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Cultural Bias in Psychology

Angel is currently studying for her A-levels (English, Sociology and Psychology) in the hopes of going to university next year.

Ethnocentrism can lead to cultural bias as the use of theories or societal values from one culture are used to make judgements about others cultures. A white Western culture is pushed onto all cultures which can create negative stereotypes as individuals who aren't white Westerners will not share the same norms and values so may perform worse in experiments.

In contrast, cultural relativism is the idea that all cultures are unique and worthy of respect and understanding. Although this approach appears to be better, it can still lead to alpha and beta bias.

Holi, a Hindu spring festival originating from India

Holi, a Hindu spring festival originating from India

Alpha Bias

Alpha bias is when theories assume there are significant differences between cultures. Differences are often exaggerated and based on assumptions, it can lead to stereotypes of certain cultures and can reinforce or even legitimise racism. Often alpha bias provides an unbalanced option where the dominant white Western way of life is portrayed as better than others.

An example of alpha bias would be assumptions about individualist and collectivist cultures. Collectivists value group norms more than individualists (who focus on the self) so it is largely believed that they would have higher rates of conformity. Smith and Bond suggested that there may be conformity differences between individualist and collectivist cultures, and their findings of a conformity experiment supported this. However, Takano and Osaka's analysis of 15 studies did not support this common belief. They found that 14 out of 15 studies did not suggests that collectivist cultures had higher levels of conformity. This example shows us how alpha bias can lead to incorrect assumptions about different cultures.

Beta Bias

Beta bias is when differences between cultures are minimalized or ignored completely - researchers will apply the same theories or methods to all cultures. This can also result in negative stereotypes and racism as individuals who aren't from the dominant culture may perform more poorly so will appear to be 'not as good' as the Western culture.

For example, just before world war one broke out, the US Army used an IQ test to determine intelligence. However, the test was based solely on white American norms and values. Intelligence is defined differently in other cultures. As a result, non-western participants did not perform as well as the white Americans, making them seem to be less intelligent. This reinforced racism in America and created negative stereotypes about intelligence because cultural differences were not taken into account.

Sporting your country football team is an example of ethnocentrism

Sporting your country football team is an example of ethnocentrism

Cultural Bias in Psychology

For years psychology has been ethnocentric, with the majority of researchers being white American men. This makes theories unrepresentative of minorities as researchers cannot apply one rule for a variety of different people. Smith and Bond found that 66% of studies in a European textbook were American. This means that most cultures are underrepresented in psychological research. Cultural bias is further identified by Sears who reported that 825 of studies used undergraduates as participants and 51% of them were psychology students. This means that the majority of the participants who we are basing explanations of all human behaviour off of are white, middle-class men. Research cannot provide accurate information about human behaviour if cultural bias prevents the understanding of all groups of people.

Countering Cultural Bias in Psychology

Countering ethnocentrism has become easier as a result of globalisation. Increased travel in the past 50 years has encouraged indigenous psychologies - where theories accommodate cultural differences. Afrocentrism, for instance, proposes that all black people have roots in Africa so theories and research methods used must include the cultural norms and values that apply to those individuals. Afrocentrism counters the belief that European values apply to all people. Indigenous psychologies provide research methods and explanations of behaviour for different cultures which can combat cultural bias.

Another way to counter ethnocentrism is by using an emic or etic approach. An 'emic' approach emphasises the uniqueness of cultures but such studies are only appropriate for the researched culture. The 'emic' approach, on the other hand, looks for universal behaviours but uses indigenous researchers to prevent cultural bias. Having a variety of researchers from different backgrounds who have an understanding of certain cultures allows them to develop theories that can apply to all humans whilst taking into account differences. David Buss used this method - he collected data from people in 37 different cultures by using local researchers. This method allows for a universal generalisation that more accurately represents a variety of cultures.

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To Conclude

Alpha bias is when differences between cultures are exaggerated, with European norms and values being portrayed as superior.

Beta bias is when differences are ignored which can lead to an inaccurate perception of other cultures.

Developments in technology and attitudes towards ethnic groups have led to the creation of indigenous psychologies which aims to counter ethnocentricism.

Alpha and beta bias are also discussed in my article about gender bias:

  • Gender Bias in Psychology
    When the realm of psychology is androcentric, can the results of experiments really be generalised to all genders? Here you can learn about different types of gender bias and the effect they can have on society.


Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.

© 2018 Angel Harper


Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 26, 2018:

Hi, Angel, thanks for dropping in. We should learn the cultural norms of others and respect them. This in some cases like a college or university makes the learning environment truely international. There should the be no ethnic bias asis presently experienced. Thank you for a useful , educative, andinformative story.

Angel Harper (author) on September 21, 2018:

Miebakagh Fiberesima, yes I think we can all learn from different cultures to make a better world. : )

Angel Harper (author) on September 21, 2018:

Mary Norton, hopefully one day soon cultural bias will no longer exist!

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 16, 2018:

Hey, Angel, keep the good work on at this stage and thereafter. I agreed with Mary Norton, that all this 'bias'will later become a zero and its already beginning to happen.

At present as global view expand, I take to like Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Asians cultures. Food, drinking, clothing, marrige are all cultures. To me, Japanese, or Indian cultures in marriage or food and nutritions is more superior to the American or English man culture. American or the English man cultural norms in marriage is not stable like that of the third world countries. There's is significantly polluted. Increasing divource is alarming,for example. What is the root of all these? It is because American marriges are "patches" of other cultures. Thank you.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 15, 2018:

You are right that most of the time we use Western cultural norms as the referene point. It is changing slowly until one day it is no more.

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