A Behavior and Emotion Cross-Cultural Comparison: Westerners & East Asians | Dr. Christy Wise
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Individualism vs. Collectivism 

When comparing the psychological processes of two different cultures it is important to discuss the dimension of individualism and collectivism. These distinctions can help us understand the many psychological phenomena that occur in one culture versus another. Western cultures, for instance, tend to be individualistic thinking. There is more emphasis on self and freedom, such as; setting personal goals, achieving personal success, and taking responsibility for one’s self. Another important distinction to note is, individualistic thinking cultures primarily focus on immediate family as their responsibility. In contrast, collectivistic thinking cultures, predominantly in East Asia,  emphasize group achievement, incorporate extended family as a responsibility, and foster a conformity of the group type of attitude. To reiterate, individualism encourages an independent self —primarily valuing personal concerns, and collectivism encourages an interdependent self —primarily valuing group concerns (Vu et al., 1993).

Researchers Ybarra and Trafimow (1998) found evidence of differential behavior motivations between independent and interdependent self-concepts and their data suggests “an intimate connection between the accessibility of the private and collective selves and whether people use attitudes or subjective norms to make behavioral intentions.” Meaning those with interdependent self-concepts behave differently than those with independent self-concepts. The authors further noted that those with stronger interdependent self-concepts were more likely to behave in-line with what they thought their in-group believed —they were defined more by their relationships. In contrast, the behaviors of those with independent self-concepts were more influenced by personal desires (Ybarra & Trafimow, 1998). Interestingly, “Japanese today value independence in their children more than they did a few decades ago” (Heine, 2016, p. 97). This proposes that trends toward individualism exist cross-culturally. The question that remains is will the world transition to an individualistic ideology overtime?  Or will we see pushback to maintain traditional systems? 

Parenting Styles 

Since children are not inherently born with any cultural knowledge, we could hypothesize that we are socialized to a culture and its values through interactions, especially those with our parents. Thus, many studies have attempted to discover the correlation between parenting styles and cognitive outcomes. In the 1960s Diane Baumrind created a categorization of parenting styles that narrows western-centric parenting down to three distinct categories and since has been expanded to four categories. This model has helped pave the way for a better understanding of child behavior and even future adult behavior, at least in westernized cultures. Baumrind suggests authoritarian parents (the discipliners) possess strict rules and are less responsive to their children. Permissive parents mostly let their children do what they want, they allow their children to make decisions on their own, and are more nurturing and open to communication. Uninvolved parents, as it may be obvious, are very little involved in setting rules or nurturing communication. And lastly, authoritative parents set clear expectations, will take disciplinary actions, are exceptionally nurturing, and provide open channels of communication.

Psychologists of today are examining parenting styles both within a culture and cross-culturally. The big question of debate, then, is whether the Baumrind parenting styles hold true across cultures. If not, then what are the parenting styles of other cultures? Lim and Lim (2003) examined parenting styles across Western and Chinese cultures and found the comparison of authoritative and authoritarian styles between cultures can be “misleading” because it doesn’t account for elements unique to Chinese parenting such as “chiao shun” and “guan” which is a key part of Chinese culture education. The general consensus that research psychologists all seem to agree on is authoritative parenting, from a Western perspective, has the best outcomes regarding behavior, well-being, and even academic performance. In contrast, Lim and Lim (2003) suggest that there is no correlation between parenting styles and greater academic performance in Asian students. Moreover, the authors note, “the paradoxical results obtained in associations between authoritarian parenting and child outcomes for Chinese families, for example, suggest that there are important differences between cultures in the area of parenting style” (Lim & Lim, 2003). Therefore, a parenting style model remains difficult to contrast in cross-cultural research. There seem to be other variables within culture structures that also affect behavioral outcomes other than parenting styles. 


There are two aspects of emotion that have been studied rigorously by psychologists; facial expressions —the objective aspect, and descriptions of emotional experiences —the subjective aspect (Heine, 2016, p. 408). In one study Ekman and Friesen (1971) collected thousands of photos of faces with only six different facial expressions, easily recognized by Americans and then showed people from various other countries. Not surprisingly, the data from this experiment supports the theory for universal emotional expression. Meaning a smile can be recognized cross-culturally as happiness and a frown can be recognized as sadness, even in indigenous cultures. 

Furthermore, Tsai and Lau (2013) examined the effects of negative self-reflection on mood among Asian-Americans and European-Americans. After analyzing the data from participant responses their research revealed, “there are cultural differences in the effects and processes of self-reflection over negative experiences.” This means that those of Asian descent experienced higher levels of distress compared to those of American descent when reflecting on a negative experience. Moreover, this suggests that negative self-reflection is experienced differently across cultures. 

A study that examined the cross-cultural differences in emotion suppression suggests there is a correlation between interdependent and independent self-concepts in emotion expression. For example, interdependent self-construals were more likely to suppress positive and negative emotions than independent self-construals. The interdependent participants “suppressed positive emotions less in interactions with close others,” whereas independent participants “suppressed negative emotions more with non‐close others” (Huwaë & Schaafsma, 2018). This research provides us with evidence that individualistic and collectivistic cultures have different psychological processes for experiencing emotions. 

