|Adamopoulos, J. (2002). The
perception of interpersonal behaviors across cultures. In W. J. Lonner,
D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online
Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 15, Chapter 2),
Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University,
Bellingham, Washington USA.
This material is copyrighted by the author(s), who have kindly extended to the Center the right to use the material as described in the Introduction to this collection and the form entitled "Agreement to Extend License to Use Work."
UNIT 15, CHAPTER 2
THE PERCEPTION OF INTERPERSONAL BEHAVIORS ACROSS CULTURES
Grand Valley State University
psychology has played a very important role in identifying, describing, and even
explaining psychological structures that are involved in the perception of
interpersonal behavior. This chapter reviews work based on the research paradigm
of subjective culture, which establishes that at least three interpersonal
dimensions have been identified across cultures and historical periods:
Association-Dissociation, Superordination-Subordination, and Intimacy-Formality.
These three dimensions are often conceptualized as psychological universals, a
notion that raises the question of the origins of the dimensions. By starting
with the fundamental assumption that all social behavior is based on resource
exchange, the chapter reviews a framework that attempts to account for the
emergence of social meanings
investigation of the structure and meaning of interpersonal behavior in
different cultures has been an important component of cross-cultural research in
psychology for many years. The reason for the centrality of this topic is fairly
obvious: interpersonal behavior forms the core of human daily activity, and,
thus, it seems inevitable that culture will influence it greatly. In fact, we
can safely assume that culture and interpersonal behavior constitute each other
in that it is hard to think of one without referring to the other.
Culture and the Search for Psychological Universals
(1972) pioneered the exploration of the perceived structure or cognitive
organization of interpersonal behavior across cultures using a research paradigm
known as "subjective culture," which he defined as a group's
characteristic way of perceiving its social environment. Subjective culture
includes the meaning and belief systems, interpersonal relationships, norms,
values, and attitudes that account for the interaction of people in various
social contexts. The goal of research based on this paradigm was to explore the
psychological determinants or causes of interpersonal behavior by identifying
variables and processes that were either specific to particular cultures or were
culture-general (for a general description of this research paradigm see
Adamopoulos & Kashima, 1999).
that are found across a variety of cultures are often referred to as
psychological universals (e.g., Lonner & Adamopoulos, 1997; Lonner, 1980).
For example, a psychological theory may propose that in all cultures thoughtful
decisions or self-instructions to act in particular ways are a function of the
attitudes one holds and of the prevailing social norms (e.g., Fishbein and Ajzen,
1975; Triandis, 1977). Such a theory posits a universal process to explain the
production of human behavior. However, the particular norms or attitudes
involved may well be specific to a certain culture, and may have little in
common with what happens in another place or time.
Structure of Interpersonal Behavior
the past thirty years, Triandis and his colleagues have investigated, among
other aspects of subjective culture, the manner in which people perceive and
ascribe meaning to interpersonal behavior (e.g., Adamopoulos, 1988; Triandis,
1972, 1994). The core problem in this research program was the identification
and description of the psychological structures involved in the way in which
people understand the social behavior they experience in their environment. By
"psychological structure" I mean the dimensions of meaning along which
interpersonal behavior can vary. For example, consider the bipolar dimension
"rational-irrational." Any specific behavior could possibly be placed
somewhere along this dimension. Thus, the behavior "discuss a problem with
my friend" might be placed somewhere along the "rational" side of
the dimension, whereas the behavior " strike a person at random on the
street" might be placed somewhere along the "irrational" side.
The question here is: what, if any, dimensions do people use in understanding
interpersonal behavior? An extension of this research explored the possibility
that any obtained dimensions are psychological universals - in other words, that
they are shared by people of differing cultural backgrounds, even when specific
social behaviors may mean very different things to them.
methods used in these investigations varied over time. However, the most common
approach relied on variants of an instrument that Triandis (1972) called the
"behavioral differential." This instrument consisted of large numbers
of social behaviors - selected so that they were a representative sample of the
vast range of human social activity - occurring in the context of various social
situations that were rated by research participants on a 7-point scale ranging
from "extremely unlikely" to "extremely likely." In other
words, the ratings were based on people's own assumptions and impressions about
how frequently each behavior occurs in the social environment. Typically, the
data were subjected to factor analytic and other data-reduction techniques in
order to derive an underlying set of a few dimensions descriptive of the
relationships that respondents perceived among the various behaviors.
a large number of investigations along the lines described above in many
cultures around the world, Triandis (1978, 1994; see also Adamopoulos, 1988,
1991) concluded that there exist at least three universal dimensions used to
interpret interpersonal behavior: (1) Association-Dissociation (Affiliation);
(2) Superordination-Subordination (Dominance); and (3) Intimacy-Formality.
