International Psychology Research Paper

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Several authorities have provided definitions of international psychology. For example, Holtzman (2000) states,

International psychology refers to scientific or professional activities (organizations, exchanges, and research enterprises) of a psychological nature involving groups of psychologists in two or more nations. Such activities are generally aimed at advancing psychological science or improving the practice of psychology through organizational efforts in one or more nations. . . . Occasionally, the term international psychology is also used to designate the social psychology of international relations. Studies of attitudes toward war and peace, national stereotypes, or international affairs are often undertaken to improve understanding of international relations. (p. 343)

Stevens and Wedding (2004) provide a different but complementary definition:

International psychology is a disciplinary and professional specialty that targets a variety of phenomena that have no borders . . . including intergroup conflict, societal transformation and national development, threats to the natural environment, physical and mental health needs, and the struggles of disempowered groups. These problems and their solutions require appreciation of the complex interplay of culture, economics, history, politics, and religion; in other words, a multidisciplinary and transnational perspective. (p. 18)

From the earliest days of psychology, some psychologists have recognized the importance of collaboration with colleagues in other countries. For example, in the 1880s and 1890s, psychologists from more than a dozen countries traveled to Leipzig, Germany, to study and work with Wilhelm Wundt. International psychology organizations and international meetings of psychology were also established very early. The International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) held its first meeting in 1889 in Paris, three years before the American Psychological Association was founded. Other international associations in psychology include the International Council of Psychologists (ICP), the International Union of Psychological Sciences (IUPsyS), and the International Association of Cross-Cultural Psychology (IACCP; see Davis, 2000a, 2000b). Nevertheless, international psychology has remained the specialty of a few individuals and groups and has not yet become a common course of study in the undergraduate psychology curriculum. Although there are many journal articles, professional books, and handbooks on international psychology, there are no major textbooks appropriate for psychology students. This research-paper presents a brief outline of material that might be included in such a textbook.

As the titles of the organizations already mentioned indicate, the area that is described as international psychology includes work also found under a variety of other labels. These labels are sometimes used interchangeably and describe areas that overlap to a great extent. The labels include “cultural psychology,” “cross-cultural psychology,” “multicultural psychology,” “global psychology,” and “world psychology.” Each of these labels represents an active group of individuals contributing to what I refer to as “international psychology.”

Why International Psychology Is Needed

One important reason for developing international psychology is that North American and Western European psychology build scientific knowledge on a very narrow foundation that does not represent all of the world’s people. Western psychology originated and developed in cultures that comprise barely 10 percent of the world’s population, leaving out many of the realities and experiences of people in developing and underdeveloped countries.

Another reason for studying international psychology is that North Americans and West Europeans need to understand more about people in the rest of the world because the lives of all of us are increasingly interdependent. Enormous and increasing migration is resulting in a greater mix of people with very different traditions, backgrounds, and experiences. The Population Reference Bureau recently reported that, in 2004, 50 million Americans—almost one fifth of all U.S. residents age five and older—spoke a language other than English at home. This number is double that of 1980 (Kent & Lalasz, 2006).

Furthermore, we need to learn more about other nations and peoples because of economic interdependence. In many areas of our lives we depend economically on the citizens and resources of other countries. Energy is the most obvious example, but computers, cell phones, and other high-tech items are manufactured largely in countries whose labor costs are lower than those in the United States. Much of our clothing likewise comes from developing countries. As consumers, we are able to purchase many high-quality, yet inexpensive, goods produced abroad. Our lives are further enriched by the ideas, traditions, and practices of other cultures: ethnic restaurants, music, dance, rhythm, and so on.

For all these reasons it is increasingly important to understand the person who lives next door to you. Your neighbor may have a different language, tradition, and religion from your own. In addition, more than ever before, there is a need to build greater international understanding and good will. Because it contributes to international cooperation and to exchanges of ideas, knowledge, and people (Pawlik, 1992; Pawlik & d’Ydwalle, 1996), international psychology is important to this effort.

