What is Ethnocentrism and How Does it Impact Psychological Research?

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published May 11, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

What is ethnocentrism?

Ethnocentrism is using one’s own culture as the benchmark to judge other cultures so creating bias. Ethnocentrism occurs when one has the belief that their own cultural group is superior to others.

Individuals who are ethnocentric will believe that their culture’s beliefs, ideas, values, and practices are correct, and they use the standards in their own culture to assess other cultural groups.

They will tend to have negative attitudes towards other cultures and believe their beliefs, ideas, values, and practices are wrong or strange.

A popular example of ethnocentrism is to think of the utensils different cultures prefer to use. Some cultures prefer to use forks, spoons, and knives to eat, and may have the belief that it is weird or incorrect that some cultures traditionally use chopsticks to eat. 

Ethnocentrism can occur for anyone across most cultures and societies and is not limited to one culture.

It is thought to occur largely because people have the greatest understanding of their own culture which leads them to believe that the norms and standards of their own culture are universally adopted.

So, if they notice anything that deviates from their cultural norms, this can lead to ethnocentric attitudes.

Some researchers believe that ethnocentrism comprises in-group favouritism and vilification of out-groups, thus people have a high opinion of their own group and think negatively about out-groups.

How does ethnocentrism relate to psychology?

The predominant view in psychology has been white, male, mainly from the USA. It means psychologists ignore views, values, language or culture from elsewhere.

For example views about the signs and symptoms of mental disorders in DSM are based on white male experiences so other experiences are ignored. Views about appropriate patterns of child rearing are based on the practices shared in white, English speaking cultures and other ways devalued.

In psychology, ethnocentrism can exist when researchers design studies or draw conclusions that can only be applied to one cultural group.

Ethnocentrism occurs when a researcher assumes that their own culturally specific practices or ideas are ‘natural’ or ‘right’.

The individual uses their own ethnic group to evaluate and make judgments about other individuals from other ethnic groups. Research which is ‘centred’ around one cultural group is called ‘ethnocentric’.

When other cultures are observed to differ from the researcher’s own, they may be regarded in a negative light e.g. ‘primitive’, ‘degenerate’, ‘unsophisticated’, ‘undeveloped’ etc.

This becomes racism when other cultures are denigrated or their traditions regarded as irrelevant etc.

Ethnocentrism in psychology can reduce the generalisability of findings since the researchers may not have accounted for cultural diversity. 

What are the disadvantages of ethnocentrism?

While it is not necessarily a bad thing to believe your culture is good, or to be patriotic, ethnocentrism is the belief that your culture is superior, and this comes with downfalls.

Ethnocentrism can lead to people being more close-minded to how other people live, almost as if they are living in a bubble of their own culture. This can reinforce the in-group/out-group mentality. 

Believing that one’s own culture is correct can spread misinformation about other cultures, which can lead to negative consequences.

If a group upholds the belief that other groups are inferior to them, this could result in groups discriminating against each other. On an extreme scale, ethnocentrism can lead to prejudice or racism. 

Upholding the sanctity of one’s own culture may hinder societal progress and may prevent cooperation between cultures.

Cultural groups may be less likely to help each other in times of need and may only seek to preserve the people in their own group whom they consider more important. 

Specifically, ethnocentrism in research could result in negative consequences if the materials used to research are produced with one culture in mind.

An example of this is when the United States Army used IQ tests on individuals before World War one which was biased towards white American ideas of intelligence.

Because of this, Europeans had lower scores of intelligence, and African Americans were at the bottom of the IQ scale.

This had a negative effect on the attitudes of white Americans towards these other groups of people, specifically that they are not as intelligent as them.

When research does not consider ethnocentrism, this can reinforce pre-existing discrimination and prevent other cultures from having equal opportunities. 

Ethnocentrism in samples

Some of the most famous psychological studies (such as Milgram’s, Asch’s, and Zimbardo’s) used only white American males in their samples.

Conclusions were drawn from the results that the results would be the same across all cultures. However, when these studies were replicated on other groups of people, the results were different. 

As these studies were conducted a long time ago, you may expect that psychological research is more culturally diverse now.

However, psychology still has a long way to go to be truly representative of all cultures. There is still a strong Western bias, with one analysis finding that 90% of participants in research are drawn from Western countries, with 60% of these participants being American (Thalmayer et al., 2021).

They go on to say that only about 11% of the world’s population is represented in the top psychology journals and that 89% of the population is neglected. 

