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3 - Mutual Constitution of Culture and the Mind

Insights from Cultural Neuroscience

from Section 1 - The Co-emergence of Culture, Mind, and Brain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 September 2020

Laurence J. Kirmayer
McGill University, Montréal
Carol M. Worthman
Emory University, Atlanta
Shinobu Kitayama
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Robert Lemelson
University of California, Los Angeles
Constance A. Cummings
The Foundation for Psychocultural Research


Culture is composed of meanings (e.g., values, beliefs, and norms) and practices (e.g., conventions, scripts, and routines) that are shared, albeit unevenly, in a given community and group. Culture is integral to biological adaptation, not an overlay to the human mind but part and parcel of how the human mind functions. Since the mind is shaped through culture, it also contributes to the reproduction of culture. This chapter highlights a broad contrast thought to separate the West from the “rest,” with Westerners being more independent or less interdependent than non-Westerners, although non-Western regions themselves are highly variable, reflecting diverse adaptive strategies for achieving interdependence under varying socio-ecological conditions. We review existing behavioral and neuroscience evidence to support a broad distinction between the West and the non-West based on three core features of interdependence: predictors of happiness, holistic attention, and holistic social cognition. We also summarize recent evidence suggesting that culture influences cortical volume in specific brain regions. We conclude by pointing out that while cultural shaping of mentality is highly idiosyncratic at the individual level, it can nonetheless be systematic at the collective level, enabling faithful reproduction of the cultural system by which individuals have been trained and shaped.

Culture, Mind, and Brain
Emerging Concepts, Models, and Applications
, pp. 88 - 119
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2020


In a recent book, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (Reference Damasio2018) argues that feelings of pleasure and pain are at the core of human activities, including inherently cultural activities. In particular, he posits that the biological system that subserves human emotions is designed to maintain homeostatic balance. Accordingly, whenever this balance is disturbed, the system tries to restore it. Building on this premise, he proposes that this homeostatic principle inherent in human emotion can explain human culture. By making this proposal, Damasio puts forward an essential insight that the spontaneous working of the mind, even including the functioning of low-level emotions, such as fear and anger, contributes to the reproduction and change of a higher-order system of culture. But how might this bottom-up process work? Is this process sufficient to give rise to, let alone maintain, the system of culture?

In the present chapter, we propose that Damasio’s argument for the central role of homeostasis and emotions in accounting for culture is right on target. However, we add a critical, logical link. We suggest that, primitive as they might seem at first glance, the emotions that contribute to culture may simultaneously be shaped and conditioned by it. Without cultural conditioning, such emotions would be chaotic and nonresponsive, let alone attuned to culture. Only when they have been properly conditioned by culture might they be able to contribute to its maintenance and change. Under such conditions, emotions might acquire the power to undergird the cultural system. Damasio’s homeostatic balance works because culture powerfully, if only tacitly, in the background, is constantly modulating the psychological processes, including the low-level emotions – the focus of his analysis. And the argument we make may apply not only to emotion but also to all aspects of human mental processes. In this chapter, we will also explore the possibility that culture may shape the mind.

Our central thesis then, is that culture is not only realized through the functioning of the mind but, equally importantly, culture shapes both mind and brain (Han et al., Reference Han, Northoff, Vogeley, Wexler, Kitayama and Varnum2013; Kitayama & Salvador, Reference Kitayama and Salvador2017; Kitayama & Uskul, Reference Kitayama and Uskul2011; Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, San Martín and Savani2019). Specifically, the spontaneous operation of cognition, emotion, and motivation may converge to produce and reproduce the cultural systems in the case of humans (but not other nonhuman animals, including our primate cousins) because our mind and brain have significant potential to be shaped by culture.

By arguing for the crucial role of culture in shaping the mind and brain, our work can be placed squarely at the intersection of cultural psychology and cultural neuroscience. Over the last three decades, cultural psychologists have established that there are numerous cultural variations in psychological functions, including not only highly deliberate value judgments and related attitudes (Hofstede, Reference Hofstede1980; Schwartz, Reference Schwartz2006), but also spontaneously enacted behaviors (Kim & Markus, Reference Kim and Markus1999; Nisbett & Cohen, Reference Nisbett and Cohen1996), automatic styles of thought (Na et al., Reference Na, Grossmann, Varnum, Kitayama, Gonzalez and Nisbett2010; Nisbett et al., Reference Nisbett, Peng, Choi and Norenzayan2001; Rhee et al., Reference Rhee, Uleman, Lee and Roman1995), and unconscious motivations of various kinds (Heine et al., Reference Heine, Lehman, Markus and Kitayama1999; Kitayama & Tompson, Reference Kitayama, Tompson, Olson and Zanna2015; Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Snibbe, Markus and Suzuki2004). In more recent years, the cultural psychology literature has begun to utilize cutting-edge neuroscience methods to demonstrate that many of the culturally shaped spontaneous psychological tendencies have important anchors in brain processes (Han et al., Reference Han, Northoff, Vogeley, Wexler, Kitayama and Varnum2013; Kitayama & Salvador, Reference Kitayama and Salvador2017; Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama and Salvador2017, Reference Kitayama, San Martín and Savani2019). Altogether, this emerging evidence undergirds the hypothesis that the brain is highly plastic and hence subject to systematic cultural influences (Kitayama & Salvador, Reference Kitayama and Salvador2017; Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, San Martín and Savani2019). The cultural shaping of the brain ensures that not only does our brain activity generate culture, but human culture – both explicitly and behind-the-scenes – also shapes our brain.

This chapter focuses on how and why such cultural feedback might occur. In what follows, we will start with an overarching theoretical framework on culture and the self. We will then present a selective review of empirical evidence for the effect of culture on both brain functioning and brain structure. Throughout, we will argue that culture influences the mind and brain in idiosyncratic, highly “personalized” manners. At the same time, however, when individuals are aggregated in a collective, idiosyncrasies across individuals will tend to cancel one another out. Only those traces of a culture that are common will remain, and as a consequence, culture is reproduced with a high degree of fidelity.

Culture and the Self: A Theoretical Framework

Independence and Interdependence

It has long been hypothesized that cultures vary in the value placed on personal self versus social relationships (Markus & Kitayama, Reference Markus and Kitayama1991; Shweder & Bourne, Reference Shweder, Bourne, Marsella and White1982; Triandis, Reference Triandis1995). In Western cultures, including Western European countries and the cultures of Americans and Canadians of European origin, a strong value is placed on the independence of the personal self from others (Markus & Kitayama Reference Markus and Kitayama1991). Internal attributes of the self – such as values, attitudes, and preferences – are considered primary, and as such, they serve as major drivers and motivators of actions (Savani et al., Reference Savani, Markus and Conner2008). Social relations are important, but they are typically seen as derivative of personal choice and based on implicit or explicit social contracts. This form of self has been called independent.

In contrast, in many non-Western cultures, including Asian, Middle Eastern, Sub-Saharan African, and Latin American cultures, the primary commitment is to certain relevant social units, such as family, workplace, community, and other groups both small and large (Markus & Kitayama Reference Markus and Kitayama1991). Each person’s identity is defined by their place in the relationship. Moreover, their actions are guided and motivated by perceived duties and obligations defined within it (Miller et al., Reference Miller, Bersoff and Harwood1990). The personal self is important, but it is perceived as being in the service of, or subordinated to, the concerns and priorities of the relationship (Morling et al., Reference Morling, Kitayama and Miyamoto2002). This form of self, called interdependent, has substantial overlap with other selves. Moreover, the self’s most important attributes (e.g., role, status, and obligation) are defined within each of the relationships. In this sense, the self is highly relational.

