Unit 4: Introduction

Basic Psychological Processes and Culture

Center for Cross-Cultural Research
Western Washington University

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Basic psychological processes - sensation and perception, learning and memory, cognition, processing of information, among other functions - are obviously central to any serious psychological study of the individual.  For at least an entire century psychologists who have had a joint interest in basic processes and culture have pondered an important and overriding question: Are basic psychological processes species-wide, or does culture somehow intervene and serve as a mediating or moderating variable?  It is this question (and others) that interested W.H.R. Rivers, who led what is widely believed to be the first serious culture-oriented expedition that looked into such questions.  In the early 1900s he and his colleagues from Cambridge University in England went to the Torres Straits near Australia for the explicit purpose of studying such psychological phenomena as reaction time, color vision, and many other processes.  His team's "subjects" were so-called "primitive people" living on islands in the Torres Straits and on the east coast of India.

The Rivers et al. expedition is legendary in the annals of cross-cultural psychology. Thousands of other psychologists since those early days have made many contributions to and understanding of the relationships between culture and basic psychological processes. The chapters in this unit make contributions to this understanding. The reader will have little trouble finding references to culture-oriented research in this area. A good starting point is Volume 3, Basic Psychological Processes, in the 1980 Handbook of Cross-Cultural Psychology (Triandis & Lonner, Editors).


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