The Strange Situation 

The classic study of The Strange Situation by Ainsworth (1970) is an example of ethnocentric research. This study was developed to assess the attachment types of infants – the sample in this study using all American infants.

Many researchers assumed this study has the same meaning for infants from other cultures as it did for American children, however the results from other cultures were very different. 

Most noteworthy are the differences observed in Japanese and German infants in comparison to American infants.

While the American ideal standard for attachment is ‘secure attachment’, a lot of the Japanese infants displayed behaviours that would be considered ‘insecure-resistant attachment’ whilst a lot of the German infants displayed what would be considered ‘insecure-avoidant attachment’. 

The different results from other cultures were presented as ‘abnormal’ and in need of explanation, rather than considering that the differences are due to cultural differences in how children are raised.

It does not mean that German mothers are more insensitive or that Japanese mothers are too clingy to their children just because their infants react differently to American children.

The methods used in The Strange Situation are examples of imposed etic, meaning to study a culture from the outside and make inferences in relation to one culture’s standard.

More valid results could be obtained through the use of an emic study, meaning to study a culture from the inside. 

How does ethnocentrism relate to cultural bias?

Cultural bias in psychology is when research is conducted in one culture and the findings are generalised to other cultures or are accepted as universally applicable.

Ainsworth’s research is culturally biased since standards were set as to what being securely attached means, based on an American-only sample.

This theory was then generalised to other cultures so that what was considered behaviour of securely attached children in America should be what all children in other cultures should behave to be considered securely attached.

The parenting styles and behaviour of their infants in cultures outside of America being seen as abnormal because it doesn’t fit the American norms is what relates cultural bias to ethnocentrism. 

Another example of cultural bias relates to the designs of standardised tests such as intelligence tests. Intelligence tests that are designed by Western researchers reflect the idea of what the West considers as being intelligent.

However, Western cultures may have a different idea of what qualifies as intelligence compared to other cultures.

Thus, when using Western designed intelligence tests in non-western countries, there is likely to be a bias in the results since the test is measuring something from the benchmark of different cultural experiences.

This can lead to ethnocentrism if those outside of the West score significantly lower on intelligence scores and this leads to the West having the misconception that non-western countries are less intelligent.  

There are two types of cultural bias that can relate to psychological research:

  • Alpha bias – this occurs when a theory assumes that cultural groups are profoundly different. Since their differences are exaggerated, the cultural norms and values of the researchers are considered superior to other cultures. 

  • Beta bias – this occurs when real cultural differences are ignored or minimised. All people are assumed to be the same, resulting in research that is universally applied to all cultures. 

What is cross-cultural psychology?

Cross-cultural psychology is a branch of psychology that looks at how cultural factors influence human behaviour.

The goal is to look at both universal and unique behaviours to establish the ways in which culture has an influence on behaviour, relationships, education etc. 

After focusing on North American and European research for many years, Western researchers began to question whether many of the observations and ideas that were considered to be universal actually apply to other cultures outside of the sample that was studied.

Many cross-cultural psychologists have found that many observations about human thought and behaviour may only be generalisable to specific groups. 

An emic approach, which looks within cultures to identify behaviours that are specific to that culture is usually the most appropriate approach to studying cross-culturally.

With the emic approach, researchers can immerse themselves fully into a culture and develop a deep understanding of their practices and values.

From this, they can develop research procedures and interpret the findings with that culture in mind. These procedures would then not be used across other cultures where it may yield invalid results.

What topics can be studied in cross-cultural psychology?

Cross-cultural psychology can explore many topics such as:

  • Child development – whether unique cultural practices influence development.

  • Emotions – do all people experience emotions the same way? Is emotional expression universal?

  • Language – whether the acquisition of language and its development is similar or different between cultures?

  • Relationships – the differences in family, romantic relationships, and friendships which are influenced by culture.

  • Personality – the degree to which aspects of personality might be influenced to or linked with cultural influences. 

  • Social behaviour – understanding how the cultural norms and expectations have an effect on social behaviour. 

What are the benefits of cross-cultural psychology?

By understanding what could have been cultural bias, researchers have increased their understanding of the impact of culture, cultural differences, and culture specific behaviours. 

This has had benefits when it comes to the diagnosis of mental illness for example. Previously, some culture specific behaviours were often mis-diagnosed as a symptom of a disorder.

Recent issues of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) now include a list of culture specific behaviours which help to accurately diagnose mental health issues. 

Modern researchers are now able to travel a lot more than they would have done in the past. They are able to have contact with people from all across the globe as well as being able to hold talks and conferences where researchers from different cultures can meet to discuss ideas.

