Culture & Norms

We all know that people from different cultures have different languages, holidays, and religions.  In Europe, it is considered rude to slurp your soup loudly, while in China slurping is a sign of appreciation for good food!  But cultural differences extend far deeper than meets the eye - culture affects the fundamental way we think about and see the world.  Understanding cultural differences is always a challenge, but hopefully the field of Psychology can help shine a light on the deeper aspects of culture, and in doing so, help promote cultural understanding.

Try it Out

  •  Try to complete the concept map (shown below) for Culture.  Write the word Culture in the center, and then fill in as many related words as you can
  • Watch the video below to give you more ideas if you get stuck
What is culture?

We all talk about culture, but coming up with a precise definition for culture is very difficult.  After all, culture encompasses so many things - from what foods are eaten to beliefs about the afterlife!  However, for the sake of this course, you can use the definition of culture provided by the IB:

Cultures are made up of a set of attitudes, behaviors and symbols shared by a large group of people, usually communicated from one generation to the next. Cultural groups are characterized by different norms and conventions.

Let's break apart this complex definition, looking at it phrase by phrase.

  • Attitudes, behaviors and symbols.  Attitudes consist of our thoughts and feelings towards a person, thing, or concept.  For instance, cultures have different attitudes towards premarital sex, the eating of pork, or the importance of democracy.  Behaviors are overt actions that you can see - and include everything from large cultural displays, such as Carnival in Brazil, to subtle behaviors like the body language used in conversation.  Finally, symbols are objects used to convey a deeper meaning, like a national flag or a cross in Christianity.

  • Shared by a large group of people.  Cultures are, by definition, shared by a group of people.  We tend to think of culture as something that exists on the level of a country - like Brazilian or Spanish culture - but cultures can also exist at many different levels.  For instance, there are cultures centered on different types of music (like punk culture), generations (like baby boomer culture), or organizations (like the culture at the company Apple).

  • Communicated from one generation to the next.  In order for a culture to survive from generation to generation, there must be mechanisms for passing culture on from parents to children, from teachers to students, and from elders to youth.  Enculturation is the process of teaching culture to the next generation, and will be dealt with as a seperate lesson.

  • Norms and conventions.  Norms are the unwritten rules and standards that tell us how we ought to behave in any particular situation, from proper table manners to how to throw a bachelor party

Another important distinction is between surface culture and deep culture.  Surface culture includes all of the aspects of culture that are outward and visible - like the foods, language, places of worship, and style of dress that are common within a culture.  However, the real impact of culture extends far deeper, encompassing our beliefs, attitudes and thoughts - which are known as deep culture.  The difference between surface and deep culture can be summarized by the graphic below:

YCulture and Conformity

Conformity involves changing your beliefs or behaviors to fit in with a group.  For instance, if your group of friends like hanging out at the mall, then you might conform to your group by hanging out at the mall too - even if you'd actually rather be doing something else, like playing football outside.  Although there is some pressure to conform in every culture, the intensity of this pressure varies.  

In some cultures, conformity is considered absolutely essential.  A frequently mentioned example is Japanese culture, in which a common saying is, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down".  Japanese culture values fitting in with your social group, and not deviating too much in your dress, speech, or behavior.  If you travel in Tokyo, for example, you will come across groups of office workers that dress almost identically.  On the other hand, Western cultures typically exerts less pressure on individuals to fit in, and in some cases values individuality and uniqueness, rather than conformity. The level of importance given to conformity in a particular country is an example of deep culture - although you can't physically see the pressure to conform, it is an important aspect of a culture, and one that varies from one country to the next.

Imagine that you are having dinner with a group of friends.  Your first friend orders spaghetti with meatballs.  Then your second friend orders the exact same dish.  Now it is your turn to order.  Will you also order spaghetti with meatballs, to better fit in with your friends, or order something different, to express your individuality?  In a culture with high pressure to conform, you'll probably feel you should order the same dish (even if you'd rather eat something else) because deviating from the group feels uncomfortable.  On the other hand, in a culture with less pressure to conform, you'll probably feel you order something different, just so that it doesn't seem like you are lacking in originality - even if you actually, deep down, you want to eat spaghetti and meatballs, too.
Research - Berry

Aim - Investigate cultural differences in the pressure to conform


  • This study involved three groups of participants - the Temne of Sierra Leone (a society based on rice farming), the Inuit people of Northern Canada (a society based on hunting and fishing), and Scottish people (as a reference group). Each group consisted of around 120 participants

  • Each participant was shown a series of cards.  Each card had one line indicated as the "Standard Line", and several lines indicated as "Comparison lines".  Participants had to select which of the Comparison lines matched the Standard line in length.  (See the picture below for an example of this - the correct answer is Line 2)

  • After completing the task with two cards, on the third card, participants were told, "Here's a hint: most Temne / Inuit / Scottish people think that the correct answer is Line ___", as the experimenter points to a particular line.  On this card, the experimenter points to the correct line.