Varieties of Interdependence

Over the last 50 000 years, modern humans began spreading out of Africa to inhabit much of the Eurasian continent, and then eventually beyond to other continents. Subsequently, over the last 10 000 years, humans started sedentary forms of living based on farming and herding. Throughout much of this more recent period, humans were likely fully dependent on immediate groups such as families and tribes. Loyalty to the groups was likely of utmost priority. Even more recently, over the last few thousand years, larger social units such as kingdoms and empires commanded authority over individuals. This authority further enforced the need for commitment to higher-order groups. It is fair to assume then, that throughout the last 10 000-year period, humans across the globe were almost always interdependent. They placed a higher priority on certain social units such as family, tribe, and country over the personal (Henrich, Reference Henrich2015). One could even argue that human groups have continued to be interdependent across much of the globe to this day. There is one notable exception, however. As we shall see, over the last several hundred years in Western Europe, the idea of the self as independent emerged as the guiding principle of society at large. This idea undergirds the modern West. It then spread to other regions (e.g., North America, South Africa, and Australia) through migration of Western Europeans.

Given this extremely abbreviated outline of the human history over the last 10 000 years, it appears sensible to make a broad distinction between the West (the modern West established in Western Europe over the last several hundred years and its diasporas) and the rest, with the rest being contrastively less independent or more interdependent. However, this does not mean that the non-Western regions are homogeneous. To the contrary, depending on a variety of factors, including socio-ecological, economic, geographic, and demographic conditions, different areas of the non-Western region of the globe may have developed different forms of interdependence depending on the context.

Kitayama et al. (Reference Kitayama, San Martín and Savani2019) have proposed that there are four major forms of interdependence across the globe. First, in tightly knit agrarian societies based on farming, particularly labor-intensive rice farming (Talhelm et al., Reference Talhelm, Zhang, Oishi, Shimin, Duan, Lan and Kitayama2014; Uchida et al., Reference Uchida, Takemura, Fukushima, Saizen, Kawamura, Hitokoto, Koizumi and Yoshikawa2019), interdependence is typically promoted by avoiding interpersonal conflict. This type of culture encourages cognitive moderation. For example, compromise is appreciated more than argumentation. Emotional suppression is valued more than expression, and self-effacement and modesty are more virtuous than self-assertion and enhancement. The last two decades of research in cultural psychology have focused on comparisons between North Americans and East Asians and provided substantial evidence for this possibility (Heine et al., Reference Heine, Lehman, Markus and Kitayama1999; Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto and Norasakkunkit1997). This form of interdependence may be called “self-effacing.”

Self-effacing interdependence may be contrasted with another form of interdependence that is common in desert environments. In such environments, water and other resources are scarce and thus can support only small tribes. Each tribal group must protect the in-group from other tribes. Intertribal conflicts are widespread, and as a consequence, the prowess and assertiveness of each self are not only tolerated but also strongly valued for the sake of in-group protection (San Martín et al., Reference San Martín, Sinaceur, Madi, Tompson, Maddux and Kitayama2018). This form of interdependence, referred to as “self-assertive interdependence,” is thought to be characteristic of psychological profiles common in Arabic cultures today. It may also extend to Central Asia, which historically shares similar, desert-based, nomadic lifestyles. San Martín et al. (Reference San Martín, Sinaceur, Madi, Tompson, Maddux and Kitayama2018) have found that Arabs are highly interdependent in the sense of being attuned to others while also relying on them for their own happiness. In this respect, Arabs are very similar to East Asians. However, San Martín et al. (Reference San Martín, Sinaceur, Madi, Tompson, Maddux and Kitayama2018) also found that Arabs are quite self-assertive – much more assertive than East Asians and, in fact, just as assertive as Westerners.

In the course of cultural evolution over the last several thousand years, from the Mediterranean through South Asia, one can find many trade routes. Along the trade routes, some prominent city centers emerged. In these highly populated city centers, conflicts in business were also frequent and, unlike in East Asian farming villages, they are inherent in the mode of life and therefore simply unavoidable. Moreover, these conflicts were the kind that must be settled without physical violence or antagonism since trade relations had to be maintained. Under such conditions, another form of interdependence emerged. This interdependence was based on conflict resolution with “mouth” rather than “fist.” Argumentation was the primary means by which to achieve interdependence. Along with argumentation, there arose a tradition of logical, analytic thought, which is often attributed to Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. In all likelihood, this form of interdependence extended far beyond Greek city-states to the wide-ranging region including India and Singapore. For example, even today, argumentativeness is seen as a national character of Indians, according to a prominent Indian economist (Sen, Reference Sen2005). This form of interdependence may be called “argumentative interdependence.”

Recent work analyzing genetic ancestry markers (Reich, Reference Reich2018) shows that from the very beginning of human evolution, peoples have continuously moved across regions of the globe. It stands to reason that there existed numerous multiethnic and multilingual communities. In these communities, there must have been a substantial difficulty in communication with language alone, even within primary groups such as family and workplace. Recent work (Rychlowska et al., Reference Rychlowska, Miyamoto, Matsumoto, Hess, Gilboa-Schechtman, Kamble, Muluk, Masuda and Niedenthal2015; Wood et al., Reference Wood, Rychlowska and Niedenthal2016; Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, San Martín and Savani2019) hypothesized that in these communities, there arose a tradition of para-linguistic communication, which included the use of poetry, dance, and, above all, emotions to achieve interpersonal and social resonance. This form of interdependence is referred to as “expressive interdependence.” In the contemporary world, expressive interdependence may most typically be found in Latin America. Several studies that tested Latin Americans found they are highly interdependent. For example, they are attuned to social contexts and dependent on others for their happiness (Sanchez-Burks et al., Reference Sanchez-Burks, Nisbett and Ybarra2000; Telzer & Fuligni, Reference Telzer and Fuligni2009; Telzer et al., Reference Telzer, Masten, Berkman, Lieberman and Fuligni2010). However, unlike Asians (who devalue strong emotions and often suppress emotions), Latin Americans value strong emotions – just as much as Westerners do (Ruby et al., Reference Ruby, Falk, Heine, Villa and Silberstein2012; Triandis et al., Reference Triandis, Marn, Lisansky and Betancourt1984).

In sum, throughout the last several thousand years, most of the people who ever existed were likely highly interdependent within their primary groups. They were loyal to certain relevant social units, some large and some small. They used this primordial interdependence as the guiding principle of life, society, and social relations. Despite this commonality, however, individuals may form interdependent relations for different reasons or motivations. Further, they may do so through various means. Which form of interdependence might arise in a given region may depend on the specific socio-ecological conditions of the region. Thus, the forms of interdependence may vary, reflecting specific socio-ecological niches. Our current working assumption is that interdependence may be achieved (1) through conflict avoidance (predominant in East Asia); (2) through in-group protection (predominant in Arab regions); (3) through argumentation (common in major trade centers); or (4) through emotional social resonance (common in multiethnic communities across the continent, predominant in Latin cultures today).

Collective Construction of Culture

Culture matters in psychology because it is instrumental in shaping mental capacities and tendencies. Having delineated major variations in contemporary cultures, we are now ready to discuss how this cultural influence may take place. Following earlier work (Kitayama & Uskul, Reference Kitayama and Uskul2011; Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Park, Sevincer, Karasawa and Uskul2009), we argue that individual members actively engage with their culture and, in so doing, incorporate some aspects of the culture into their own cognition and neurobiology. Specifically, when a person acts, they receive feedback from others around them, who appraise their behavior in light of the norms, values, and conventions of the culture. Hence, if the action is congruous with cultural norms, values, and conventions, it will be praised, and perhaps, they will be included in the in-group. If, however, their behavior is not congruent, such rewards are unlikely. In fact, they may even be punished. When the feedback is positively reinforcing, it will strengthen the neural circuitry recruited to produce the behavior. Through this mechanism, cultural norms, values, and conventions will gradually “permeate” neural circuitry over time.

Cultural feedback is contingent on a person’s behavior, which itself depends on a variety of factors (e.g., upbringing, friendship network, education, etc.). Moreover, any feedback will also depend on salient aspects of culture that happen to be available in the situation, as well as how relevant others interpret the specific behavior at issue. Hence, each individual incorporates relevant parts of the culture in a highly idiosyncratic manner. Thus, no single individual is a complete replica of their culture. Nevertheless, when many such individuals are brought together in some collective (e.g., local community, workplace, or larger unit such as ethnicity and country), behaviors produced tend to cohere along with general themes, reflecting those existing in the culture from which they are derived. In this way, whereas there exists a huge individual variation, culture is still transmitted with high fidelity. This is to say that culture is “collectively constructed” (Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto and Norasakkunkit1997).

