Revisiting the Search for Psychological Universals

Walter J. Lonner
Western Washington University

Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin, 2000, 34(1-2), 34-37.

It is tempting to envy Hippocrates and Galen. Those honored ancients not only must have had some of the finest Greek salads ever, enhanced by luscious extra, extra virgin Kalamata olive oil, but their worldview of elements concerning much human physiology and behavior must have been elegantly and comfortably simple back about two millennia ago. They merely had to invoke some blend of four ³humors² ­ blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile‹to explain the workings of body and mind. No normalized t-scores, no eigenvalues, no subfactors, no oblique facets, not even clever statistical gyrations and rotations in honor of their mythical countryman, Procrustes. I suppose that the humans responsible for the cave drawings at Lascaux had an even simpler system. Perhaps something like ³smells good²‹³smells bad² worked for them.

Put the calendar into fast forward and stop at about 1976 A.D. Another son of Greece, Harry Triandis, took a handful of people to a Greek restaurant in Montreal to discuss a large and unprecedented writing project. Allyn and Bacon had recently asked him to be senior editor of what resulted in the six-volume Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology, which was published in 1980. Harry was lining up co-editors for each of the volumes, and he asked me to co-edit Volume 3, Basic Processes. He also lined up five other co-editors and, through them, arranged for many authors to cover a wide range of topics. The gauntlet was laid, and I began to search for the best possible structure that would present a solid case for ideas and concepts that may qualify as psychological universals. I covered a wide range of topics, most of which were discussed by using a seven-level structure. These levels were labeled 1) Simple Universals (e.g., the absolute facticity of human aggression); 2) Variform Universals (e.g., aggression takes on various forms in different cultures, but it always occurs); 3) Functional universals (societal variations that have the same social consequences, but equilibrated for local relevance); 4) Diachronic universals (universals of behavior that are temporally invariant, but interpreted differently); 5) Ethologically-oriented universals (those with phylogenetic, Darwinian links); 6) Systematic Behavioral Universals (various subcategories with psychology, and there are many of them); and 7) Cocktail Party Universals (those things that all people feel but can only discuss as phenomena that defy measurement). This structure worked pretty well in that context more than 20 years ago. It was broad enough and flexible enough to permit the incorporation of a good number of perspectives that were viable at the time. Indeed, the structure could still be used effectively because it was designed to be sufficiently broad to accommodate changes and new ideas. The chapter seems to have been somewhat influential. For a while I was even referred to as ³Mr. Universals,² an appellation that didn¹t really fit because I was merely trying to synthesize what many others have done, and not only because I was proposing a set of universals that could help guide cross-cultural psychologists in their research.

So, whatever happened to the search for psychological universals under the aegis of cross-cultural psychology? The easy answer to this question is that nothing has happened to quell this search. The appetite for universals is still there. One might even say that the search for psychological universals is itself a universal! Most cross-cultural psychologists still, I believe, would define a good part of what they do as a search for universals, for common denominators, for some sort of template that may help us understand individual differences throughout the world. The hunger for finding pancultural regularities is still real, viable and palpable. What has changed, primarily, is that the items on the menu have grown more numerous and varied, and the pursuit of them has become more energetic, sophisticated, and perhaps even more contentious and methodologically problematic. Were I to begin to write, today, a whole new chapter on the search for psychological universals, I would undoubtedly start the same way I did roughly 25 years ago. I would look at the relevant literature and try to catalog what people have been doing in this area. And I would find plenty of material to form the basis for a large chapter. Consider the options that would be at my disposal today: Hofstede¹s work-related values (Hofstede, 1980), Schwartz¹s value structure (Schwartz, 1994), Fiske¹s four elements of social interaction (Fiske, 1992), a plethora of research on human emotions, copious material on the universality of self and how it is contextually bifurcated into independent and interdependent construals, and I would be awash with publications on the soon-to-be exhausted construct of allocentrism-idiocentrism as individual-level manifestations of collectivism-individualism ­ including the ³refinements² of horizontal and vertical axes of each. The idea of cultural syndromes would have to be discussed.

