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Why do people from different cultures think differently?

Why do people from different cultures think differently?

Explaining cultural variation in psychological traits

This project, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and based at Durham University and Queen Mary, University of London, aims to document and explain cultural variation in thinking styles through the study of migrants in the UK and abroad.

In recent years, cross-cultural psychologists have documented extensive cultural variation in how people think, reason, and categorise and perceive objects and other people [1]. For example, whereas people from Western European countries tend to focus on single objects and single causes of events, people from East Asian countries tend to focus on connections between objects and multiple causes of events.

These findings have challenged the notion that there is a fixed and universal human psychology [2]. However, it is still unknown exactly how these cross-cultural differences arose, and how they are maintained.

The aim of this project is to answer these questions through the study of migrants. The first phase focuses on British Bangladeshis currently living in East London. By comparing the thinking styles of different generations of British Bangladeshis, as well as the local White British population, we can track and potentially explain any shift from ‘Asian’ to ‘Western’ thinking styles.

The second phase expands this method to other migrant groups both in the UK and elsewhere in the world, in order to see whether the same effects are found in different migrant groups (e.g. European migrants living in Asian countries), and to unpack the broad categories of ‘Asian’ and ‘Western’ typically used by cross-cultural psychologists.

The final phase involves running experiments in the lab to explore the factors that induce culturally variable thinking styles, in order to understand how cultural differences may have emerged in the first place. Experiments such as these allow us to simulate history and test causal hypotheses in a way that simple observation cannot [3].

Theoretically, this project aims to employ the tools and concepts developed in the field of cultural evolution [4] to explain cross-cultural variation in psychological traits, as documented by cultural psychologists.

The project is led by Dr Alex Mesoudi at Durham University in collaboration with Dr Devyani Sharma, Prof. Peter McOwan and Prof. Parvati Nair at Queen Mary University of London, and employs two researchers, Dr Kesson Magid and Dr Delwar Hussain (see Project Members page for more details).

  1. Heine, S.J. 2011 Cultural psychology. New York: WW Norton. 
  2. Henrich, J., Heine, S.J., & Norenzayan, A. 2010 The weirdest people in the world? Behav. Brain Sci. 33, 61-135.
  3. Mesoudi, A. & Whiten, A. 2008 The multiple roles of cultural transmission experiments in understanding human cultural evolution. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B. 363, 3489-3501.
  4. Mesoudi, A. 2011 Cultural evolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Contact Details

Durham University,
DH1 3LE,
Telephone: +44 (0)191 334 2000