Cultural Variation in Mental Experiences

So far, we have argued for psychological differences across cultures. Some of the differences are related directly to the goals of independence and interdependence. These differences may be expected to differentiate Western populations from non-Western populations. In this section, we focus on three such features (correlates of happiness, holistic attention, and holistic social cognition). In these features, we may expect a broad divide between the West and the rest. Of course, this does not mean that the rest (that is, the vast area outside of the modern West) is homogeneous. To the contrary, the preceding discussion implies that there ought to be important differences across diverse regions in the non-West. We will return to this possibility in the concluding section.

Predictors of Happiness

Happiness depends importantly on successfully achieving culturally sanctioned goals and values. In Western, independent cultures, people tend to be motivated to identify their internal attributes such as personal goals and desires and to achieve them. Hence, when they have successfully achieved such goals and desires, the experience of happiness may be maximized. In contrast, in many non-Western cultures, people tend to be motivated to be interdependent with others in their significant relations and thus to be part of such relations. We may therefore anticipate that people would maximize their happiness when they have achieved such social, interdependent goal states.

Evidence for the expected cross-cultural difference in correlates of happiness comes from several studies (Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Markus and Kurokawa2000; Uchida & Kitayama, Reference Uchida and Kitayama2009). In one study, Kitayama et al. (Reference Kitayama, Markus and Kurokawa2000) asked Japanese and American participants to rate how frequently in daily life they experience (1) general positive feelings of happiness (e.g., happy, elated, relaxed), (2) positive emotions that are socially engaging (e.g., feelings of closeness, friendly feelings), which result from achievement of interdependent goals, and (3) positive emotions that are socially disengaging (e.g., pride, feelings of superiority), which result from achievement of independent goals. As may be expected, among Japanese the reported frequency of experiencing the general positive emotions was more strongly associated with the reported frequency of experiencing the socially engaging positive emotions than with that for the socially disengaging emotions. In contrast, the reversed pattern was found for European Americans, with the association with the general positive emotions being higher for the socially disengaging emotions than for the socially engaging emotions. In another study, Uchida and Kitayama (Reference Uchida and Kitayama2009) tested meanings of happiness (Uchida & Kitayama, Reference Uchida and Kitayama2009). American and Japanese participants were asked to write down features and effects of happiness. These features were compiled and given to new groups of both American and Japanese participants, who sorted them into meaningful groups by similarity. By using these data, it is possible to create an index of similarity for every pair of the features (how many participants sort any given pair of features into a single group). This similarity index was submitted to a multidimensional scaling analysis. The result confirmed that the positive hedonic feeling inherent in happiness overlaps with personal achievement (e.g., “getting what I want”) among Americans, yet it overlaps with social harmony (e.g., “having good friends”) among Japanese.

Similar cross-cultural variation has been observed with an experience sampling method (Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Ishii, Imada, Takemura and Ramaswamy2006). In one such study, Japanese and American participants reported the most emotional event on each of fourteen consecutive days. On each day, they reported how strongly they experienced general positive or negative emotions as well as a list of socially engaging or disengaging emotions. Across the episodes, the general positive feelings (“happiness”) were regressed on both the experience of socially engaging positive emotions and the experience of socially disengaging positive emotions. For Japanese, the primary predictor of happiness was the socially engaging positive emotions, but for Americans, it was the socially disengaging positive emotions. Patterns similar to the one observed for Americans have been found for Western Europeans (British and Germans; Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Park, Sevincer, Karasawa and Uskul2009), as well as Israelis of Ashkenazi origin with European backgrounds (San Martín et al., Reference San Martín, Sinaceur, Madi, Tompson, Maddux and Kitayama2018). In contrast, patterns similar to the one observed for Japanese have been found for Arabs (San Martín et al., Reference San Martín, Sinaceur, Madi, Tompson, Maddux and Kitayama2018).

Are the effects reviewed above reflected in brain responses? In one recent study (Kitayama & Park, Reference Kitayama and Park2014), both European American and East Asian participants performed a simple cognitive task. They had been told that they would earn points by performing well in the task. Importantly, the points they would earn in some blocks could be exchanged for a gift they would keep for themselves (the self condition), whereas the points they would earn in the remaining blocks could be exchanged for a gift that would be sent to their best friend on campus (the friend condition). The premise was that European Americans may be more motivated when an independent goal (earning points for the self) is at stake than when an interdependent goal (earning points for the friend) is at stake, whereas this effect may be attenuated or even reversed for East Asians.

To investigate this possibility, the researchers monitored brain electrical activity via an electroencephalogram (EEG) while participants performed the task. The brain response of interest was a negative deflection of event-related potential (ERP) that occurs nearly simultaneously with an error response. This negative wave, called the error-related negativity or ERN, is thought to result from a mismatch between the actual response and the representation of the correct response (Gehring et al., Reference Gehring, Goss, Coles, Meyer and Donchin1993; Hajcak et al., Reference Hajcak, Moser, Yeung and Simons2005). Intuitively, the ERN corresponds to some immediate recognition that one is committing an error at the very moment it is occurring. Importantly, the ERN is coterminous with the response itself; it is therefore highly automatic and hardly possible to inhibit (or augment) intentionally. Prior work shows that the magnitude of ERN increases when the task is more important (Hajcak et al., Reference Hajcak, Moser, Yeung and Simons2005). Thus, it may be expected that the magnitude of the ERN would vary between the two conditions of the experiment, depending on the motivational significance of working for the self or for the friend.

Figure 3.1A shows the waveforms for European American participants. One can clearly identify an ERN on error trials, which does not exist on correct-response trials. Importantly, the magnitude of the ERN was significantly greater in the self condition than in the friend condition. This observation suggests that European Americans are motivated more in the task when their self-relevant goals are at stake (relative to the condition in which their goals are for their friend). The result for East Asians was a stark contrast, in that there was no overall difference between the self condition and the friend condition in the ERN magnitude (see Figure 3.1B). The researchers subsequently measured the interdependent self-construal with a standard questionnaire scale and tested whether the magnitude of ERN (relative to the magnitude of the ERP on the correct-response trials) in the self vs. friend condition might vary as a function of this individual difference variable. As can be seen in Figure 3.1C, the magnitude of the ERN in the self (vs. friend) condition decreased systematically as the level of interdependent self-construal increased. Overall, European Americans were less interdependent than East Asians, as may be expected. This cultural difference in the interdependent self-construal statistically accounted for the cultural difference in the ERN magnitude in the self (vs. friend) condition. Importantly, in both cultural groups there was a substantial variation in interdependent self-construal. Moreover, for those who were sufficiently high in interdependence, the ERN tended to be larger in the friend condition than in the self condition. A similar effect favoring interdependent goals has also been demonstrated for Latin Americans in a series of studies conducted by Telzer et al. (Reference Telzer, Masten, Berkman, Lieberman and Fuligni2010).

(A) Waveforms for error trials and correct response trials in the self vs. friend condition for European Americans.

(B) Corresponding waveforms for East Asians.

(C) The self-centric effect as a function of interdependent self-construal. ERN = error-related negativity; CRN = correct-response negativity.

Adapted from “Error-Related Brain Activity Reveals Self-Centric Motivation: Culture Matters” by S. Kitayama and J. Park, 2014, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, pp. 66 and 67 ( Copyright 2014 by the American Psychological Association

Figure 3.1 Self-centric motivation for European Americans and East Asians.

