in ideal affect.

Is there a link between paternity concern and female genital cutting in West Africa?
Janet Howard & Mhairi Gibson
Evolution and Human Behavior, forthcoming


Here we explore the relationship between female genital cutting (FGC), sexual behaviour, and marriage opportunities in five West African countries. Using large demographic datasets (n 72,438 women, 12,704 men, 10,695 couples) we explore key (but untested) assumptions of an evolutionary proposal that FGC persists because it provides evolutionary fitness benefits for men by reducing non-paternity rates. We identify and test three assumptions implicit in this proposal. We test whether cut women have reduced extra-pair sex before or within marriage; whether FGC is associated with a younger age at marriage as an indication of partner preference; and whether individual and group-level indicators of paternity concern are associated with a stronger preference for marriage to women with FGC. Our results show that FGC status does not affect the odds of women engaging in several indicators of premarital sex, however women with FGC have significantly lower odds of having more than one lifetime sexual partner. We also show that women with FGC get married at a younger age which supports the argument that FGC status influences women's marriage opportunities, even when it does not restrict sexual activity. Finally, we find that in population groups where reported sexual activity and perceived risk of women's extra-pair sex is high, men have higher odds of marrying a first wife with FGC. Together, these results indicate that paternity certainty may be one of several factors contributing to the persistence of FGC in this sample, and that group-level sexual norms are key to maintaining the practice of FGC through the marriage market.

Should job applicants be excited or calm? The role of culture and ideal affect in employment settings
Lucy Zhang Bencharit et al.
Emotion, forthcoming


Do cultural differences in emotion play a role in employment settings? We predicted that cultural differences in ideal affect — the states that people value and ideally want to feel — are reflected in: (a) how individuals present themselves when applying for a job, and (b) what individuals look for when hiring someone for a job. In Studies 1–2 (NS1 = 236, NS2 = 174), European Americans wanted to convey high arousal positive states (HAP; excitement) more and low arousal positive states (LAP; calm) less than did Hong Kong Chinese when applying for a job. European Americans also used more HAP words in their applications and showed more “high intensity” smiles in their video introductions than did Hong Kong Chinese. In Study 3 (N = 185), European American working adults rated their ideal job applicant as being more HAP and less LAP than did Hong Kong Chinese, and in Study 4a (N = 125), European American Masters of Business Administration (MBAs) were more likely to hire an excited (vs. calm) applicant for a hypothetical internship than were Hong Kong Chinese MBAs. Finally, in Study 4b (N = 300), employees in a U.S. company were more likely to hire an excited (vs. calm) applicant for a hypothetical internship. In Studies 1–4a, observed differences were partly related to European Americans valuing HAP more than Hong Kong Chinese. These findings support our predictions that culture and ideal affect shape behavior in employment settings, and have important implications for promoting cultural diversity in the workplace.

Obsessive compulsive disorder prevalence increases with latitude
Meredith Coles et al.
Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, July 2018, Pages 25-30


Many individuals with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) report difficulty falling asleep until later than desired. This may reflect a misalignment between the sleep-wake cycle and the natural light dark cycle. Delayed bedtimes are related to disruptions in cognitive processes, increases in repetitive negative thinking, and OCD symptoms. Misalignment is more common in higher latitudes. AIMS: We hypothesized that the prevalence of OCD would be positively correlated with latitude. A systematic review of the literature identified peer-reviewed publications with estimates of OCD prevalence in the general population. Twenty-four estimates of the lifetime prevalence of OCD were identified and showed that the prevalence of OCD was significantly positively correlated with latitude. Other potential alternative individual, community and study specific factors were not significantly correlated with OCD prevalence. Finally, parallel analyses of a “psychiatric control” (panic disorder) failed to find a significant relationship between panic disorder and latitude. Findings from this study support a relation between latitude and OCD and suggest potential specificity of the relation to OCD vs factors related to mental health concerns broadly. These findings are consistent with recent results suggesting that the timing of sleep may be important in OCD. Future work in this area is warranted.

Cultural specialization of visual cortex
John Ksander et al.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, forthcoming


A growing body of evidence suggests culture influences how individuals perceive the world around them. The current study investigates whether these cultural differences extend to a simple object viewing task and visual cortex by examining voxel pattern representations with Multi-Voxel Pattern Analysis (MVPA). During fMRI scanning, 20 East Asian and 20 American participants viewed photos of everyday items, equated for familiarity and conceptual agreement across cultures. Whole brain searchlight mapping with non-parametric statistical evaluation tested whether these stimuli evoked multi-voxel patterns that were distinct between cultural groups. We found that participants’ cultural identities were successfully predicted from stimuli representations in visual cortex Brodmann areas 18 and 19. This result demonstrates culturally specialized visual cortex during a basic perceptual task ubiquitous to everyday life.

Got Milk? How Freedoms Evolved From Dairying Climates
Evert Van de Vliert et al.
Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, August 2018, Pages 1048-1065


The roots and routes of cultural evolution are still a mystery. Here, we aim to lift a corner of that veil by illuminating the deep origins of encultured freedoms, which evolved through centuries-long processes of learning to pursue and transmit values and practices oriented toward autonomous individual choice. Analyzing a multitude of data sources, we unravel for 108 Old World countries a sequence of cultural evolution reaching from (a) ancient climates suitable for dairy farming to (b) lactose tolerance at the eve of the colonial era to (c) resources that empowered people in the early industrial era to (d) encultured freedoms today. Historically, lactose tolerance peaks under two contrasting conditions: cold winters and cool summers with steady rain versus hot summers and warm winters with extensive dry periods (Study 1). However, only the cold/wet variant of these two conditions links lactose tolerance at the eve of the colonial era to empowering resources in early industrial times, and to encultured freedoms today (Study 2). We interpret these findings as a form of gene-culture coevolution within a novel thermo-hydraulic theory of freedoms.

Exploring Cultural Differences in the Extent to Which People Perceive and Desire Control
Matthew Hornsey et al.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, forthcoming


In a seminal theory piece, Weisz and colleagues argued that control over one’s environment was less attainable and desirable in Japan than in America. Subsequently, many scholars have extrapolated from this argument to claim broad-based cultural differences in control: that Western/individualist cultures perceive and desire more personal control over their environment than do Eastern/collectivist cultures. Yet surprisingly little empirical research has put this claim to the test. To test this notion, in Study 1 we examined perceived control over one’s life in 38 nationally representative samples (N = 48,951). In Study 2, we measured desire for control in community samples across 27 nations (N = 4,726). Together, the studies show lower levels of perceived and desired control in Japan than in any other nation. Over and above the Japan effect, there was no evidence for differences in perceived or desired control between individualist and collectivist nations, or between holistic and nonholistic nations.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.