Last December, two psychology departments, one here at the U-M and the other at Kyoto University in Japan, jointly held a two-day conference on "Self, Cognition, and Emotion." The conference marked the beginning of collaborative exchange in both research and education between the two departments. The conference was attended by nearly 60 Japanese participants. Most of them were faculty and students from Kyoto. To this Japanese delegation, more than 100 members of the U-M psychology department joined. The themes covered during the conference highlighted the strengths of the two departments, including cognitive neuroscience, emotion, development, animal cognition and socio-cultural processes. The scholarly presentations and discussions that followed were superb, demonstrating a great promise for the future collaborative relationship between the two departments. Even more importantly, the event made it very clear that the time is ripe for globalizing the academic discipline of psychology.


    Psychology as a "Western Discipline"

    In the U.S. for most of the 20th century, psychology did not look beyond its own cultural boundary, namely, North American, largely white, middle-class culture. Although this might strike some as an obvious, impermissible oversight, psychologists did have a rationale for their own practice. From the very beginning, psychology aspired to be a natural science that seeks universal laws. The fundamental assumption in psychology, then, was the unity of humans as a biological species. In the minds of many in the field, from this assumption about the biological unity followed the notion of psychological unity, namely, the idea that everyone is fundamentally the same in their psychological makeup no matter who they are, that in fact the human mind is universal.

    The notion of psychological unity had a great appeal to many psychologists and, by the 1950s, established itself as the most central, albeit unexamined, assumption of the field. Two reasons seem especially significant. First of all, psychology today is strongly cognitive in orientation, focusing on thought, memory and perception. From the very beginning, it has relied heavily on a metaphor of the mind as a computer. According to this metaphor, the specific software of the mind might be numerous and dependent on culture and society, but the "central processing unit (CPU)" of the mind was presumed to be universal. The most important mission of the field was, then, to figure out the nature of the CPU.

    The problem with this argument was that the proponents of this view often failed to specify exactly what constituted the CPU of the human mind. Indeed, it is plain to see that this assumption can be both right and wrong depending on the level of abstraction of the CPU definition. For example, thinking itself could be universal, but modes of thought might not be.[1] Likewise, the notion of self or agency might be universal, but its functional structure could be dependent on the socio-cultural milieu in which the self or agency is allowed to operate.[2] Substantive and even crucial as these issues really were, however, they were largely ignored. In retrospect, the researchers might have just been excessively motivated to believe that whatever they study, whether it is reasoning, memory, self or social judgment, qualifies as an aspect of the CPU and, therefore, that it is universal. If this sounds very much like wishful thinking, it probably was. But it might also have been a sign of healthy optimism. Unfortunately, optimism itself cannot ensure the truth. Now the time may be ripe to put this issue in perspective. Universality should be sought empirically rather than kept as a matter of faith.

    I also believe that there was a significant political dimension in the psychologists' enthusiastic support of the notion of psychological unity. I suspect that the attitude of many psychologists around that time in favor of the notion of psychological unity was, at least in part, motivated as a reaction against many blatantly ethnocentric, often social Darwinian theories of ethnic and cultural differences (remember the notion of "primitive mind"). In the backdrop of social Darwinism, the assumption of psychological unity had a distinctly democratic feel. I believe that this nuance added a political correctness to this assumption.


    Psychological Diversity

    In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the human as a biological species has evolved by inventing and eventually using culture as a means for biological adaptation. Human infants are born with an expanded neo-cortex that can accept a lot of cultural knowledge. Moreover, our prolonged juvenile period, which is much longer than the one for our closest biological kin (primates), makes this cultural learning possible. Indeed, the human is the only species we know of that is fully capable of building new knowledge on previously available knowledge, actively teaching cultural knowledge to juveniles, and even creating social machinery for doing that (namely, school systems). Only for humans, therefore, cumulative knowledge becomes possible. "Traditions," "histories" and "cultures" are some of the treasures of this biological accomplishment. As Tomasselo notes, only humans see, think and act "on the shoulders of our ancestors."[3] To put it conversely, we are severely handicapped without the cultural and symbolic aids supplied by our ancestors. This line of reasoning suggests that there could be a substantial psychological diversity that is fully congruous with the fundamental unity of the human species at the biological level. With divergent histories, traditions and cultures, psychological systems may take correspondingly divergent forms.

