Cultural Research Broadens View
When Willamette University undergraduate Gale Lucas applied for a National Science Foundation research grant, she never dreamed it would change her whole view of psychological research. Lucas, a senior majoring in psychology and religious studies, spent six weeks of her summer at Northwestern University in Chicago studying how Western and Eastern cultural differences impact compliance with requests. It not only taught her about the importance of cultural perspective, it gave her a new direction.
Lucas, who is also a Presidential Scholar, won the $2,500 grant to study culture, language and cognition, an intersection of psychological subfields that's being researched at Northwestern. "My research project looked at differences in compliance with requests between Asians and Americans or Eastern versus Western," she explained. "In cross-cultural psychology, we often compare Western and Eastern thought. That's where we see the most dramatic differences. Everything else is seen as a continuum between the extremes of East and West."
Lucas and the Northwestern research team wanted to know if people of Asian ancestry differ from others in their willingness to comply with requests. "There's an assumption in psychological research that Asians are more compliant because of cultural differences, but that hasn't really been studied," she said. "This was the first time researchers were actually studying this assumption."
Using bi-lingual flyers, they recruited about 70 study subjects, about half of which were Asian. They presented the subjects with different scenarios to see whether or not they'd comply with various requests. "We gave the participants scenarios with different levels of closeness - how well you know the person making the request - and different costs - whether complying with the request is going to cost you something personally," she explained.
She offers this as an example of a high closeness-low cost scenario: one of your closest colleagues at work asks if you'd immediately install some software on her computer. Your lunch schedule is free and you have nothing else you have to do. Do you comply with the request to install her software?
In a low closeness-high cost scenario, a stranger comes up to you in a train station and asks if you'd watch his luggage. Your train arrives and is about to leave, but the stranger hasn't returned. It's vitally important that you arrive at your destination today and this is the last departing train. Do you comply with the stranger's request to continue watching the bags?
The results of the research didn't turn out like they expected. "The answers people gave depended on the question we asked, not on cultural differences," she said. "On some questions that we thought were moderate closeness and moderate costs, people thought they were high cost. Many of our questions were perceived differently than we thought they'd be."
Lucas said they couldn't draw any conclusions about cultural differences from the results. In fact, the researchers need to go back and standardize the questions by testing and pre-screening them. "It was really a design flaw," she admitted. "But this is the first time we'd tried testing these scenarios. Part of figuring out how to measure anything in psychology is testing it. That will be the next step in this research."
Even though Lucas couldn't make conclusions about Eastern versus Western compliance from her study, she said she learned about the importance of cultural differences. "When we make a conclusion in psychology and say what it means to the population, we have to consider whether or not the conclusion extends across cultures," she explained. "When we make sweeping generalizations, we have to ask whether it applies just to Westerners or whether also applies to Easterners or to people of other ethnicities or nationalities. It's made me realize how important it is to consider cross-cultural differences."
Her research experience at Northwestern, she says, has brought her years at Willamette into perspective. "All the interdisciplinary work I've done at Willamette has focused on the importance of perspective and the world view that you're using," she said. "We've been taught that knowledge is not universal, that it depends on who you're talking about. This cross-cultural study was really a culmination of all of that work. I'm really seeing how cross cultural differences apply in my area of interest and research."
It's also changes her career direction. "Before this, I'd only had a brief exposure to cultural research and this has changed my direction," said Lucas, who plans to pursue an advanced psychology degree after she graduates from Willamette this spring. "I'm applying to graduate schools where they're doing cultural research. On the next research papers I work on, I want to be able to say whether or not the conclusions extend across cultural boundaries. Because if you don't know it, don't say it."