Up to this point, we have focused on cultural variations in the value placed on independence vs. interdependence. However, prior work shows that independent vs. interdependent self-construal can be highlighted temporarily by certain priming procedures (Oyserman & Lee, Reference Oyserman and Lee2008). For example, individuals may be asked to read a story about a trip to a big city from the perspective of the personal self (as marked by singular pronouns such as “I,” “my,” and “me”) or the social self (as marked by plural pronouns such as “we,” “our,” and “us”). The singular pronoun priming is known to induce independent self-construal whereas the plural pronoun priming is known to induce interdependent self-construal (Gardner et al., Reference Gardner, Gabriel and Lee1999). Using this procedure, two recent studies, both conducted in China with Chinese participants, show that the self-construal priming systematically modulates motivation-related brain responses (Varnum et al., Reference Varnum, Shi, Chen, Qiu and Han2014; Zhu et al., Reference Zhu, Zhang, Wu, Yang, Wu, Luo, Gu and Luo2018).

In one of the studies, Varnum et al. had participants engage in a gambling task while observing their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) (Varnum et al., Reference Varnum, Shi, Chen, Qiu and Han2014). On some of the blocks of the experiment, participants gambled on their own behalf whereas on the remaining blocks they gambled on behalf of a close friend. Unbeknownst to the participants, the task was rigged such that they would ultimately win on half the trials under either condition. Moreover, independent of the target manipulation, self-construal was also manipulated. Thus, prior to each of the blocks, participants were asked to read either a singular pronoun story or a plural pronoun story and to circle all the pronouns. The researchers found, first, that the subcortical region of the brain that responds to reward (ventral striatum; VS) was activated more when the participants won the gamble than when they lost it, thus replicating prior work using the same paradigm (Haber, Reference Haber and Gottfried2011; Knutson & Greer, Reference Knutson and Greer2008). Importantly, this effect was stronger when they gambled on their own behalf rather than for a close friend in the independent (singular pronoun) priming condition. However, there was no difference in the VS activity regardless of how they gambled in the interdependent (plural pronoun) priming condition.

In another Chinese study, Zhu et al. (Reference Zhu, Zhang, Wu, Yang, Wu, Luo, Gu and Luo2018) also used a gambling task. As in the Varnum et al. (Reference Varnum, Shi, Chen, Qiu and Han2014) study, this study was composed of multiple blocks. On some of the blocks participants gambled on their own behalf, whereas on the remaining blocks, they gambled on behalf of a close-other (their mothers). Moreover, some of the blocks were preceded by the induction of the independent self-construal whereas the remaining blocks were preceded by the induction of the interdependent self-construal. Instead of measuring brain activity with fMRI, Zhu et al. tested the degree to which an ERP component responding to positive feedback (called feedback positivity, which is a mirror image of a component responding to negative feedback called feedback-related negativity, or FRN). Consistent with the Varnum et al. findings, the reward positivity (relative to the FRN) was significantly greater in the self condition than in the close-other (mother) condition when the independent self-construal had been primed. However, the difference between the self and close-other condition disappeared when the interdependent self-construal had been primed.

The finding that the motivation-related brain responses can be modulated by self-construal priming reinforces the assumption that the cultural difference shown above may in fact be mediated by self-construal. It is of interest, however, that all the questionnaire-based studies testing predictors of happiness show that among Asians, socially engaged positive emotions (which mark a success in interdependence) are a better predictor of happiness than socially disengaged positive emotions (which mark a success in independence). Extending this pattern to the gambling paradigm used in the neuroscience studies, one might expect that Asians should show stronger brain activities of interest (ERN, VS activation, and reward positivity) in the close-other condition than in the self condition. Further, this effect may be expected to be more pronounced when interdependent self-construal has been primed preceding the gambles that are played. These predictions were not borne out in any of the studies. We wonder if the absence of what might be called the other-centric effect in the experimental paradigms might reflect the fact that very tangible rewards are at stake in this paradigm. These tangible rewards may engage self-interest so strongly that it is hard to overcome this effect even though Asians might otherwise be oriented toward others or this tendency might otherwise be augmented with the priming of interdependence.

Holistic Attention

People with clear personal goals know what they want, and as a consequence, they tend to attend narrowly to objects that are directly relevant to their goals. In contrast, those with more relational, interdependent goals must be attuned to the goals and desires of others in a relationship and, thus, they will attend more holistically to a variety of contextual cues. This possibility was tested earlier on in the context of comparative research between Asians (who are thought to be more interdependent and, thus, more holistic) and European Americans (who are thought to be more independent and, thus, more focused).

In one of the first studies testing this possibility, Masuda and Nisbett (Reference Masuda and Nisbett2001) had both Japanese and European American subjects watch various video vignettes (e.g., an underwater scene composed of both focal objects and various contextual elements) and then afterward narrate what they saw. Whereas European Americans tended to recall the focal objects first and then gradually moved on to report various contextual elements, Japanese showed the opposite tendency, with contextual elements described first to “set the stage” before introducing the focal objects. Moreover, the researchers also tested recognition memory of the focal objects while presenting them in the context in which they had originally been shown, without any context, or in a new context. This manipulation of context during the recognition test significantly influenced the recognition performance of Japanese. The performance was significantly better if the objects were shown in the old context than in the novel context, with the no-context condition falling in between. This demonstrates that Japanese bound the focal objects to the surrounding context while observing the video vignettes. In contrast, the context effect was negligible for European Americans, indicating that these individuals did not associate the objects to the context while observing the video vignettes.

Subsequent studies have extended the initial demonstrations in several directions. For example, one line of work tested whether a similar cross-cultural difference could be found with minimal real-life elements using geometric figures. Specifically, Kitayama et al. presented subjects with a square frame with a vertical line in the frame (Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Duffy, Kawamura and Larsen2003). Immediately afterward, subjects were shown another square frame of a different size and asked to draw a line identical in either absolute length or proportion to the height of the surrounding square frame.

The researchers observed for European Americans that the performance in the task (assessed with the amount of an error in the line drawing task) was worse in the relative judgment condition than in the absolute judgment condition, suggesting that these individuals were so focused on the line itself that they found it hard to allocate sufficient attention to the square frame, which was also required in order to perform the relative task. In contrast, for Japanese the performance was worse in the absolute task than in the relative task, indicating that their attention extended to the contextual frame even when the task required them to ignore it, and as a consequence, they were thrown off in the absolute judgment condition. Other studies have used brain imaging methods to show that more attentional resources are used when people are asked to perform culturally incongruous tasks (i.e., the absolute task for Asians and the relative task for European Americans; Hedden, Ketay et al., Reference Hedden, Ketay, Aron, Markus and Gabrieli2008; Murata et al., Reference Murata, Park, Kovelman, Hu and Kitayama2015).

In another line of research, researchers used a much simpler cognitive task that involves classification of objects by either semantic category or thematic relatedness (Ji et al., Reference Ji, Zhang and Nisbett2004). For example, the target could be “glove.” Subjects were asked to decide whether the target would fit better with either “scarf” or “hand.” If people are holistic, they ought to attend to the relatedness, and as a consequence, “hand” ought to be chosen more frequently than “scarf” as a better match. In fact, prior work has shown that the relational choice is more common among Asians than among European Americans.

The same conclusion has been suggested in research utilizing brain indices. For example, Goto et al. tested the degree to which contextual information is automatically taken into account even when there is no need to do so (Goto et al., Reference Goto, Ando, Huang, Yee and Lewis2010). Specifically, subjects were shown a contextual scene (parking lot or beach) first. Then, a target object (crab) was superimposed on the scene. Note that the initial context was chosen such that the object (the crab) was either congruous (the beach) or incongruous (the parking lot). Subjects were asked to report whether the target was animate or inanimate while ignoring the context. The researchers tested an ERP component called N400 – a negative deflection that occurs approximately 400 milliseconds poststimulus in response to a violation of semantic expectations. To the extent that subjects pay attention to the context, there would be a stronger N400 in the incongruous condition than in the congruous condition. This pattern, in fact, was found for Asians, suggesting that these individuals inadvertently paid attention to the context despite the fact that doing so was completely irrelevant to the task. In contrast, there was no difference between the congruous and incongruous conditions for European Americans. The study has since been conceptually replicated (Goto et al., Reference Goto, Yee, Lowenberg and Lewis2013).