Naturally, this does not mean that other, culture-specific dimensions do not
exist. Rather, Triandis and Adamopoulos proposed that around the world,
regardless of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic background, people understand
social behavior as communicating primarily the presence or absence of
affiliative motives, the desire to dominate another or be submissive to
another's authority, and the need for interpersonal closeness (or its absence).
interpersonal dimensions described above are found - often in almost identical
form - in other psychological domains (e.g., the study of parent-child
interaction, and the analysis of the interpersonal domain of personality).
However, despite such strong convergence of evidence supporting universality, it
is not the case that every behavior has similar meaning across cultures. Rather,
the three dimensions provide a framework or context of psychological
similarities within which we can reliably explore cross-cultural differences in
the meaning of interpersonal behavior. Consider, for example, some social
behaviors whose meaning was explored, among many others, by Triandis, Tanaka,
and Shanmugam (1966) in the U.S., Japan, and India. Figures 1 and 2 report
results from that investigation and adapt them for the current discussion.
The three universal interpersonal dimensions were identified (though labeled differently in the original paper) and described separately for each culture. Figure 1 presents the dimensions of Association-Dissociation and Superordination-Subordination, and Figure 2 presents the dimension of Intimacy-Formality plotted against Association-Dissociation again.
is clear that the three dimensions are quite meaningful to the respondents (in
this case, all males) from the three cultures. These dimensions also provide the
opportunity to explore some important differences in the meaning of specific
behaviors to these respondents. For example, the behavior "exclude from
neighborhood" appears to convey a strong dissociative (unfriendly) and
superordinate (control) meaning to U.S. and Japanese respondents, but these
meanings are not present in the Indian understanding of the behavior. Instead,
the Indian respondents appear to perceive "exclude from neighborhood"
as a formal behavior, which may reflect the wide acceptance of the caste system
that specifies social divisions in traditional Hindu society. Following a
similar line of explanation we can first describe cross-cultural differences in
social meaning and then relate them to particular cultural practices and
features for other components of subjective culture. Thus, the main contribution
of the research paradigm of subjective culture has been the explication of the
meaning systems that people of different cultural backgrounds use to make sense
of the world around them.
Universals and the Need for Historical Evidence
implied in my comments so far, there appears to be strong evidence, amassed over
several decades of research, that there are several dimensions involved in the
perception of interpersonal behavior that are common across cultures. It is
tempting to call such dimensions "universal." However, the question
that must be raised here is: Exactly what is a psychological universal? Triandis
(1978) asked the question more than twenty years ago and admitted that it is
difficult to provide an exact answer. Still, he felt that considering the
paucity of cross-cultural psychological research at the time - a situation that
has changed somewhat since then - a finding that is common in just a few
cultures, with no cases to the contrary, should qualify as a
"universal." In other
words, Triandis rightly advocated the use of rather loose criteria for
"universal" status. In the particular case of interpersonal structure,
the three dimensions reviewed earlier have been identified in many diverse
cultures, and thus could easily qualify for such status.
have proposed an additional criterion for universal status - that of (relative)
continuity through time (Adamopoulos, 1988). To the extent possible, we must be
able to show that a psychological universal has been present throughout human
history. It may have undergone considerable change over time, but there ought to
be some core elements that reflect an underlying consistency in meaning. For
example, the construct "intimacy" may have undergone considerable
change in its meaning over time (including in the manner in which it has been
manifested throughout human history), but some fundamental notion that people
have always had a need for interpersonal closeness must surely be evident in the
human record if we are to consider the construct a "universal" (and,
hence, a component of what some might call "human nature"). The
problem then becomes one of locating the appropriate records and the relevant
information contained in them.
have described a method to obtain such data in some detail elsewhere (e.g.,
Adamopoulos, 1982; Adamopoulos & Bontempo, 1986). It consists mainly of
locating literary sources describing interpersonal interaction in considerable
detail in various cultures and historical periods (e.g., the Homeric epics - the
Iliad and the Odyssey - or the medieval epic poem of Beowulf). This interaction
is then recorded across a number of social relationships and situations, and the
data are analyzed via factor analysis in much the same way that responses to the
behavioral differential are analyzed, as described earlier.
results of these analyses - only a few conducted to date - have generally
provided support for the proposal that the dimensions of
association-dissociation, superordination-subordination, and intimacy-formality
are psychological universals. The results are particularly strong for the first
two dimensions, with little apparent change in the basic meaning of affiliation
and dominance reported over time. The evidence is a bit less clear in the case
of the Intimacy-Formality dimension. As implied earlier, the notion of intimacy
appears in descriptions of interpersonal interaction going back possibly to the
10th century B.C., but it also appears that considerable changes have occurred
in the psychological status of this construct. For example, intimacy does not
appear as an independent dimension of meaning in many of the oldest documents,
but, rather, is diffused and folded into other psychological dimensions - such
as affiliation or even dominance. For example, the kind of love and closeness
that motivated the behavior of Ancient Greek heroes like Achilles or Odysseus,
at least as we glean that behavior from the Homeric epics, was inseparable from
their role as kings in charge of their households, their extended families, and
their property - in other words, their superordinate status vis-…-vis their
fellow human beings (for more detailed examples see also Adamopoulos &
are still very far from being able to establish such "diachronic"
universality for many psychological constructs. In fact, it may be quite
impossible to do so for the vast majority of these constructs. However, it is
important that we put considerable energy into developing appropriate methods
and theoretical frameworks for this endeavor that is an important step to future
progress in cross-cultural psychology.