    During the last decade, there has emerged a wide-ranging interest in cultural diversity of many psychological processes and functions. This new field, sometimes called cultural psychology, has several origins to it.[4] However, the single most important impetus for this field came from a realization that the idea of "person" or "self" is culturally variable and, moreover, that depending on the nature of the self that is sanctioned and reinforced in given cultures or societies, people are likely to engage in very different modes of thinking, feeling and acting.

    For example, we have pointed out that many cross-cultural variations in cognition, emotion and motivation can be integrated by assuming that North American cultures and Asian cultures (where much of non-Western evidence was concentrated) hold contrastively different views of self.[5] Specifically, in North American middle-class cultures, the idea of the self as independent is quite widespread and often taken for granted. This and other related ideas, such as individual choice, freedom and self-expression, and the notion of market as the prototype for social interactions in general, are involved in creating and maintaining myriad practices and customs that permeate this culture. Obviously, social relations are important; but they are often structured in terms of each person's choice to enter such relations. Thus, social relations themselves are grounded in the independence of each participating individual. These cultural practices and meanings as a whole reinforce and maintain the independent self. Although many elements of the independent mode of being can be found across cultures, they are especially widespread, both elaborated and fully institutionalized, in many domains of social life of Caucasian-American, United States cultures.

    In contrast, East Asian cultures are committed to the contrasting idea of the self as interdependent. Ideas such as interpersonal or societal obligations, hierarchical social order, and interpersonal adjustment and fitting-in, are involved in creating and maintaining many central practices and customs that permeate these cultures. Obviously, personal selves are also important and often just as salient as social obligations and duties. However, the personal is largely defined vis-à-vis the expectations and demands of one's surroundings. In some cases, personal desires and needs are more or less congruous with social expectations, as may be the case in identification and spontaneous role obligation; whereas in some other cases they may go against one another, as may be true in many cases of youth rebellion against authority figures. Whichever form it might take, the self in these cultural contexts may be highly context- or relationship-dependent and, thus, fully embedded and connected. Given these different views of self, all psychological processes implicated in the self may show substantial cross-cultural variation. Drawing wide-angle comparisons between Western (mostly North American middle-class) cultures and Asian cultures, researchers have provided considerable evidence for this possibility.[6] For example, in North America, independent cultural choice is typically seen as an expression of one's own preferences and opinions. As a consequence, Caucasian Americans are especially motivated to pursue a goal that they have chosen by themselves. In contrast, Asians (and Asian Americans) appear to be motivated just as strongly by goals chosen by their significant others.[7] Likewise, Caucasian Americans are strongly motivated to justify the choice they have made. This self-justification effect is a pillar of cognitive dissonance theory.[8] Our recent work has demonstrated, however, that Japanese are motivated to justify their own choices only when they are reminded of opinions and preferences the others might have on the choices they have made.[9] In this series of cross-cultural experiments, we had respondents—both Japanese and American college students—choose between two CDs and observed the degree to which they later reported an increased liking for the chosen CD and a decreased liking for the rejected one. This spread of alternatives is our measure of self-justification. As can be seen in Figure 1, Japanese respondents showed no such justification effect when there is no social cue (in the condition referred to as "standard"). When a free choice was made in private, it was literally "free" (entailing no psychological cost and therefore no psychological justification of it) in Japan. But when they were subtly reminded of their friends who might be evaluating the choices the respondents had made (in the "other-reference" condition), they now showed a quite strong justification effect. In contrast, the American tendency toward self-justification was uninfluenced by the reminder of social others. This and other related studies have indicated that many psychological processes are quite similar across cultures when seen from one angle, but they are simultaneously very different across cultures when seen from another angle. Only through careful cross-cultural work will we be able to understand the subtle ways in which culture is incorporated into the psychological systems.

    Finally, recent work by a U-M socio-cultural psychologist, Richard Nisbett, has demonstrated quite robust cognitive differences.[10] Asians are far more sensitive or attentive to context than are Caucasian Americans. Indeed, these cognitive differences seem to emerge quite early in life, at least by the time when children reach five or six years old. Currently, researchers are working hard to figure out the specific socialization processes implicated in the acquisition of the culturally contingent cognitive styles.