Altogether, Asians are consistently more holistic relative to European Americans. How about people from other cultures? By using the framed line test, San Martín et al. (Reference San Martín, Sinaceur, Madi, Tompson, Maddux and Kitayama2018) find that Arabs are highly holistic – at least equally as much as Asians. Another study showed the same for Latin Americans using a version of the Masuda and Nisbett task (de Oliveira & Nisbett, Reference de Oliveira and Nisbett2017).

Holistic Social Cognition

If people are holistic in terms of basic attentional processes, they may also be holistic in social inferences. Conversely, if they are more focused in terms of basic attentional processes, they may also be more focused in social inferences. For example, if people are attentive to a focal person and the context in which they are embedded, then they may consider both factors linked directly to the person and those related to the context relatively equally when making inferences about the person. However, if people are more narrowly focused on the person, they may fail to take the context into full account when making inferences about the person. These predictions have been borne out in a voluminous literature on culture and causal attribution (Choi et al., Reference Choi, Nisbett and Norenzayan1999; Miller, Reference Miller1984; Morris & Peng, Reference Morris and Peng1994).

In a typical study, subjects are shown a vignette describing another person acting in either socially desirable or undesirable ways. They are then asked to explain the person’s behavior either by their personality, temperament, or other dispositional attributes or by norms, atmosphere, or other factors in the surrounding situation. Initial studies show a clear cultural difference between European Americans and Asians (Japanese in particular). To begin with, European Americans place a greater weight on dispositional (vs. situational) factors, consistent with prior work in social psychology demonstrating the fundamental attribution error (a bias to focus on a focal person while ignoring the context in which the person is embedded; Gilbert & Malone, Reference Gilbert and Malone1995; Ross, Reference Ross and Berkowitz1977). In contrast, Asians did not show this bias, rating the involvement of both dispositional and situational factors equally (Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Park, Sevincer, Karasawa and Uskul2009, Reference Kitayama, Ishii, Imada, Takemura and Ramaswamy2006).

In another related line of research, scholars have investigated ways in which people infer attitudes, personality traits, and other dispositions of a target person while knowing the person’s behavior is under certain social constraints. If people are oblivious to the surrounding social context, they may make strong dispositional inferences (inferring the dispositions that correspond to the behavior) even when the behavior is strongly socially constrained. One early study investigated this potential bias in one extreme fashion (Gilbert & Jones, Reference Gilbert and Jones1986). Subjects were instructed to ask another person to act in one way or another, say, to endorse capital punishment or not. They were then asked to infer the real attribute of the target person. In this case, the subjects themselves are imposing a social constraint and, to the extent that they were at least minimally attentive to this social constraint, they ought to discount the target’s behavior in making this inference. Nevertheless, in studies with American subjects, the results were quite clear, indicating that individuals made strong inferences about the target person’s real attitude (i.e., ascribing the behavior to an actual attitude of target person rather than the explicit request they made).

Masuda and Kitayama (Reference Masuda and Kitayama2004) repeated a similar procedure and replicated the original finding among Americans, showing a strong tendency to narrowly focus on the focal person while ignoring the self-generated social constraint (Masuda & Kitayama, Reference Masuda and Kitayama2004). Importantly, however, in this study, the researchers also tested Japanese. Consistent with the hypothesis that Japanese are more holistic and, thus, prepared to pay close attention to social, contextual constraints, these individuals inferred no correspondent attitudes when they were asked to impose the social constraint on the target person. Similar differences have been replicated in cross-cultural studies (Miyamoto & Kitayama, Reference Miyamoto and Kitayama2002).

All this is not to say that Asians do not draw any dispositional inferences. To the contrary, they do. For example, when shown someone giving a seat to an old person in a crowded train, Asians do infer that the person must be “kind.” However, the studies reviewed above suggest that when there is a blatantly clear situational constraint on the behavior, Asians readily discount the behavior in the trait inference. But European Americans typically fail to discount the focal person’s behavior.

Moreover, recent evidence has begun to suggest that even when making trait inference (especially in the absence of any obvious situational constraint), Asians do not draw this inference automatically (Na & Kitayama, Reference Na and Kitayama2011). Na and Kitayama (Reference Na and Kitayama2011) asked subjects to memorize many pairs of a face and a behavior (e.g., “Checking a fire-alarm before going to bed”). Prior evidence showed that European Americans would infer a corresponding trait (e.g., cautious) from the behavior spontaneously and attach the inferred trait to the target person (Uleman et al., Reference Uleman, Saribay and Gonzalez2008). Drawing on this evidence, Na and Kitayama (Reference Na and Kitayama2011) hypothesized that among European American subjects when each of the faces used in the memorization task was later presented to the subjects, the face would automatically activate the trait (e.g., “cautious”) linked to the paired behavior. To test this possibility, during the second phase of the study, the subjects were given a lexical judgment task such that the face was used as a fixation, followed by a target word (or non-word). The target word was either the corresponding trait (“cautious”) or its antonym (“careless”). EEG was monitored throughout. As in the Goto et al. (Reference Goto, Ando, Huang, Yee and Lewis2010) study reviewed earlier, N400 – a brain signal indicating the detection of semantic incongruity – was tested. As predicted, it was significantly greater in magnitude in the antonym condition than in the corresponding trait condition. This shows that mere exposure to the face was sufficient to activate the corresponding trait (“cautious”) in memory. Of importance, and consistent with the proposed cultural difference in trait inference, this effect was negligible for Asians.

How about other cultural groups? Evidence is very clear that Europeans as well as Israelis with European backgrounds tend to be highly dispositional in person perception and person inference. In contrast, non-Westerners including Arabs (San Martín et al., Reference San Martín, Sinaceur, Madi, Tompson, Maddux and Kitayama2018) and Latin Americans (de Oliveira & Nisbett, Reference de Oliveira and Nisbett2017; Zárate et al., Reference Zárate, Uleman and Voils2001) are similar to Asians.

Culture and Brain Structure

Does Culture Influence Brain Structure?

Evidence reviewed so far has established, first, that there is systematic cultural variation in three features of interdependence (vs. independence). Interdependence entails happiness that is linked more to social engagement (vs. disengagement), holistic attention, and holistic social cognition. With this criterion, Asians are more interdependent as compared to Americans with Western European backgrounds. Moreover, available evidence is consistent with the possibility that in terms of this criterion, various non-Western cultural groups other than Asians also tend to be interdependent. Last, but not least, the cultural variation is also revealed in functional characteristics of the brain as assessed with fMRI and EEG.

The fact that cultural variations can also be identified in brain functioning shows that culture gets under the skin, influencing neural connections and organization. One rather common view of culture would argue that culture is an overlay placed over underlying basic psychological processes. In this view, overt responses could vary across cultures, but the cultural influence may not “go deep” enough to impact the brain. Indeed, when the field of cultural neuroscience was launched over a decade ago, the primary goal was to challenge this assumption (Han et al., Reference Han, Northoff, Vogeley, Wexler, Kitayama and Varnum2013). Researchers therefore tested the extent to which these cultural variations could be revealed in specific indices of the brain. The field has so far been very successful in achieving this initial goal.

In our view, the field is now poised to expand its scope to investigate the possibility that culture’s influences extend beyond functions of the brain to include more enduring structural features of the brain. When people act in ways that are in line with cultural norms or expectations of others, the relevant neural circuitry will be consolidated and possibly expanded. This change will eventually manifest at the macrostructural level as increases in gray matter volume or cortical thickness (Lövdén et al., Reference Lövdén, Wenger, Mårtensson, Lindenberger and Bäckman2013).

