Psychological Interactions between Personality and Culture


Individual differences that determine one’s attitudes and behavior may not all be the same across cultures. Although culture is shaping an individual, e.g., through social learning, individual emotional processes remain, which lead people to adapt to and influence their respective cultures differently. For specific and holistic psychological approaches to personality, Western and Eastern (Buddhist) contrasting concepts of the self could be further integrated: Why not argue that “the self needs to be strengthened before it can be abandoned (Mosig, 2016)?”

Culture is determining individual personality dispositions

Some individual differences in people are stemming from inborn characteristics. But social learning is determining personality dispositions too, and like behavior, attitudes (e.g., towards a societal issue or political position) are not traits of a particular breed of people but rather a personal disposition developed through cultural context (Wasserman, Aghababaei, & Nannini, 2016). Therefore, personality factors cannot be fully generalized/standardized across cultures and culture specific inventories may provide for an additional predictive explanation for individual cross-cultural behavior (Wasserman et al., 2016). Tamir et al. (2016) found that for people with different cultural or societal backgrounds, the desired feelings they wished to experience did differ too. Beyond a simplifying pleasure-only-principle, negative feelings may be chosen nonetheless if believed to serve the achievement of goals (Tamir et al., 2016).

Individual personality dispositions are determining cultural coping strategies

On the other side, within a cultural environment, there may be different motivations for the same behavior (Barrett et al., 2004), although this individual difference often might remain covert. Lechuga and Fernandez (2011) studied factors influencing acculturation strategies and concluded that besides external factors in the target culture, individual emotional processes do impact the chosen acculturation strategy. According to Tamir et al. (2016), emotions may represent universal human aspects that exist across cultures, although they may be differently pronounced in different cultures. The tendency to comply with cultural values may seem typical rather for a collectivist than individualist context, but interestingly, “individualists, just as much as collectivist, adhere to what they perceive to be consensual or common sense in their culture” (Zou et al., 2009, p. 591).

Bridging Western and Eastern (Buddhist) concepts of the self

Without concluding on whether personal or societal factors are more important, what may be more specifically a situational question, it seems to be clear that culture and individuals are defined by the continuous and bi-directional communication and regulation of values and emotions between individual personality traits and societal customs and conventions at the same time. However, how far a person’s self is seen to be existent and relevant constitutes a significant difference between Eastern and Western concepts of the self. Western psychological therapies may emphasize the increase of one’s confidence, while Buddhism promotes the detachment from the ego as the way for relieving selfish cravings that are considered to be the cause of all suffering (Mosig, 2006). Mosig (2006) concludes with pointing to the necessity and possibility of integrated approaches to psychotherapy in the sense that the (Western) establishment of a strong self may be the basis for its self-transcendence and capability to relate to others, a course for which the interaction with culture would be a crucial part.

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Barrett, D. W., Wosinska, W., Butner, J., Petrova, P., Gornik-Durose, M., & Cialdini, R. B. (2004). Individual differences in the motivation to comply across cultures: the impact of social obligation. Personality & Individual Differences, 37(1), 19-31. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2003.08.024

Lechuga, J., & Fernandez, N. (2011). Assimilation and individual differences in emotion: The dynamics of anger and approach motivation. International Journal Of Intercultural Relations, 35(2), 196-204.

Mosig, Y. D. (2006). Conceptions of the self in Western and Eastern psychology. Journal Of Theoretical And Philosophical Psychology, 26(1-2), 39-50. doi:10.1037/h0091266

Tamir, M., Schwartz, S. H., Cieciuch, J., Riediger, M., Torres, C., Scollon, C., & … Vishkin, A. (2016). Desired emotions across cultures: A value-based account. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 111(1), 67-82. doi:10.1037/pspp0000072

Wasserman, J. A., Aghababaei, N., & Nannini, D. (2016). Culture, Personality, and Attitudes Toward Euthanasia. Omega: Journal Of Death & Dying, 72(3), 247-270. doi:10.1177/0030222815575280

Zou, X., Tam, K., Morris, M. W., Lee, S., Lau, I. Y., & Chiu, C. (2009). Culture as common sense: Perceived consensus versus personal beliefs as mechanisms of cultural influence. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 97(4), 579-597. doi:10.1037/a0016399

  • Hi Mathias, thanks for a thought-provoking post!
    Individual differences have a strong and profound connection with upbringing and societal demands. A child of Asian origin becomes entirely a different person when he /she is raised in a liberal society, which doesn’t exert religious or cultural influence but the one who is raised otherwise, with emphasis on one’s own culture is bound to be torn between what to choose!
    Psychological interactions become active only when they are stirred and superimposed on children at an impressionable age. Societies mold an individual more than his/ her own beliefs.

    • Hi. Thank you very much for your valuable addition to the topic! I absolutely agree with your point that societies may influence individuals significantly. The change from a collectivist to an individualist culture can indeed be a challenge (and vice-versa too). As you mention: What to choose? Do I choose in another- or self-oriented way? These are completely different orientations that may be hard to switch in the short term.

  • This is precisely why I am so enthusiastic about the Existential Well-Being Approach (sorry I bring it up again) as it exists today: The conclusion Mosul made, that thus already does exists and has been improved over the years. Yes, there are differences between cultures, but it is possible to ‘combine’ the philosophies and work with them a psychologists, therapists, counselors.
    Since we are all unique I also do think we should address/coach/treat/heal people individually and at the same time use/teach/inform about Western and Eastern wisdom and guide a person towards a meaningful life what ‘fits’ for that person, in a way the person discovers his/her own truth and what ‘fits’ him/her.

    • Thanks for elaborating further:-). I too think that we see exciting times regarding opportunities to integrate more and more mature theories into whole-person approaches that widen the possibilities to promote well-being and success individually and on socially effectively. Yes, that is very motivating to work in the field of psychology, isn’t it?!

  • You definately need to be a strong true version of yourself before you can abandon what is called the ‘ego’. In the developed countries our society appears to have been built to feed the ego. To abandon the ego in western countries appears almost impossible as you would have no option but to turn away from the social expected norms. However, if you are aware of the ego and it’s cravings I believe that is a very important step forward 🙂

    Thank you for this post, I enjoyed it

    • Hi, and thank you for your comment (which I didn’t see before as it landed in the spam folder). I agree with your point. I think that’s why mindfulness practice is so important to become aware of the ego’s self-serving cravings. All the best!