When Igor de Almeida moved to Japan from Brazil nine years ago, the transition should have been relatively easy. Both Japan and Brazil are collectivist nations, where people tend to value the group’s needs over their own. And research shows that immigrants adapt more easily when the home and new country’s cultures match.

But to de Almeida, a cultural psychologist now at Kyoto University, the countries’ cultural differences were striking. Japanese people prioritize formal relationships, such as with coworkers or members of the same “bukatsu,” or extracurricular club, for instance, while Brazilian people prioritize friends in their informal social network. “Sometimes I try to find [cultural] similarities but it’s really hard,” de Almeida says.  

Now, new research helps explain that disconnect. For decades, psychologists have studied how culture shapes the mind, or people’s thoughts and behaviors, by comparing Eastern and Western nations. But two research groups working independently in Latin America are finding that a cultural framework that splits the world in two is overly simplistic, obscuring nuances elsewhere in the world.

“Culture shapes what it means to be a person,” says Stanford University behavioral scientist Hazel Rose Markus. “What it means to be a person guides all of our behavior, how we think, how we feel, what motivates us [and] how we respond to other individuals and groups.”

Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, a cultural psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, subsequently fleshed out one Hofstede’s four cultural principles: Individualism versus collectivism. Culture does influence thinking, the duo claimed in a now widely cited paper in the 1991 Psychological Review. By comparing people in mostly the East and West, they surmised that living in individualist countries (i.e. Western ones) led people to think independently while living in collectivist countries (the East) led people to think interdependently.

Read the full article at Science News.