In addition, I would have to deal with the currently popular Five-Factor model of personality structure and its 30 facets and the various arguments regarding whether that model is really complete and/or really universalistic. Moreover, I¹d be compelled to have a close look at the emerging idea of social axioms, which involves the search for universal dimensions of general beliefs about how the world functions, that Kwok Leung, Michael Bond, and colleagues from several cultures have developed. There are other candidates, including many that I would retain from the original chapter, but in the interest of space I shall not try to list them. In addition, a current overview of psychological universals would have to consider the friendly little debate between cultural psychologists and cross-cultural psychologists. In the late 1970s these somewhat contrasting viewpoints had not yet surfaced as viable alternative ways to view human thought and behavior. There were radical relativists in anthropology and linguistics (e.g. the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis), but with only a few exceptions among psychologists the strident challenge of universality and/or culture-comparative inquiry had not yet emerged. It may be an oversimplification, but I think that it¹s fair to say that devout cross-cultural psychologists are inherently universalistic in their thinking, while cultural psychologists are champions of the view that thought and behavior are constructed in specific and non-recurring cultural environments ­ a view that never has been incompatible with the cross-cultural (that is, comparative) method. I hope this is not an oversimplification, but cross-cultural psychologists seem to be looking for the simplest way to explain the enormous complexities of thought and behavior, at the same time embracing the way that such patterns can be interpreted in culturally-specific ways. Cultural psychologists seem to be searching for reasons why it is inappropriate to reduce thought and behavior to some kind of simple structure, eschewing comparativism. The debate involving absolutism, relativism, and universalism continues, and I suspect that it will not be resolved soon. I believe that the one-size-fits-all mentality encompassed in absolutism is completely unacceptable. I also believe that radical relativism and a total and uncompromising reliance on non-comparative contextualism is too extreme. That leaves universalism, and I still argue that searching for the common denominators in human thought and behavior is both tenable, justifiable, and rather interesting. Science, even social science, is, after all, a search for patterns and regularities. It is also an open, honest, and unbiased system that must accommodate those things that are temporarily inexplicable.

Regardless of the approach that cultural scientists prefer, the search for psychological universals will continue. Why shouldn¹t it? Abandoning the search would amount to neglecting one of the main canons of science.

References (Lonner and Bechtold articles)

Berry, J. W., Poortinga, Y. H., & Pandey, J. (1997). Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Brislin, R. W. (2000). Understanding Culture¹s Influence on Behavior. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Brown, D. (1991). Human universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Chinese Culture Connection (1987). Chinese values and the search for culture-free dimensions of culture. Journal of Cross-cultural Psychology, 18, 143-164.

Fiske, A.P. (1992). The four elementary forms of sociality: A framework for a unified theory of human relations. Psychology Review, 99, 689-723.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture¹s Consequences. London: Sage Publications.

Hofsetde, G. (1997). Cultures and Organizations. The software of the mind. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Kluckhorn, C. & Murray, H. A. (1948). Personality in nature, society, and culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Lonner, W. J. (1980). The search for psychological universals. In H. C. Triandis & W. W. Lambert, (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 143-204). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Schwartz, S. (1994). Beyond Individualism/Collectivism. New cultural dimensions of values. In U. Kim, H. C. Triandis, C. Kagitcibasi, S-C Choi, G. Yoon, (Eds.), Individualism and Collectivism. Theory, methods and applications. (pp. 85-119). London: Sage Publications.

Triandis, H. C. (1980). ) (Ed.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism & Collectivism. Boulder: Westview Press.

About the Author

Walter J. Lonner has been a member of the Department of Psychology at Western Washington University since 1968 and was instrumental in developing the Center for Cross-Cultural Research there in 1969. He is Founding Editor and currently Senior Editor of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Involved with many books in cross-cultural psychology, Lonner's longstanding interest has been to contribute to a more inclusive and culturally-aware psychology. A charter member of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, he served as its ninth president (1986-88) and in 1994 was elected as an Honorary Fellow. Lonner has had sabbatical leaves in Mexico, Germany, and New Zealand. He was President as well as chair of the Scientific Program Advisory Committee of the 14th International Congress of the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, held at Western Washington University in 1998.

Department of Psychology
Western Washington University
Bellingham, Washington 98225-9089, U.S.A.

Telephone: +1(360)650-3574

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