Looking at culture through a psychological lens
Psychology is mostly associated with domains such as child rearing, education and work. But the application of psychological knowledge can go further. We can look at our society and culture through a psychological perspective.
When we talk about the application of psychological theories such as self-determination theory and mindset theory, we mainly think of our close social environments (proximal environments). Think of families, schools and work environments. These proximal environments can have their own cultures in which dominant views and can exist about mindset and autonomy.
What those beliefs are has a lot of influence on how we think, how we feel and how we behave. Cultures that embrace a growth mindset and support basic psychological needs offer greater opportunities for human well-being.
But proximal contexts are not isolated. They are embedded in an overarching social (distal) context and are strongly influenced by this. This larger social cultural context consists of political, economic systems and all kinds of historical and religious traditions.
Distal contexts (cultures) can have a direct influence (through rules and prohibitions) and an indirect, more subtle, influence through implicit beliefs, values and norms.
Evaluating social contexts
Psychological theories can be used not only to promote the well-being and motivation of individuals in proximal contexts, but also to evaluate distal contexts. This can be done by looking at two factors:
- the content of the beliefs, norms and values
- the dominant socialization style
With regard to the content of the beliefs, norms and values, it can be said that the more cultures support basic psychological needs and a growth mindset, the more likely they are to provide opportunities for well-being and social progress (see, among others, Ryan & Deci, 2017, H22).
In our justified pursuit of respect for cultural diversity, we may at times tend to view every cultural characteristic of any culture as good and uncritical. But that is unwise. As humans, we have certain commonalities and needs no matter where we grow up.
The degree to which cultures propagate values and behaviors that go against these universal characteristics and needs determines how bad or good that culture is for the people within that culture. For example, research has shown that people within widely different cultures and levels of prosperity function better when their basic psychological needs are supported.
What about cultural diversity? My answer is that there will always be room for great cultural diversity. The psychological principles we can use to evaluate and develop our proximal and distal contexts are so abstract that they leave infinite scope for cultural diversity. I would even suggest that there is not only room for cultural diversity but that cultural diversity itself is inevitable.
Psychology belongs to all of us and is for all of us
We can critically examine all cultures. Let's take a critical look at theocratic dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia, but also at a country like the USA (see image) that has seen severe and self-accelerating social regress in recent decades.
Some seem to see psychology as a property of "Western" societies. I think that's mistaken. Of course, psychology as we know it today originated largely in some countries we called "Western". But the whole idea of “Western” is getting outdated.
Psychology is increasingly becoming an international project. Psychology and its application is about all people and belongs to all people.