Psychology and Culture: A Long and Winding Road

16 Dec 2017 1:33 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Dr. Ken Keith, Ph.D., University of San Diego

As a young boy on a small farm near a tiny rural village, I was, in the words of poet William Kloefkorn (2005), “doing my level best to grow up.”  The county seat, a booming metropolis of 5,000 citizens, was 12 miles distant, and the nearest big city was beyond that.  Psychology might as well have been a foreign country, and for that matter, other countries really were also foreign territory.  Like the ancient frog in the well, for all I knew my immediate surroundings and my little patch of sky were all the world I knew or needed.  I had not met a person of another race and had not traveled farther afield than one or two adjacent states.

Eventually, as a regular patron of the village library, I stumbled upon the legend of Siegfried and the Dragon, and in geography class I learned that the ancient Egyptians produced flax.  However, I probably could not have found Egypt on a map, and my understanding of flax was hazy, at best.  The only professionals I really knew were my teachers, aside from local farmers, truckers, and shopkeepers.  Medicine and dentistry were sources of pain, and thus professions to be avoided.  My understanding of psychology and culture could be easily summarized in two words: ignorant and naïve.

High school and undergraduate college days brought new experiences and new people, including classmates from such places as England, Germany, and Lebanon.  My circle widened as I studied French with a delightful French Canadian, met students from distant American cities, and found new friends from a variety of ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds.  My major was mathematics, due largely to the influence of a wonderful high school geometry teacher, but I also loved the subject matter (if not the professor) of introductory psychology.  Ultimately, I completed a psychology minor and switched from math to psychology for graduate school.

The graduate school professors to whom I was drawn were behaviorists.  If B. F. Skinner was the high priest, Murray Sidman’s (1960) Tactics of Scientific Research was the bible.  Behavior analytic skills in hand, I set out to change the world, spending a number of years consulting around the country on the cases of people with intellectual disability and serious medical conditions, whose behavior was sufficiently violent or impoverished to render ineffective the traditional methods of education and treatment.  All the while, I was teaching my students the virtues of a scientific approach to behavior, hopeful that they too would go forth and save the world through behavior change—perhaps by ending pollution, eliminating smoking, or extinguishing Type A behavior.

Then came a young colleague who had just completed a master’s thesis exploring the quality of life of people who had left an institution for people with intellectual disability.  She wanted to do more research, she said, but needed help.  I explained to her, as gently as I could, that quality of life was a warm, fuzzy, nondescript entity—not the sort of thing that real scientists studied.  But she was persistent, and I could see that she was right; we really did need to know more about the quality of life of people with disability, and its relation to their living conditions and services.  Together with my long-time colleague Bob Schalock, I began to take seriously the necessity of defining quality of life in such a way as to make it a legitimate area of study.  Bob and I did that, and continued to publish in the area for the next 30 years.  But the story doesn’t end there.

At the beginning of the 1990s my wife and I had an opportunity to take a sabbatical in Japan.  In addition to teaching there, I wanted to take along our program of research in quality of life, and to explore the situation for people with disability and for students.  However, faced for the first time with the prospect of studying people whose culture was so dramatically different from my own, I had to face the facts: I simply did not know enough about the effects of culture on the sorts of things we had measured in our research.  What provisions must I make for linguistic differences?  How does culture influence the ways in which people respond to research instruments?  Do cultural values--such things as individualism/collectivism, uncertainty avoidance, or views of men and women—invalidate what I know based on my own culture? 

Returning from Japan, I realized that I would never again see psychological science in quite the same way.  Each time my circle has widened, new experiences and new knowledge have required new ways of thinking.  My career has spanned a half century, and I have been privileged to visit many countries.  I have also taught cross-cultural psychology for many years, but have come to believe that, while such a course can be useful for consciousness raising and for conveying such important aspects as cross-cultural research methods, a specialized course is no substitute for infusion of culture across the curriculum.

The APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major (American Psychological Association, 2013) recommend the infusion approach to the teaching of sociocultural content, observing that “When students encounter a stand-alone course requirement or a forced diversity ‘add on’ to an existing course, we are likely to fail to achieve the outcomes we seek” (p.38).  If we intend to teach a psychology of all people, the role of culture must be an integral part of all courses.  Elsewhere, I have suggested some simple ideas for the kinds of questions we might encourage students to ask (e.g., Keith, 2017), and in a forthcoming book (Keith, in press) specialists in the various subfields of psychology present teaching approaches and activities for integration of culture across the curriculum.

As Lonner and Murdock (2008) noted, our textbooks have improved in their inclusion of cultural content, but we still have a long way to go if we are to do justice to the people whom Arnett (2008) called “the neglected 95%”—those individuals who do not live in North America.  So every time we enter the classroom, or engage students in discussion about research or theory, we should be asking ourselves (and our students) such questions as these:

            --Is it possible the researchers have a cultural bias?

            --Who are the research participants?

            --Are tests or other instruments linguistically fair and equivalent?

            --How do people of different cultures respond differently?

            --Do classic processes (e.g., temperament, attachment, reinforcement, memory) play out differently in different cultures?

            --Do different cultures define psychological constructs (e.g., intelligence, personality) in the same ways?

            --Are there really universal differences between women and men?

            --Does the American biomedical approach to health reflect cultural bias?

            --Is “normal” the same across cultures?

These questions, and a hundred more like them, can represent a start toward an integrative approach to teaching in any of the subfields of psychological science.  We can no longer afford the luxury of thinking of culture as an interesting add-on.  All people deserve dignity and respect, not only as we encounter them in our daily lives, but also in our efforts to study and understand the people of the world.

It is a long way from my tiny rural community to the continents of the world, and finding them has involved a long and winding road.  But the journey truly is the reward, and the farm boy’s ongoing effort to grow up has opened the door to undreamed diversity and beauty.  Let’s open that same door for our students as we send them out into the world.


American Psychological Association (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major. Washington, DC: Author.

Arnett, J. J. (2008). The neglected 95%: Why American psychology needs to become less American. American Psychologist, 63, 602-614.

Keith, K. D. (2017, October). Saving the soul of psychology: Why teachers matter. Presented at the Annual Conference on Teaching of Psychology, San Antonio, TX. Available upon request:

Keith, K. D. (Ed.). (in press). Culture across the curriculum: A psychology teacher’s handbook. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Kloefkorn, W. (2005, April). The poetry of people and place. Presented at Mari Sandoz Heritage Society Annual Conference, Chadron, NE.

Lonner, W. J. & Murdock, E. (2008).  Introductory psychology texts and the inclusion of culture. 

Online Readings in Psychology and Culture. Unit 11.1,

Sidman, M. (1960). Tactics of scientific research: Evaluating experimental data in psychology. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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