Bagozzi et al. (1999) further suggest, “people in independent-based cultures (e.g. the United States) experience emotion in oppositional (i.e. bipolar) ways, whereas people in interdependent-base cultures (e.g. China) experience emotion in dialectic ways.” Meaning that those with an independent self-concept experience only one emotion at a time. They either feel happy or they feel sad. In contrast, those with an interdependent self-concept can feel multiple emotions simultaneously, feeling happy and sad emotions at the same time. The authors note that these differences could be due to a culture’s philosophy of pleasant and unpleasant emotions. Independent-based cultures believe emotions are more oppositional, whereas interdependent-based cultures don’t see emotions as contradictory. 

Mental Disorders 

International studies of mental disorders have shown us that there are some universal disorders and some extraordinarily cultural-bound disorders. For example, Heine (2016) states cases of depression have been found across all cultures, which provides us with evidence of  universality. However, the reported symptoms are seemingly different among Westerners and East Asians (Chentsova-Dutton et al., 2007). Other cross-cultural studies on depression reveal Westerners manifest depression in mood-related concerns. Whereas, Eastern Asians manifest depression more in physical-related concerns (Zhou et al., 2011). We then hypothesize the difference in symptom experiences between Westerners and East Asians is due to cultural influences even though the actual symptoms experienced may be the same. Heine (2016) argued that there might be higher social costs in acknowledging mental illness in East Asian culture compared with those in Western cultural backgrounds. Indeed, there is research that confirms stigmas play a role in the perceptions of how one experiences, or at least, acknowledges a mental illness like depression (Lin & Lin, 1981). 

Therefore, cultural differences make it difficult for psychologists to have one set standard for diagnosis. Depression and other mental disorders have layers of symptoms that are not universal. However, a disorder such as suicide is more easily compared cross-culturally. The outcome is well-defined and straightforward although there are many different influences and motivations across cultures. For instance, a person of Japanese decent may commit suicide to “preserve the honor of his family” (Heine, 2016, p. 582). In contrast, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that Americans who are depressed or are involved with substance abuse are more likely to commit suicide. 

Despite there being some similarities in mental illness cross-culturally, there are also some major differences. So different in fact that some illnesses are culturally-bound. Meaning they are influenced by cultural values and primarily only exist within that culture. For example, koro syndrome, most common among Chinese men, is characterized by intense anxiety or “fear that one’s penis is shrinking into one’s own body” (Heine, 2016, p. 568). The author further notes that the cultural factors of why this is prevalent among Chinese men is unknown, however, it’s virtually absent everywhere else in the world. 


Cross-culturally there is a tremendous amount of variability in the ways we think about ourselves, raise our children, how we experience emotions, and even how we perceive symptoms of mental illness. Although, cultural psychology has helped us advance our understanding of human behavior and cognition across cultures. Cultures continue to evolve, especially today, with speedy advances in technology making long-distance communication easier and access to affordable transportation to everyone, cultures have been more interconnected than ever before (Heine, 2016, p. 91). Which poses the question, will the current research be relevant in the future? 


Bagozzi, R., Wong, N., & Yi, Y. (1999). The Role of Culture and Gender in the Relationship between Positive and Negative Affect. Cognition and Emotion, 13(6), 641–672. https://doi.org/10.1080/026999399379023

Chentsova-Dutton, Y., Chu, J. P., Tsai, J. L., Rottenberg, J., Gross, J. J., & Gotlib, I. H. (2007). Depression and emotional reactivity: Variation among Asian Americans of East Asian descent and European Americans. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 116, 776–785.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17(2), 124–129. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0030377

Heine, S. (2016). Cultural psychology (Third edition.). W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Huwaë, S., & Schaafsma, J. (2018). Cross‐cultural differences in emotion suppression in everyday interactions. International Journal of Psychology, 53(3), 176–183. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijop.12283

Lim, S., & Lim, B. (2003). Parenting Style and Child Outcomes in Chinese and Immigrant Chinese Families-Current Findings and Cross-Cultural Considerations in Conceptualization and Research. Marriage & Family Review, 35(3-4), 21–43. https://doi.org/10.1300/j002v35n03_03

Lin, T.-Y., & Lin, M. C. (1981). Love, denial and rejection: Responses of Chinese families to mental illness. In A. Kleinman & T.-Y. Lin, Normal and abnormal behavior in Chinese culture (pp. 387–401). Boston, MA: D. Reide

Sally C. Curtin, M.A., Margaret Warner, Ph.D., and Holly Hedegaard, M.D., M.S.P.H.  (2016, April). Increase in Suicide in the United States, 1999–2014. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db241.htm

Tsai, W., & Lau, A. (2013). Cultural differences in emotion regulation during self-reflection on negative personal experiences. Cognition and Emotion, 27(3), 416–429. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699931.2012.715080

Vu, T., Finkenauer, C., Huizinga, M., Novin, S., & Krabbendam, L. (2017). Do individualism and collectivism on three levels (country, individual, and situation) influence theory-of-mind efficiency? : A cross-country study. PloS One, 12(8), e0183011–. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0183011

Ybarra, O., & Trafimow, D. (1998). How Priming the Private Self or Collective Self Affects the Relative Weights of Attitudes and Subjective Norms. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24(4), 362–370. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167298244003

Zhou, X., Dere, J., Zhu, X., Yao, S., Chentsova- Dutton, Y. E., & Ryder, A. G. (2011). Anxiety symptom presentations in Han Chinese and Euro-Canadian outpatients: Is distress always somatised in China? Journal of Affective Disorders, 135, 111–11