  • For the next three cards (cards 4-6), the experimenter repeats the "Hint", except points to the wrong line.  The point of the study was to see whether participants ignore the faulty advice and choose the correct line, or follow their group in choosing the incorrect line


  • The Temne had the highest rate of conformity, choosing the incorrect line when they believed that most Temne had also chosen that line, even when it was obviously the wrong answer

  • The Inuit had the lowest rate of conformity, tending to choose the correct line even when they believed that other Inuit had chosen a different line


  • This study suggests that cultures vary in the pressure to conform.  The Temne culture is the most conformist, while the Inuit culture is the most individualistic

  • The researchers speculate that the reason for this difference is how each culture produces food.  The Temne are a rice farming society, and planting rice requires the co-ordination of many people, making it especially important to conform to the group's decisions.  On the other hand, the Inuit are a society of hunters and fishers, which is primarily done individually - making conformity less crucial for survival


  • This study uses a simple yet effective way of measuring conformity, which is otherwise difficult to quantify.  The results of the study are easy to replicate, and the sample size (120 participants from each group) is quite robust

  • Matching two lines in length in an experiment is an artificial task, and one which has no real-life consequences for the participants.  It is debatable whether this task accurately represents conformity in real life, and so the ecological validity of this study is questionable

  • Since this is a correlational study, it is impossible to know for sure why some cultures appear to conform more than others.  The researchers explain the difference in terms of rice farming vs. hunting cultures, but there may be other factors that could explain the difference

Norms and Conventions

Is it considered normal to have a boyfriend or girlfriend in high school?  What is considered a good age to start dating?  If you do want to date someone, how should you ask someone out?  Is it better to date alone or in a group? What are considered acceptable places to take someone out on a date?

As you might imagine, the answers to these questions vary tremendously between cultures.  In Scandinavian countries, for instance, it is quite normal for teenagers to have intimate, romantic relationships.  In Afghanistan, on the other hand, it is considered immoral for unmarried people of the opposite gender to even spend time alone together.

Norms refer to the rules for appropriate and inappropriate behavior, beliefs, values and attitudes.  These norms can be explicit, for instance a list of rules posted in front of a Buddhist temple for visiting tourists to follow.  More often, however, they are implicit - unwritten rules that people from a culture recognize and follow from the time they are young.  Norms exist for nearly any situation or circumstance, encompassing all the following:

  • What you should (or shouldn't) wear in a particular situation or setting

  • How you should greet friends, romantic partners, relatives, and strangers

  • Proper etiquette for eating in a restaurant or attending a dinner party

  • What are considered acceptable (or unacceptable) topics of conversation to have with your friends, parents, teachers and acquaintances

  • What age is considered desirable for marriage, how to meet a potential romantic partner, and how to carry out a courtship

Most of us are so accustomed to the norms of our own culture that we follow them almost by instinct, without giving them much thought.  If you are invited to a wedding, for example, you will certainly know what type of dress is considered acceptable, and what isn't. In fact, our own culture's norms always tend to seem "normal" and right, while those of other cultures might seem unusual, odd or backwards.  Of course, the people in those cultures probably think the same thing about our norms, as well!

Nowadays, with increasing movement of people, very different cultural norms often come into tension with each other, as people travel or immigrate from one country to another.   This is often felt by third culture children, who travel frequently from one country to the next, or the children of immigrants, who often feel torn between the norms of their parents' culture and the norms of their birthplace.  For a humorous look at a clash of dating norms from one generation and culture to the next, take a look at the video below.
Think Critically

Read the following article on the unspoken rules that kids create for Instagram, and answer the following:

  • Identify and list the norms for Instagram use amongst the kids interviewed for this article

  • Reflect on how you and friends use Instagram, what you choose to post (and not post), and write up a list of at least 10 social norms for Instagram use that you and your friends follow

  • Do norms for Instagram use vary according to culture or age group?  Think of at least three examples of how these norms may vary between different groups


  • I can discuss a definition of culture, explaining the role of attitudes, norms, behaviors and symbols within a culture

  • I can explain the difference between surface and deep culture

  • I can discuss differences in the pressure to conform as an example of deep culture

  • I can identify the Aim, Procedure, Findings and Conclusion of Berry's cross-cultural study of conformity, and also evaluate the study

  • I can explain the meaning of cultural norms and conventions
Quiz Yourself!

1.  In Thailand, the monarchy is highly revered and respected.  This is an example of a cultural:

(a) Attitude

(b) Behavior

(c) Symbol

(d) Convention

2.  Which of the following is not an example of deep culture:

(a) The importance of religious beliefs in a culture

(b) Gender roles

(c) Attitudes towards divorce

(d) Formal and informal styles of dress

3.  In the research study by Berry, on which cards were the "hints" provided correct and incorrect?

(a) Correct on cards 1-3, incorrect on cards 4-6

(b) Incorrect on cards 1-3, correct on cards 4-6

(c) Correct on card 3, incorrect on cards 4-6

(d) Incorrect on card 3, correct on cards 4-6

4.  According to Berry's findings, which culture conformed the most?

(a) The Temne, who practice hunting and fishing

(b) The Temne, who practice rice farming

(c) The Inuit, who practice hunting and fishing

(d) The Inuit, who practice rice farming

5.  What is the correct evaluation of Berry's study?

(a) High replicability, low ecological validity

(b) Low replicability, low ecological validity

(c) Low replicability, high ecological validity

(d) High replicability, high ecological validity


1 - A, 2 - D, 3 - C, 4 - B, 5 - A