Whys and Wherefores of A
ssociation, Superordination, and Intimacy
ssociation, Superordination, and Intimacy
the universality of a psychological construct is established, the question that
naturally follows concerns its origins. Thus, we may ask what the reasons and
causes for the universality of the three interpersonal dimensions are. Why is it
that they are found in so many of the world's cultures and across such long
periods of time? Some years ago, Osgood (1969) asked a similar question - in a
paper that inspired the heading of this section - about the three universal
dimensions of affective or connotative meaning (Evaluation, Potency, and
Activity). In pioneering work over several decades that inspired many other
researchers - including Triandis' development of the subjective culture paradigm
- Osgood and his colleagues established that human beings, regardless of culture
and language, tend to interpret objects and ideas in their world based on how
good or bad (Evaluation), strong or weak (Potency), and fast or slow (Activity)
they are (cf. Osgood, May, and Miron, 1975). Osgood eventually speculated that
the universality of these psychological dimensions could be explained on the
basis of their survival value. Early human beings probably found it extremely
beneficial to their survival to be able to decide when facing a new potential
threat (e.g., a saber-tooth tiger) whether or not it was friendly, stronger than
them, and fast or slow (so that they could outrun it).
much the same way, we could argue that the three interpersonal dimensions
established as universal so far may have survival value in some fundamental way
for human beings. After all, the ideas of Association, Superordination, and
Intimacy bear some basic - though rather vague - resemblance to Evaluation,
Potency, and Activity. The question is: what sorts of processes could explain
the emergence of these meanings across cultures and time?
have outlined elsewhere (Adamopoulos, 1984, 1988, 1991) a model that attempts to
explain this emergence of social meaning and the formation of the three
interpersonal dimensions. The process is based on one fundamental assumption:
All human social behavior is conceptualized as resource exchange. In other
words, I assume that human beings engage in interpersonal activity because they
need to secure resources that enable them to survive and thrive in their
environment. This assumption is by no means unique. There are several
resource-exchange frameworks in psychology that have been developed over the
past few decades. The theory that has informed the present work was developed by
Foa and Foa (1974) (see also Foa, Converse, Tornblom, and Foa, 1993). This
theoretical model assumes that any human social behavior can be categorized in
one or more of six broad classes of resources: (1) Love, (2) Services, (3)
Goods, (4) Money, (5) Information, and (6) Status. These resource classes are
organized in a circumplex defined by the dimensions of concreteness and
particularism. Thus, Love is highly particularistic whereas Money is very low in
particularism. Similarly, Status and Information are low in conreteness, whereas
services and goods are very concrete resources.
concreteness is a fairly straightforward notion, particularism bears some
explanation. In general, particularistic resources are involved in social
exchanges in which the identities of the participating individuals play a
significant role in the satisfactory completion of the interaction - as is the
case in exchanges of love, for example. Less particularistic (universalistic)
exchanges are not as much based upon the identities of the participants. Thus,
in money exchanges at a bank, for instance, the relationship between customer
and teller does not usually play a significant role in the satisfactory
completion of the transaction.
ideas - the concreteness and particularism of resource exchange processes - can
be conceptualized as fundamental constraints on social interaction with which
people had to contend early in human history. For example, it is reasonable to
assume that in the very first human-to-human interaction a resource (e.g., care
and support or information about an animal or event) had to be given or denied.
Human beings then had to learn to differentiate between particularistic
exchanges where the identity of the other person - and his/her relationship to
the actor - was a significant part of the exchange process, and universalistic
exchanges, where an actor's relationship with the target of the interaction does
not contribute significantly to the successful completion of the interaction.
For example, care and support would be provided to a close friend or relative
(e.g., mother to child), whereas information about a dangerous animal could be
given to anyone, including a complete stranger. This differentiation process may
be thought of as analogous to the process through which human infants have to
learn to distinguish self from others and to differentiate between an
ego-oriented and an other-oriented perspective.
the actual resource exchanged could be concrete and material (e.g., sharing food
with someone) or abstract and symbolic (e.g., acknowledging another person as
the leader of the social group to which one belongs). A number of social and
biological scientists have speculated over the years that the emergence of the
ability to think in symbolic terms marked the beginning of human culture. In
other words, we may reasonably assume that the ability to differentiate between
concrete and abstract resources appeared relatively late in human history.