The possibility that the structure of the brain may change through engagement with culture is consistent with earlier evidence that structural properties of the brain can be modified by mental demands imposed by a variety of tasks (Maguire et al., Reference Maguire, Gadian, Johnsrude, Good, Ashburner, Frackowiak and Frith2000; Rosenzweig et al., Reference Rosenzweig, Krech, Bennett and Zolman1962; Woollett & Maguire, Reference Woollett and Maguire2011). For example, Maguire et al. (Reference Maguire, Gadian, Johnsrude, Good, Ashburner, Frackowiak and Frith2000) tested cab drivers in London. Back then, when GPS was not available, driving in a complex city like London presented substantial navigational demands. Cab drivers who drove all day everyday thus were expected to show increased gray matter volume in brain regions crucial for spatial navigation. One such region is the hippocampus. Maguire et al. (Reference Maguire, Gadian, Johnsrude, Good, Ashburner, Frackowiak and Frith2000) therefore compared structural brain images from sixteen male taxi drivers in London and fifty age- and sex-matched controls, and they found that taxi drivers showed significantly greater volume in the posterior hippocampus bilaterally, relative to the controls. Moreover, the volume of the right posterior hippocampus increased as a function of time they spent as a taxi driver, providing initial evidence that the change in the gray matter volume is likely caused by the use of the navigational capacity. Similar evidence was found thereafter for professional keyboard players and the brain regions responsible for auditory processing and motor control (Gaser & Schlaug, Reference Gaser and Schlaug2003), as well as for normal individuals going through trainings on classic three-ball cascade juggling and brain regions responsible for visuospatial processing (Draganski et al., Reference Draganski, Gaser, Busch, Schuierer, Bogdahn and May2004).

Since culture is composed of a set of cultural tasks and being enculturated requires repetitive engagement and eventually mastery of those tasks, there may also arise systematic cross-cultural variations in the structural properties (i.e., gray matter volume and thickness) of certain brain regions. As noted earlier, independent cultures promote various independent tasks including self-promotion, personal goal pursuit, and finding and realizing the self. These tasks are characterized by what neuroscientists have called the “prefrontal functions.” For instance, certain regions of the prefrontal area, particularly the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), have been implicated in value-based judgment. It is further assumed to be critical for goal-seeking behaviors based on one’s own interests and preferences (O’Doherty, Reference O’Doherty2011; Rolls & Grabenhorst, Reference Rolls and Grabenhorst2008). In fact, OFC lesions are often associated with the impairment of the ability to maintain consistent personal preferences (Fellows, Reference Fellows2011). Another critical prefrontal region is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), which has been shown to support self-related processing such as developing a clear sense of the self (Northoff et al., Reference Northoff, Heinzel, de Greck, Bermpohl, Dobrowolny and Panksepp2006; Sui et al., Reference Sui, Rotshtein and Humphreys2013). The evidence reviewed above indicates that individuals engaged in Western cultures are motivated to carry out these tasks throughout their lives. Thus, to the extent that many of independent cultural tasks recruit these prefrontal regions, the Western individuals may eventually show increased volume or thickness in these areas.

Conversely, cross-cultural evidence implies that Asian cultural tasks such as modesty, self-effacement, and behavioral adjustment to social norms and social expectations may require temporary suppression of one’s personal goals and selves. Remember, for example, that compared to Westerners, Asians were more likely to associate happiness with social engagement (e.g., social harmony) than with social disengagement (e.g., personal achievement). Further, evidence indicates that self-serving tendencies, which are quite robust among Westerners, are quite attenuated among East Asians (Heine et al., Reference Heine, Lehman, Markus and Kitayama1999). This suggests that engagement in East Asian cultures might not encourage the same intensive use of prefrontal regions that would be expected for engagement in Western cultures.

Cultural Variation in the Prefrontal Volume

Initial evidence for cultural variation in prefrontal cortex comes from a cross-cultural study by Chee et al., who compared Singaporean Chinese and European Americans (Chee et al., Reference Chee, Zheng, Goh, Park and Sutton2011). Their structural brain images were acquired and analyzed using both voxel-based morphometry (VBM) and surface-based analysis (i.e., Freesurfer). Results from both analyses showed that Americans have greater gray matter volume and thickness in several brain regions compared to Singaporeans, after controlling for age, sex, education, and total intracranial volume (TIV). Two regions that showed a notable cross-cultural difference were the OFC and the mPFC.

From this evidence alone, it is not possible to conclude that cultural tasks result in the observed cross-cultural difference in prefrontal volume or thickness. However, a few recent studies have shown that prefrontal volume may be linked to individual differences in interdependent (vs. independent) self-construal within each culture. Within any given culture, individuals can vary widely on this dimension of self-construal. Thus, it is possible that interdependent individuals are less likely than independent individuals to internalize the habit of carrying out independent tasks and, thus, to recruit the prefrontal regions in carrying out many everyday tasks. We would therefore predict an inverse association between interdependent (vs. independent) self-construal and indices of the prefrontal volume. One study tested this prediction among Japanese living in Japan and found a significant negative association between interdependent self-construal and OFC volume (Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama and Salvador2017). Another study tested Chinese in China and found a significant negative association between interdependent self-construal and mPFC volume – an area contiguous to OFC (Wang et al., Reference Wang, Peng, Chechlacz, Humphreys and Sui2017).

The two correlational studies suggest that the cross-cultural variation in the prefrontal volume, demonstrated in the Chee et al. (Reference Chee, Zheng, Goh, Park and Sutton2011) study, could be due to the self-construal dimension of interdependence. However, correlation never implies causality. Thus, this evidence alone does not demonstrate that engagement in culture gives rise to variations in prefrontal volume. Demonstrating causality might require an experimental intervention to see if increased engagement in independent tasks results in an increase of the prefrontal volume and, at present, no such study has been done. Fortunately, there are alternative methods by which to address this question.

The Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene (DRD4): Seeking Evidence for Environmental Influence

One alternative method for examining cultural effects on the brain draws on recent advances in research on gene–environment interactions. This work suggests that certain genetic polymorphisms can augment an individual’s sensitivity to environmental influences, including cultural influences (Belsky & Pluess, Reference Belsky and Pluess2009; Kim & Sasaki, Reference Kim and Sasaki2014). These polymorphic variations are commonly called “plasticity alleles.” Building on this work, we may expect that if the cultural difference in the prefrontal volume is due to cultural influences, the difference should be more pronounced for those individuals who are genetically predisposed to be more sensitive to cultural influences. If, however, the cultural difference in the prefrontal volume were innate, biologically preprogrammed before birth, there is no reason to expect it to be moderated by plasticity alleles.

Belsky and Pluess have identified up to ten plasticity alleles (Belsky & Pluess, Reference Belsky and Pluess2009). It is not clear if all of them play a role in modulating each person’s sensitivity to cultural influences. Moreover, some studies have proved difficult to replicate (Duncan & Keller, Reference Duncan and Keller2011). Hence, it is crucial to undertake careful analysis before deciding on the target of this investigation. We have chosen to focus on the varying-number-tandem-repeat (VNTR) of the dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4). In particular, two allelic variants of DRD4, the so-called 7-repeat and 2-repeat alleles (7/2-R), have been the focus of intensive investigation in recent years. We had three reasons for our decision to focus on this gene.

First, it is known that the 7/2-R allele of DRD4 is associated with blunted activity of the D4 receptor. It should be acknowledged that some scholars (e.g., Bakermans-Kranenburg & Van IJzendoorn, Reference Bakermans-Kranenburg and van IJzendoorn2011; Weeland et al., Reference Weeland, Overbeek, de Castro and Matthys2015) used this fact to theorize that certain behaviors thought to be linked to this allele (e.g., novelty-seeking and impulsivity) are behavioral means of compensating for the blunted dopamine activity. However, this theory ignores the fact that any receptor activity is embedded in a larger network of molecular- and cellular level processing. Indeed, we know of no evidence that such behavioral compensation of the molecular-level depletion of dopamine occurs. Another plausible mechanism is suggested by the fact that the D4 receptor is inhibitory. Thus, the activation of the D4 receptor is thought to downregulate the cellular level activity of the systems innervated by dopaminergic neurons. The blunted D4 receptor activity, caused by the 7/2-R allele of DRD4, may thus disinhibit the cellular activity in the relevant systems. Moreover, dopamine is one of the most prevalent neurotransmitters in both subcortical reward processing regions and prefrontal executive systems (Nikolova et al., Reference Nikolova, Ferrell, Manuck and Hariri2011; Schultz, Reference Schultz2002). Hence, the 7/2-R allelic variants of DRD4 may increase one’s sensitivity to reward signals while also enhancing one’s capability to compute the reward contingencies over a long period – the two cognitive and affective capacities believed to be required to accurately infer cultural norms and rules (Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, King, Yoon, Tompson, Huff and Liberzon2014).