    Toward Academic Globalization

    Do we really want to globalize psychology or, for that matter, all academic disciplines and, if so, why? Given the cross-culturally divergent psychological processes of, say, thinking, feeling and acting, it seems obvious that we have to globalize human psychology. Theories of human psychology can truly be universal and culturally fair if they are grounded solidly on data that are collected broadly from different regions, groups and subgroups in the world. But how about animal psychology or biology? Or do we want to globalize natural and physical sciences as well? I think that a good argument can be made that we should. In fact, globalization is likely to provide some other equally important benefits that are applicable to all scholarly activities.

    To begin with, learning about others' ways of life can be an especially powerful means for learning our own. This might be especially the case when some domains of life are highlighted and elaborated in other cultures. For example, social obligations and duties, as conceptualized and practiced in many Asian countries, are not diametrically opposed to individual freedom and will.[11] To the contrary, obligations and duties are often seen as a culturally sanctioned way of expressing one's willingness to engage in social relationships.[12] Obligations and duties in Asia appear to be much more voluntary than might be perceived to be the case in North America. This of course does not mean that the voluntaristic notion of duty and obligation is utterly non-existent in North America. It is simply less highlighted or salient. By learning about cultural practices of obligation and duty in some Asian countries, it will be possible to more deeply reflect upon North American ways of life.

    Moreover, culture is a reservoir of many ideas, images and metaphors. Thus, even in physical sciences, researchers from different cultures may take vastly different approaches to the same problem. During the December conference, my own impression was that the Kyoto researchers tended to take much more holistic approaches that are sensitive to processes, constant change and "flow." On the whole, their American counterparts were superb in isolating a crucial element and dissecting it in finer details. This American propensity toward analysis may best be complemented by the Japanese propensity toward synthesis and, of course, vice versa.

    Globalization is most conspicuous in economic domains today, thereby producing a great deal of imminent needs and demands for mutual understanding and cross-cultural communications. Moreover, multiculturalism has increasingly become an issue of immediate relevance to many individuals in the world. All these issues are excellent sources of a number of significant research agendas for psychology and all other social and behavioral science disciplines. Clearly, economic and political globalization is a fact of life that requires attention. But in our academic world of higher education, it is also an important ideal for all of us involved to try to achieve and realize; for academic globalization is absolutely indispensable for intellectually rich, culturally fair—both respectful and respectable—scholarly activities. I believe that the University of Michigan should play a leadership role in this regard. The hope is that the Kyoto-Michigan conference, and an ensuing effort toward collaborative exchanges between the two psychology departments, will become an important stepping stone toward this urgent institutional goal of the university.


    Shinobu Kitayama is a professor in the department of psychology and an International Institute sponsored appointment.

      1. Nisbett R.E. (2003). Geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently...and why. Free Press. New York, NY.return to text

      2. Markus, H., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253.return to text

      3. Tomasello, M. (1999). The cultural origins of human cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.return to text

      4. Shweder, R. A. (1991). Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.return to text

      5. See e.g., Markus, H., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253; and Kitayama, S., & Duffy, S. (2004). Cultural competence—Tacit, yet fundamental: Self, social relations, and cognition in the US and Japan. In R. J., Sternberg, & E. L. Grigorenko, (Eds.), Culture and competence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.return to text

      6. Fiske, A. R., Kitayama, S., Markus, H. R., & Nisbett, R. E. (1998). The cultural matrix of social psychology. In D. Gilbert et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. (pp. 915-981)return to text

      7. Iyengar, S. S., & Lepper, M. R. (1999). Rethinking the value of choice: A cultural perspective on intrinsic motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 349-366.return to text

      8. See Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, for the original formulation of the theory. See also Brehm, J. W. (1956). Postdecision changes in the desirability of alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 52, 384-389, for an experimental paradigm described here.return to text

      9. Kitayama, S., Snibbe, A. C., Markus, H. R., & Suzuki, T. (forthcoming). Is there any "free" choice? Self and dissonance in two cultures. Psychological Science. return to text

      10. Nisbett, R.E. (2003). Geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently...and why. Free Press. New York, NY.return to text

      11. Miller, J. G. (1997). Cultural conceptions of duty: Implications for motivation and morality. In J. Schumaker, D., Munro, & S. Carr (Eds.). Motivation and culture (pp. 178-193). New York: Routledge.return to textreturn to text