Making a Case for Critical Cultural Awareness

When American psychologists descended on Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, many gave little thought to the cultural differences in the population they sought to help. Armed with a sincere desire to aid survivors, they used the tools they had—interventions largely developed in the United States. However, many Sri Lankans experienced these workers as insensitive to Sri Lankan cultural norms and viewed their interventions as ineffective.

As psychologists increasingly cross international borders in response to world disasters, as well as to improve mental health more generally, it is essential for them to be aware of their own cultural values, beliefs, and perceptions while interacting with people of other cultures. Culture’s affect on behavior is largely unconscious or implicit and misinterpretations can occur when we assume that all people are similar to us.

These concepts of culture are examined in Critical Cultural Awareness: Contributions to a Globalizing Psychology, an article published in The American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association by John Christopher, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, and colleagues from University of Michigan, Swarthmore College, and Harvard Medical School. Christopher argues the need for American psychologists to develop a critical awareness of their own cultural grounding in order to avoid imposing Western-centered psychology on other cultures. And while American psychologists have paid increasing attention to cultural differences, they have generally not attempted to develop a theory of culture. Christopher and colleagues contend such a theory is essential to prevent the power and pervasiveness of culture from being overlooked by realizing what’s at stake in cross-cultural interactions—namely different understandings of the nature of the person or self and of the nature of what’s good or desirable.

“Critical cultural awareness is a process of beginning to take into account the ways we are more deeply shaped by our cultural background than we tend to realize,” Christopher says. “By being culturally aware, we can come to better discern these influences and create theory, research, and practices that are more culturally sensitive.”

Why does this matter?

The process reduces the likelihood of psychology remaining ethnocentric, and increases the probability that it will have more relevance internationally and with ethnic minorities.

According to Christopher, cultural assumptions influence basic theories and concepts within psychological science, such as understanding the nature of personality and the course of human development. “They also influence the clinical and applied aspects of psychology by shaping understandings of well-being and mental illness,” he says. Yet through most of human history and in most non-western societies today, well-being is equated less with emotional satisfaction and personal meaning and more with learning to accept and adapt to existing realities—such as a cosmic order, God’s will, or the family. This helps to explain why religious fundamentalists and some ethnic minorities have been wary of western forms of psychotherapy.

If psychology is shaped by culture, then it makes sense to take more seriously the conceptions of human nature that evolved in other parts of the world, Christopher notes. The recent influence of Buddhism in psychology shows the promise of other cultural outlooks to enrich Western psychology.

Christopher would like to see psychologists spend more time learning how to place psychology in cultural and historical context. It’s rare, for instance, that psychology undergraduate majors are encouraged to take courses in anthropology, history, English and philosophy, he says, but these courses can foster the type of interpretive thinking that is necessary to discern cultural meanings.

“Critical thinking in psychology tends to focus on developing rigorous quantitative research methodologies and statistical procedures,” he says. “While this is very important, it tends to overshadow the kind of critical thinking that could teach psychologists to consider what’s behind the research—the underlying assumptions about human nature and the good life that are necessarily presupposed in any psychological inquiry.”

John Christopher is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) and of the Mind and Life Institute as well as a former president of the Society for Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology of the APA. To read more about Christopher’s work visit his website,