Second, there is evidence that these two allelic variants have been actively selected over the course of the last 50 000 years, particularly across the Eurasian continent – a fact suggesting that these alleles may well have coevolved with culture that unfolded during the period. One plausible reason for this selection might come from the fact that the new variants of this particular gene enhanced both reward processing and executive functions, which in turn may have increased individuals’ capability to accurately estimate norms and rules of the larger social units that were emerging around that time. This argument implies that DRD4 was selected for its ability to regulate preexisting brain systems involved in reinforcement-based learning including striatal reward processing and the computation of reward contingencies. Note that these systems are regulated by a large number of genes. Our analysis then amounts to the hypothesis that DRD4 serves as a highly interconnected “hub” for networks involved in genetic signaling. This status as a hub gene might help us understand why DRD4 is not just one of humans’ 22 000 genes. It can have a nontrivial effect size on specific aspects of behavior linked to reward processing, including cultural learning.

Third, and equally important, a growing body of literature shows that children carrying one of the plasticity alleles (the 7-repeat variant, which is particularly common in Western populations) are quite sensitive or susceptible to parenting quality. In one of the earliest studies investigating this prediction, Sheese et al. (Reference Sheese, Voelker, Rothbart and Posner2007) tested 3- to 4-year-old children (all European Americans), whose behavioral profiles were rated by their parents. Brief parent–child interactions were video-taped and coded for parental quality. They contrasted carriers of the 7-repeat allele of DRD4 with noncarriers (very few European Americans carry the 2-repeat allele). The researchers observed that low quality of parenting predicted increased impulsivity and activity levels of children. Importantly, this association between parental quality and child behavior was evident only among the children carrying the 7-repeat allele of DRD4.

This initial finding has since been replicated (Belsky & Pluess, Reference Belsky and Pluess2009; van IJzendoorn et al., Reference van IJzendoorn, Bakermans-Kranenburg, Belsky, Beach, Brody, Dodge, Greenberg, Posner and Scott2011). Moreover, recent work used an experimental intervention intended to improve parental quality and showed that the beneficial effect of this intervention on child behavior was observed only among the children carrying the 7-repeat allele of DRD4, providing additional evidence consistent with our analysis (Bakermans-Kranenburg & van IJzendoorn, Reference Bakerman`s-Kranenburg and van IJzendoorn2006; Reference Bakermans-Kranenburg and van IJzendoorn2011; Bakermans-Kranenburg et al., Reference Bakermans-Kranenburg, van IJzendoorn, Pijlman, Mesman and Juffer2008; van IJzendoorn et al., Reference van IJzendoorn, Caspers, Bakermans-Kranenburg, Beach and Philibert2010, Reference van IJzendoorn, Bakermans-Kranenburg, Belsky, Beach, Brody, Dodge, Greenberg, Posner and Scott2011). Recent reviews underscore the possibility that actions of the 7-repeat allele of DRD4 is strongly moderated by environmental conditions (Bakermans-Kranenburg & van IJzendoorn, Reference Bakermans-Kranenburg and van IJzendoorn2011; Weeland et al., Reference Weeland, Overbeek, de Castro and Matthys2015).

DRD4 × Culture Interaction: I. Behavioral Tendencies

If 7/2-R allele carriers are more sensitive to reward contingencies than noncarriers, it might be expected that the carriers would be more likely to acquire behavioral patterns that are sanctioned in their local communities. Kitayama et al. tested this prediction in the context of East–West psychological differences (Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, King, Yoon, Tompson, Huff and Liberzon2014). As discussed earlier in this chapter, compared to European Americans, Asians are more interdependent or less independent (Kitayama & Salvador, Reference Kitayama and Salvador2017; Kitayama et al., Reference Kitayama, Park, Sevincer, Karasawa and Uskul2009; Markus & Kitayama, Reference Markus and Kitayama1991). To the extent that the cultural norms of the self being independent or interdependent are acquired through reinforcement-based learning, this cultural difference should also be more pronounced for people carrying the 7/2-R allele as compared to noncarriers.

A total of 398 college undergraduates at the University of Michigan filled out several scales designed to assess various facets of independence (e.g., independent self-construal, self-efficacy, and valuing of self-expression) or interdependence (e.g., interdependent self-construal and holistic cognition). The participants varied in both backgrounds (European vs. Asian) and DRD4 status (7/2-R carrier vs. noncarrier). As expected, Asians were relatively more interdependent or less independent than European Americans. Further, this cultural difference was observed only among those carrying the 7/2-R allele of DRD4. Among the noncarriers, there was no significant cultural difference in independence or interdependence. The cultural difference was highly reliable and “large” in magnitude (Cohen’s d > 1.00) among the carriers, but it was negligible among the noncarriers (Cohen’s d < .02). Recently, Tompson et al. (Reference Tompson, Huff, Yoon, King, Liberzon and Kitayama2018) extended this finding by showing that a cross-cultural difference in emotional experience (European Americans experiencing more positive affect than Asians) is evident among carriers, but not among noncarriers (Tompson et al., Reference Tompson, Huff, Yoon, King, Liberzon and Kitayama2018).

DRD4 × Culture Interaction: II. Brain Structure

If the key mechanism underlying the effect of DRD4 involves socially mediated reinforcement, we might further theorize that when certain cognitions, emotions, motivations, and behaviors are reinforced, all neural connections and pathways that support them will also be reinforced. Given the inverse association among Japanese between interdependent self-construal and OFC volume discussed above, we would expect a cultural difference in the OFC volume when comparing Asians and European Americans. Since European Americans are less interdependent than Asians, the OFC volume may be expected to be larger for the former than for the latter. Moreover, to the extent that this cultural difference is mediated by reinforcement-based learning in which DRD4 is likely to play a key role, we may further anticipate that the cultural difference in the OFC volume (European Americans > Asians) would be more pronounced among carriers of the 7/2-R allele of DRD4 than among noncarriers. Our recent investigation addressed these possibilities (Yu et al., Reference Yu, Abe, King, Yoon, Liberzon and Kitayama2019).

One hundred thirty-two undergraduates were recruited such that half had European American cultural backgrounds while the remaining half had Asian cultural backgrounds. Moreover, approximately half in each cultural group had a 7- or 2-repeat allele of DRD4. We drew on the Kitayama et al. (Reference Kitayama and Salvador2017) study and identified OFC as an anatomical region of interest (ROI; Figure 3.2A). First, we replicated the Kitayama et al. (Reference Kitayama and Salvador2017) finding and showed that the gray matter volume of the OFC ROI decreases as a function of interdependent self-construal (Figure 3.2B). Second, and critically, when we analyzed the gray matter volume of the OFC ROI, the interaction between culture and DRD4 status proved to be statistically significant. As shown in Figure 3.2C, the OFC volume was significantly greater for European Americans than for Asians, after controlling for total brain volume, age, and gender. Importantly, this cultural difference was significantly larger among carriers of the 7/2-R allele of DRD4 than among noncarriers.

(A) Regions of interest.

(B) Inverse association between interdependence self-construal and the OFC volume.

(C) Culture × DRD4 status interaction on the OFC volume.

(D) The OFC volume among Asians with varying numbers of years in the United States as a function of DRD4 status.

