The Cultural Animal: How Culture Affects Human Psychology

Tim Rettig
Dec 1, 2017 · 7 min read

Imagine a highly intelligent person with an inability to ‘use’ culture.

What would that person be like?

It’s a bizarre thing to imagine, really. That person wouldn’t be able to learn from other people at all. Therefore, he or she would have to start learning and building everything from scratch.

With everything, I mean things like skills, tools, behavioral patterns, words and every other cultural behavior that humans use. Things as simple as how to make a fire, how to build a hunting tool like a spear, or how to open a coconut.

Even complex skills that we seem to have ‘independently’ of other people are highly influenced by culture. Let’s just take the skill to image in itself as an example. Sure, somebody who doesn’t ‘have’ the ability to use culture still has the skill to imagine something.

But if we imagine what being on Mars is like, on a deeply subconscious level, this imagination is influenced by the way our society constructs what Mars looks like. Films we’ve seen. Songs we’ve listened to. Books we’ve read.

This is not to forget that somebody ‘without’ culture wouldn’t even know that such a thing at Mars exists.

For him, the planets in the sky would be nothing but little dots that only appear at night… unless he randomly decided to invent a kaleidoscope on his or her own effort, that is.

Intelligence without culture simply doesn’t have meaning.

Everything we do today is a result of culture.

Brushing your teeth in the morning? A behavior that has been invented by our predecessors.

Going to an office for work? A culturally constructed way of what being part of society means.

Shaking hands to greet people? The behavior that has been deemed appropriate for such circumstances by the generations that came before us.

Everything you do, think, believe and feel happens in a context.

You believe that money buys happiness? Well, perhaps you have come to that conclusion yourself.

But prior to coming to this conclusion, you have been influenced by a sheer unlimited different factors such as the things that your parents have taught you, books you have read, things the media have pushed upon you, or simply anything that one of your coworkers said yesterday.

The same thing goes for any of your patterns of behaving, thinking and feeling.

I’m not saying that individuality as such doesn’t exist. But individuality is actually a result of the external influences and environments that we were exposed to and learned from.

Yes, your genetic traits and personality influence how you respond to such cultural influences.

But which experiences you are exposed to, in the first place, makes a large difference on your sense of self, or who you become.

A lot of the beliefs that are very central to who I am today, are direct influences of things that I have read, for example.

I believe that volume is the key to succeeding at any creative endeavor, whether it is writing, painting, video production or anything else. Nicolas Cole’s article is just one of the recent one’s that I have read recently.

But there is a lot of work, even a large scientific body of work, which is supporting this idea.

Researchers who have studied the success factors of creatives such as DaVinci, Picasso, Hemingway etc. came to the conclusion that these artists have simply created a significantly higher quantity of work than their peers.

Their argument is that a significant percentage of the work of these artists never actually had any success, but because of the quantity of work they produced, some of it did achieve outstanding results.

Because it is an idea that I have been exposed to over and over again from different sources that I trust, I started believing in it myself.

Now, this belief also highly influences my behavior. I am trying to publish every single day here on Medium, even if some of that work isn’t of the quality that I would like it to be.

This is a really powerful outcome for a belief as simple as “volume is one of the key factors to creative success”.

The most powerful way to ensure that you become your best possible self is to actively choose which external influences you expose yourself to.

Do you want to write every single day? Join a group of writers that is committed to the same goal.

Do you want to become the best chess player in the world? Become a student to the current masters in the field.

Do you want to learn how to communicate more indirectly and with sensitivity? Go to Japan — a country with a high focus on maintaining harmony.

Do you want to be a top athlete? Read books about the routines and habits of the world’s top athletes.

At the end of the day, we can not escape the influences of the cultural ideas, beliefs and ways of behaving that are around us all the time. In fact, we need them. But just as much as they can be mental nourishment for us, they can be mental poison, too.

I believe that we have a responsibility for ourselves to actively seek out those environments, ideas and people which are providing the most nutritious soil for our own development and growth. And likewise, to avoid those which have a bad influence on us.

Moving to a completely different cultural system

Researchers Richard E. Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda have published a study a few years ago in which they compare the different thinking patterns of Americans and Japanese.

They showed their participants videos of an aquarium like the one below and simply asked them to describe what they saw.

Photo Credit: Masuda & Nisbett

Whereas Americans where focusing on the bigger fish in the foreground and were more likely to describe an individual fish who is swimming against the stream, the Japanese did something quite different.

They were primarily describing the things in the background and the environment that the fish were in.

As the researchers have found out, this phenomenon is a result of two completely different ways of thinking — one of which is specific thinking, and the other of which is holistic thinking.

Specific thinkers assume analyse the effect of different objects on one another while disregarding the environment in which they are placed.

Holistic thinkers, however, place a high emphasis on inter-dependencies and inter-connectedness between objects and the environments in which they are placed.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Erin Meyer describes how one of the managers of Kia Motors would explain to her how astonished the corporate team of Kia Motors would get when they were collaborating with Western colleagues.

What they found so surprising was the fact that Western colleagues would make decisions “without considering the impact on other business units, clients, and suppliers”.

In other words, cultural environments affect us in such a strong way, that our whole mode of thought will be different based on where we grew up.

Cultural differences like these affect all areas of life, whether it is decision-making, negotiation, conflict resolution, networking, relationship-building or applying for a job.

Consequently, moving to a completely different cultural system can be a real shock to our belief system- as well as system of thought.

At times, we may be simply unable to understand the reasoning of somebody from another culture. Their brain is wired to function in a completely different way, which makes it impossible for us to follow their train of thought.

Different modes of thinking have real consequences

Let’s say that there is a man who is suffering from depression, a lack of motivation and a lack of energy.

From the perspective of a specific thinker, the problem is likely to come from the internal situation of the individual. Therefore, people who are trying to understand what his problem is, will most likely ask themselves: what is wrong with him?

From the perspective of a holistic thinker, however, the problem is likely to be related to the external circumstances of the person. Therefore, holistic thinkers will try to understand the different elements in the man’s environment that have led to his sudden drop in emotional stability.

So, what are the next steps?

One of the most critical factors for anyone is to develop an awareness of how your cultural conditioning affects your own way of thinking.

Every culture has its own strengths- and weaknesses, which influence our behavior quite strongly. Having an awareness of how your own culture might affect any interaction with people from another culture, can have incredibly positive effects on achieving better outcomes.

Furthermore, being aware of the strengths- and weaknesses of our own cultural mode of thinking also helps us to identify things we can learn from another culture.

Consequently, I recommend starting to do some serious research with the goal of understanding your own culture better from the perspective of its effect on your behavioral patterns as well as patterns of thought.

You are not your culture. But your cultural background is a big part of who you are. Learn to understand how it affects you, what its limitations are, and what you can do to overcome its limitations.

If you liked this article, please do 👏 and to share it with your friends. Remember, you can clap up to 50 times — and it really makes a big difference for me.

Have a lovely day,


Intercultural Mindset

A community of people on the journey of developing a truly…

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store