3 presents an outline of the process through which the meaning and structure of
social interaction emerges over time. We see that the universal dimensions of
interpersonal behavior, which were derived empirically in previous
investigations, can now be defined theoretically. For example, Association is
defined in terms of the giving of resources, and Dissociation is defined as the
denying of resources to another person.
is defined as the denying of particularistic and abstract resources (e.g., the
denial of status) to another individual, whereas Subordination is defined as the
giving of such resources. Finally, intimacy is defined as the exchange of
particularistic and relatively concrete resources (e.g., love and services),
whereas formality is the exchange of universalistic and relatively abstract
resources (e.g., money). Note that both intimacy and formality may involve the
giving of denial of such resources. This explains, for example, why the behavior
"hitting another person" is often found to involve both dissociative
and intimate meanings at the same time. The target of the behavior is often a
person the actor knows quite well (e.g., a family member or a roommate), and the
behavior typically requires human contact - a thoroughly intimate setting.
model also proposes that there are other universal features to interpersonal
behavior that have not been identified in previous psychological research. For
example, trading involves the exchange (giving or denial) of concrete and
universalistic resources (e.g., goods). Of course, there is plenty of
anthropological evidence suggesting that market places - the settings where much
of the trading behavior typically occurs - are a ubiquitous phenomenon in human
societies around the world.
then, the model presents a tentative - and certainly incomplete - description of
a system that captures some of the universal aspects of the emergence of social
meanings. Testing the model may
involve a number of different approaches. All of them, however, are based on the
order in which the interpersonal features of meaning emerge in the structure
outlined in figure 3. For example, the order in which the various constraints
are assumed to have appeared historically and subsequently combined with each
other determines strictly the order of behavioral features - a different set of
assumptions would lead to a different order of features. The order of behavioral
features or meanings leads to predictions about the empirical relationships
expected among the dimensions of interpersonal behavior because, in the model,
the closer two features are, the more elements they have in common, and,
therefore, the more related they are presumed to be psychologically. Thus, for
example, Superordination-Subordination and
Intimacy-Formality are not expected to be totally independent dimensions, but
are thought to be somewhat correlated - a fact borne out by empirical
investigation. Also, it is expected that Association-Dissociation will be more
highly correlated with Intimacy-Formality than will be correlated with
Superordination-Subordination, a fact also supported by empirical analyses.
test the model's assumptions, the relationships among the behavioral features
can be explored directly in laboratory or field investigations (e.g.,
Adamopoulos, 1984). The temporal assumptions can be explored through the
analysis of historical and literary sources, as outlined earlier in this
chapter. To date, such analyses have yielded some initial support for the
model's assumptions, but much more remains to be done in order to establish the
validity of the hypothesis that the emergence of social meaning has followed a
relatively predictable course through human history based on principles of
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adamopoulos is Professor of Psychology at Grand Valley State University in Grand
Rapids,Michigan, U.S.A. He was born in Greece and received his undergraduate
degree in psychology from Yale University, where he worked with Leonard W. Doob.
He received his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Illinois, where he
worked with Harry C. Triandis. His research focuses on the emergence of
interpersonal meaning systems across cultures and historical periods. He also
has interests in theoretical criticism in psychology and culture. He has been an
associate editor of the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, and editor of the
Cross-Cultural Psychology Bulletin. He is editor (with Y. Kashima) of
Social psychology and cultural context, which was published in 1999 by
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Questions for Discussion
It is argued in the chapter that much of the meaning of interpersonal behavior
can be captured by the three dimensions of Association-Dissociation,
Superordination-Subordination, and Intimacy-Formality. Can you think of any
other dimensions that are important in understanding social behavior? Do you
think that these new dimensions would also be universal?
2. Foa and Foa (1974) argued that six broad classes of resources are needed to categorize all human social behavior. Can you think of particular interpersonal behaviors that cannot easily be categorized into one or more of the six resource classes? What additional, if any, resource classes might be needed?
3. The author of the chapter makes the fundamental assumption that all human interpersonal behavior can be conceptualized as resource exchange. Do you think that this is a reasonable assumption? Why or why not? What other assumptions about the basic nature of human behavior might one make? To what theories of human behavior might such assumptions lead us?
4. Discussions about what makes a psychological construct "universal" are generally pretty vague. Can you come up with more precise criteria to establish the universality of psychological constructs?
5. To what extent can we use reliably historical/literary sources of data in order to explore psychological constructs? Do you think that there are serious methodological problems (e.g., reliability and validity) with such an approach? What are these problems, and how can we address them?