This may mean there should be less cultural bias now since researchers from other cultures being able to talk can help grow understanding and acceptance of differences.

Researchers can also use input from people from different cultures to discuss any potential methodology flaws which can lead to cultural bias. 

Ethnocentrism vs cultural relativism

Ethnocentrism and cultural relativism are two ways in which we assess a culture that is not our own.

While ethnocentrism means someone may judge other cultures based on the standards of their own cultures, cultural relativism is the notion that a culture should be understood on its own terms, without judgement against the criteria of another culture.

Someone who is ethnocentric may believe that their culture is ‘correct’ and ‘normal’ but someone who adopts cultural relativism understands that one culture is not better than another. 

An example of ethnocentrism is believing that the traditional clothing of a culture other than your own is ‘strange’ or ‘incorrect’, whereas cultural relativism would appreciate and accept that different cultures have their own clothing and would not make a negative judgement about someone’s clothing even if it is different to what is the norm for them.

In research, cultural relativism is the ideology that what may be observable in research may only make sense from the perspective of the culture being observed and cannot be applied to different cultures.

Ethnocentrism can be avoided or reduced by studying culture using an emic approach. This approach aims to observe cultural differences in the relevant context and uses that culture’s concepts or standards. 

Ethnocentric studies are not inherently invalid and should not be disregarded. Instead, researchers should make sure to point out that their research may only be applied to the sample they studied and the application to other cultures is questionable. 

How can psychology use cultural relativism?

An example of how cultural relativism is relevant in research is noted by Sternberg (1985) who stated that the meaning of intelligence is different in every culture.

They noticed that in some cultures, coordination and motor skills are essential to life so if someone excels in these skills, they are considered highly intelligent according to that culture.

However, in other cultures, motor skills are less relevant to intelligent behaviours and the culture instead values vast knowledge on a range of topics as intelligence instead. 

There is the development of ‘indigenous psychologies’ in research which draws explicitly on the unique experience of people in a different cultural context.

Afrocentrism is an example of this, which suggests that theories of people with African heritage must recognise the African context of behaviours and attitudes.

This approach matters because it has led to the emergence of theories that are more relevant to the lives and cultures of people not only in Africa, but also those far removed from their African origins. 

What are some examples of ethnocentric behaviour?

In psychology, ethnocentric behaviour can come across when a researcher conducts a study in a particular culture and then states in their findings that their results can be generalised to all cultures.

Likewise, when researchers apply their theory to another culture and the results are different to what was the norm in their culture, they state that there is something wrong with that culture. 

Otherwise, some other examples of ethnocentric behaviour include:

  • Judging other culture’s food and speciality dishes.

  • Judging people’s cultural outfits.

  • Expecting others to speak your language and criticising them if they can’t.

  • Historical colonialism.

  • Judging someone who chooses to live on their own when it is traditional to always live with family in your culture. 

What is ethnorelativism

Ethnorelativism is the ability to see values and behaviours as cultural rather than universal.

It is a belief based on a respect for other cultures, believing that all groups, cultures, or subcultures are inherently equal.

Furthermore, it is the belief that other cultures are no better or worse than one’s own, but as seen as equally valid despite their differences. 

What is the difference between ethnocentrism and racism?

As ethnocentrism implicates a strong identification with an in-group, it can lead to ingrained negative feelings and stereotyping to members of out-groups, which can be confused with racism.

Whilst they are not the same, ethnocentrism can lead to prejudiced behaviours and attempts to impose one’s subjective culture onto other cultural groups.

Ethnocentric attitudes can lead to prejudice and discrimination which is based upon race and the belief that one race is superior to all others. 

What is the difference between ethnocentrism and xenocentrism?

While ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is superior and correct in comparison to others, xenocentrism is the belief that other cultures are better than one’s own culture.

Essentially, xenocentrism is the opposite of ethnocentrism. In some ways, xenocentrism is considered deviant behaviour as it goes against the norms of what someone is expected to appreciate.

Examples of this can include:

  • The belief that vehicles manufactured in other countries are better than ones made in your own country.

  • European Renaissance artists desiring to emulate ancient Greek artwork.

  • The belief that cheeses and wines from other countries are superior to the produce from your own country. 

  • The belief that the style of clothing in another culture is superior to those within your own culture. 

  • The idea that quality products cannot be purchased in one’s own country. 

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

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Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, May 11). What is Ethnocentrism and How Does it Impact Psychological Research? Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/ethnocentrism.html

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