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Cultural Programming: Beneficial or Maladaptive?

ems8140's picture

        How easily our minds can be changed when presented with certain evidence. Last month I wrote my first paper for the class The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories, arguing for freedom, choice, and control over one’s life. However, I have come to see the limit of this argument, especially when faced with the influential control culture has on individuals. A classmate’s idea intrigued me when he wrote, “in a way, we have been programmed by these influences [of culture] to act and behave a certain way whether or not we like to admit it” (ib4walrus, 2/20/2011). As a psychology major, I have learned a great deal about the human mind and behavior through my various courses, which allows me to attempt to answer the question of how programmed are people by their culture, and whether or not this programming is effective or beneficial evolutionarily.
          One aspect of culture that is ingrained in our lives is the internal tempo with which we base our actions, perceive events, and remember important characteristics, as described in my psychology of time class (Boltz, 2/24/2011). While there is a slight genetic component to one’s internal tempo, the culture in which an individual is immersed has a great impact on his or her pace of life. A study was done by social psychologist Robert Levine to exemplify the way in which culture and the resultant pace of life influences behaviors of individuals. This study helps to show how culture may behave like a parasite, as described by Dennett, which unconsciously invades our minds and results in “programmed” individuals. To conducted his research, he traveled to 31 countries and went to the largest city and a medium-sized city (based on population) and used three measures for pace of life: number of minutes downtown pedestrians take to walk 60 feet, number of minutes it takes a postal clerk to complete a stamp-purchase transaction, and the accuracy in minutes of public clocks. He found that the three fastest countries were Switzerland, Ireland, and Germany, while the slowest countries were Mexico, Indonesia and Brazil.
            After analyzing the data, he noticed that certain factors that contributed to determining pace of life were economics, industrialization, and the level of individualism and collectivism. These three factors could be considered components of each city’s culture. Based on how economically successful, industrialized, or collectivistic or individualistic each city was helped to determine the pace of life. There was no component of conscious decision-making on behalf of the inhabitants of the city in establishing the pace of life. This fact helps to illustrate how individual people do not set the tempo of a city, rather they just follow along with the cultural aspects that influence pace of life. Perhaps people really are programmed by culture.
            As mentioned in the study by Levine, individualism and collectivism play an essential part in culture, and thus shape people. For an individualistic culture, such as the United States, the main characteristics include a focus on personal identity, emphasis on individual experience, accomplishments, possessions, preferences, traits, and goals, and trying to improve oneself. A collectivistic culture, such as China, centers on social identity, group goals, with an emphasis on relationships (Le, 10/1/09). These differences have a profound effect on the way individuals live their lives, based on the traits of the culture. It has been shown that the interaction between culture and personality leads people in an individualistic culture to have an independent self-schema, viewing themselves as a separate entity and describing themselves with unique traits. Those people living in collectivistic cultures have interdependent self-schemas, believing that the self and others are interconnected and that the view of self brings in other people (Lilgendahl, 10/5/10).

        Hong, Morris, Chiu & Benet-Martinez (2000)  An example that illustrates the learned behavior that allows for distinction between these cultures is a study done by Hong, Morris, Chiu, and Benet-Martinez (2000). Participants consisted of American or Chinese students and were shown a picture of a group of fish that had one fish swimming further ahead of the others. They were asked why one of the fish was swimming out in front. Their responses were then coded for internal or external meaning. It was found that the American sample was more likely to make internal attributions, such as the fish is leading the group. The Asian participants were more likely to make external attributions for the difference between the fish, such as the group is chasing the fish in front. This study connects back to the idea of the self-schema of independence, which likely caused those American subjects to identify more with the single fish, while the Asian students with a self-schema involving connection to other people led them to identify more with the group fish. Because people may live in an individualistic or collectivistic culture, they develop these traits. Without the cultural cues and influences, an individual would likely not produce these beliefs and behaviors on their own. These differences help to show that culture really does play a part in programming individuals.
            While evolution is important to allow us to develop and change, in a way conformity and adjustment to our cultures and allowing a certain way of life to program us could be considered adaptive and beneficial. Similarity among individuals, especially in terms of a cultural context, is important because it leads people to be more relatable and may cause people to be more cooperative and approachable. By conforming to the cultural norm, people are able to gain social approval and rewards and avoid negative consequences. People have an inherit need for connectedness and feeling wanted and liked within a group. Through compliance with cultural values and behaviors, people will likely receive social approval (Le, 11/12/09).
In the extreme case when people fail to comply with cultural influences, an individual may be ostracized. Ostracism is not evolutionarily beneficial because it threatens belongingness, control, self-esteem, and one’s meaningful existence. These features are necessary for individuals to feel worth in their lives (Le, 12/1/09). Therefore, it could be considered a positive evolutionary trait that culture may program individuals to a certain way of life by promoting connectedness within the culture, leading to self-worth and a meaningful existence for the population.
Benjamin Le. Social Psychology. Haverford College. Fall 2009. 
Dennett. D. C. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
Hong, Y., Morris, M., Chiu, C. & Benet-Martinez, V. (2000). Multicultural minds: a dynamic constructivist approach to culture and cognition, American Psychologist, 55, 709-720.
ib4walrus. Biology/English 293. The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories. Bryn Mawr College. February 20, 2011.
Individualism & Collectivism Scale (2006). Retrieved from
Jennifer Lilgendahl. Personality Psychology. Haverford College. Fall 2010.
Levine, R.S. Cultural differences in the pace of life. In Helfrich, H., Time and Mind   (119-132). 
Marilyn Boltz. Psychology of Time. Haverford College. Spring 2010.


Anne Dalke's picture

Revising the Story

I'm delighted to see you beginning to take advantage, this time 'round, of some of the resources available to you on the web for making your essays more reader-friendly: using images as well as active links, both to your classmates' work (yeah!) and to that of professional psychologists.

What makes me even happier is the clear "revisionary" quality of this essay: such a pleasure to see a student rethinking her original premises, revising her thought as the semester goes on. What will be even more interesting to me to see is whether, in the future, you find your way back to some "inbetween" description of the human condition--not entirely "free" (if by that you mean unconstrained), but also not entirely "programmed" (if by that you mean unrevisable).

It's also striking to me that you end this essay by praising the way in which self-worth can emerge from a sense of group membership, and loss of self-worth from a sense of being ostracized. As search of that "inbetween" position, I invite you to think of the satisfaction of "going one's own way," of not being part of the group. (In doing so, I recognize, of course, that I am speaking from the context of an "individualistic" culture!) But surely the story you tell here, of "compliance with cultural values and behaviors" as the single source of social approval, is no more the "whole story" than the one you told last month, of the satisfaction of the self-authorizing life?

ems8140's picture