Adapted from Q. Yu et al., “Cultural Variation in the Gray Matter Volume of the Prefrontal Cortex Is Moderated by the Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene (DRD4),” Cerebral Cortex, 2018, 29(9), pp. 3925 and 3927 (, by permission of Oxford University Press

Figure 3.2 Cortical volume of the orbitofrontal cortex.

Further analysis revealed additional evidence for the critical role of experience in modulating OFC volume. Our Asian participants had lived in the United States for varying amounts of time when they were tested. When their OFC volume was analyzed as a function of the time in the United States, there was a clear correlation such that the OFC volume increased as a function of the time in the United States. Moreover, consistent with the role of the 7/2-R alleles of DRD4 to increase environmental influences, this correlation was larger, albeit non-significantly, for the carriers than for the noncarriers (Figure 3.2D).

Future Directions

We began this chapter with an observation: By spontaneously functioning, the human mind often contributes to the reproduction of the culture in which it is embedded. At the same time, however, we also pointed out that the apparent spontaneity of this process conceals from our view the powerful feedback effect of cultural influences. The mode of human psychological functions is fundamentally cultural – both shaped through culture as well as mediated by it, and as a consequence, it is also equally fundamental to look closely into the “how” of the cultural shaping of the mind.

In seeking to address this question, we examined the evolution of various cultural and ethnic groups over the last 10 000 years. This review identified some reasons to believe in the validity of distinguishing between the West and the “rest.” Most human groups over the previous 10 000 years were likely highly interdependent. One important exception to this was the emergence of the modern West in the last several hundred years. Unlike all, or perhaps almost all, previously existent cultures, the modern West was based on a new conception of the self as independent. The newly emerging commitment to the personal self in the modern West was in stark contrast to many non-Western cultures, which is reflected in the cross-cultural evidence reviewed in this chapter. We have shown that interdependent orientations (common in non-Western cultures) are reflected in social happiness, holistic attention, and holistic social cognition. These features are much weaker or otherwise completely reversed to show more personal happiness, focused attention, and social cognition that is anchored in focal objects in Western, independent cultures. This evidence was initially based on various psychological tasks, but it is now extended to include neuroscience evidence (e.g., Figure 3.1). In particular, we reviewed recent evidence that engagement in culture can plastically change regionally specific cortical volume (Figure 3.2).

We are cognizant of a persistent accusation regarding the hypothesized difference between the West and the rest as being no more than the stereotyping of non-Westerners from the West’s elitist perspective, which – intentionally or not – patronizes the rest (Said, Reference Said1979). This perspective, sometimes called Orientalism, is a depiction of the international power dynamics that can sometimes compromise the validity of analyses of cultures from any single perspective. However, the identification of a non-Western perspective (interdependence) that is distinct from its Western counterpart (independence) could be a useful point of departure that gives fair due to both. Moreover, the thoroughly empirical approach undertaken in the studies summarized in this chapter may serve as an effective, if not perfect, antidote against any elitist, ethnocentric proclivities that might exist in any and potentially all researchers. This antidote is often not readily available, not rigorous enough, or both, in most studies of culture. In addition to these general points, however, we wish to underscore two crucial features of our approach. First, we explicitly underscore the diversity within the non-West. Second, our theoretical approach seeks to integrate individual variability within an analysis identifying a coherent cultural variation. We now turn to each of these two points.

Varying Forms of Interdependence

All the evidence we reviewed in this chapter is limited to the few characteristics of interdependence that are thought to be common to all (or almost all) non-Western cultures, which tend to give greater priority to social relationships over the personal self. As indicated earlier, this does not mean that the non-West is homogeneous. In fact, we pointed out that there are at least four different forms of interdependence, reflecting divergent strategies to achieve the valued state of interdependence.

More research is needed to specify these varying forms of interdependence, which are thought to be related to historically dominant socio-ecologies of the locales. We hypothesize, for example, that East Asian civilization is grounded in the tradition of rice farming, as much as Arab civilization is derived from a nomadic tradition of the living in sparsely populated deserts. This, of course, does not mean that each region is uniform or homogeneous. Nevertheless, the predominant ecology and the way of life in it may often be incorporated into cultural stories and narratives, which in turn become a basis for further development of the cultural groups. The historical development of narratives, or origin myths, that may well be contingent on the ancient social ecology may be an important missing link that can potentially connect the current contemporary cultures and mentalities to those of the ancient times. Clearly, much more work is needed to fill the space in between at the macro, sociohistorical, even evolutionary levels.

Individual Variability and Coherence of Culture

All individuals are unique with idiosyncratic sets of goals, desires, and social networks. Their variability is massive – so much so that it would seem misleading to group them together by any cultural or ethnic categories. Many scholars, especially in the humanities, have taken pains to point out this diversity and have argued that any such genetic or ancestral groupings are no more than unwarranted stereotyping. At the same time, from a cultural psychological perspective, there is no denying that various cultural groups do exist and, moreover, that each of the groups appears distinct enough to warrant careful analysis in their own right. This latter view typically comes from empirical scientists who aggregate individual-level observations and analyze higher-order grouping categories.

In this chapter, we argued that the apparent paradox of variability within culture and the systematic variations across cultures are inherent in how culture is acquired and then reconstructed. Culture as a collective-level reality shapes human brains in a highly idiosyncratic fashion. The culturally shaped brains may then participate in and reproduce parts of the culture. Hence, when focusing myopically on individual behaviors, individuals would appear highly variable and idiosyncratic. However, this variability is a reflection of cultural shaping of the brains. As such, behaviors that are culturally shaped may show systematic patterns when they are aggregated across individuals. This collective-level reality may be reproduced with high levels of fidelity even though there may be great variation at the individual level.

Mutual Constitution of Culture and the Mind

Nearly three decades ago, the anthropologist Richard Shweder (Reference Shweder1991) argued that culture and the psyche make each other up. In broad outline, the human mind is constituted by a variety of cultural elements. This process of cultural influence is dynamic, variable, and yet, highly systematic. We have also pointed out that culture is reproduced by the operations of the minds thus constituted. This reproduction is thus mediated by the variable individual behaviors and related brain circuitries. Each individual thus functions in idiosyncratic ways to give rise to novel behaviors and opportunities for cultural change. However, when combined across individuals, individual idiosyncrasies cancel each other out. Culture will have been reproduced with substantial degrees of fidelity, although the individual variability that accompanies the process offers numerous possibilities for cultural change. In this way, culture and the mind are mutually constitutive and, yet, as a whole, they continue to adjust to the ever-changing social, ecological, political, and economic realities that unfold in the world (Shweder, Reference Shweder1991).

To get a better understanding of the dynamic interplay between culture and the mind within the ever-changing and continuously globalizing world is exceptionally challenging as a scientific endeavor. The achievements accomplished over the last three decades of research in both cultural psychology and cultural neuroscience are admittedly limited. However, we believe that they can contribute to a better understanding of this exquisite interplay, which lies at the heart of what it means to be a human being.


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Figure 3.1 Self-centric motivation for European Americans and East Asians.Waveforms for error trials and correct response trials in the self vs. friend condition for European Americans.Corresponding waveforms for East Asians.The self-centric effect as a function of interdependent self-construal. ERN = error-related negativity; CRN = correct-response negativity.

Adapted from “Error-Related Brain Activity Reveals Self-Centric Motivation: Culture Matters” by S. Kitayama and J. Park, 2014, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, pp. 66 and 67 ( Copyright 2014 by the American Psychological Association
Figure 1

Figure 3.2 Cortical volume of the orbitofrontal cortex.Regions of interest.Inverse association between interdependence self-construal and the OFC volume.Culture × DRD4 status interaction on the OFC volume.The OFC volume among Asians with varying numbers of years in the United States as a function of DRD4 status.

Adapted from Q. Yu et al., “Cultural Variation in the Gray Matter Volume of the Prefrontal Cortex Is Moderated by the Dopamine D4 Receptor Gene (DRD4),” Cerebral Cortex, 2018, 29(9), pp. 3925 and 3927 (, by permission of Oxford University Press
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