Chroniclers Of International Psychology

The most recent effort to capture what psychology is like in many countries around the world is the Handbook of International Psychology, edited by Michael J. Stevens and Danny Wedding (2004). Stevens and Wedding developed a detailed outline for the writing of chapters concerning 27 countries from 9 regions of the world and from 6 continents. They invited a prominent psychologist from each of the 27 countries to author a chapter. They then worked closely with each author to insure that coverage was comprehensive and that consistency was maintained across chapters. The 27 countries and 9 regions included are Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa (Africa); Canada, Mexico, United States (North America); Argentina, Brazil, Colombia (South America); China, Japan, Singapore (East Asia); India, Pakistan, Thailand (South Asia); Poland, Russia, Turkey (East Europe); Germany, Spain, United Kingdom (West Europe); Egypt, Iran, Israel (The Middle East); Australia, Indonesia, Philippines (The Pacific Rim). The Handbook also includes two excellent chapters written by Stevens and Wedding, an introductory chapter that provides an overview of international psychology and a concluding chapter that provides a synthesis of the national psychologies presented in the 27 chapters. The editors also identify several major trends that help describe the growth of psychology as a worldwide science and profession:

  • the rapid growth of psychology worldwide
  • the feminization of psychology
  • multiculturalism
  • indigenization
  • growing emphasis on application to concerns of global significance

Stevens and Wedding’s handbook builds on several previous works that have appeared over the past 40 years. These earlier works include Sexton and Hogan’s (1992) International Psychology: Views from Around the World, Gilgen and Gilgen’s (1987) International Handbook of Psychology, Sexton and Misiak’s (1976) Psychology Around the World, and Ross, Alexander, and Basowitz’s (1966) International Opportunities for Advanced Training and Research in Psychology. Each of these is valuable to the student of international psychology.

Of particular note is Sexton and Hogan’s (1992) handbook. Similar to that of Stevens and Wedding, it includes chapters on the national psychologies of 45 countries ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe and written, in most cases, by authors native to those countries.

International psychology is not yet available as a formal course in most undergraduate psychology departments. However, this research-paper and the resources discussed here can serve as a kind of travel guide to exploring this exciting area of study.

In addition to the previously mentioned books, two bibliographies of international psychology are updated annually and provide a comprehensive guide to publications in the field. The first of these, the “Bibliography of Psychology Throughout the World” (Imada, Overmeier, & Davis, 2006, in press), contains a listing of journal articles, book chapters, and books published in English about psychology throughout the world. The material is organized at three levels: “International-worldwide,” “International-regional,” and “Country.” The third level contains a separate section for each of 150-plus countries from Albania to Zimbabwe. To help the reader quickly identify citations for a particular purpose at any of the levels, each citation is coded into one of 12 categories—for example, “Hist.” is used to identify citations that address historical material; “Org.” is used to identify citations that describe and discuss psychological organizations.

A second bibliography, the “Annotated Bibliography for Internationalizing the Psychology Curriculum” (Davis, Frahm, Bower, & Cano, 2006; Davis, Frahm, & Bernstein, in press), is particularly designed for use by teaching faculty and students of psychology. Also updated annually, it is closely related to the first one. However, it also includes a list of references selected for their relevance to specific undergraduate psychology courses. Each citation is briefly annotated to describe how the reference can be used to provide international material for the major courses included in the undergraduate psychology curriculum (e.g., developmental, social, statistics, learning, physiological).


Theories in international psychology can be grouped into two broad categories. The first category includes theories that were developed not with a particular interest in culture but rather to describe and explain a particular psychological process. Some of these have been so successful, however, that they have been adopted and widely used in many cultures. Examples include Pavlov’s work on classical conditioning, the behavioral approaches pioneered by Watson and Skinner, the developmental work of Piaget, and theories that address psychophysiological processes. The cognitive-behavior theories of Bandura and others have also achieved the status of internationally recognized theories in psychology. Other work that has been used internationally includes that of Freud and Vygotsky.

In addition to theories developed to address a psychological process, a second category of theories describes and explains important similarities and differences in people across a wide array of nations or cultures. This second category is the primary focus here.

Many writers (Dickemann, 1989; Smith, Spillane, & Annus, 2006) have noted that, among the social and behavioral sciences, psychological science has been particularly ethnocentric. The history of psychology contains a succession of theories of “human nature” assumed to be universally relevant yet developed from research conducted on a single race, a single class, and at a single time period in history. In recent years a growing number of psychologists (Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001; Smith, Spillane & Annus, 2006) have examined psychological processes through cross-cultural research methods (see next section) and thus have empirically tested the assumption of universality.

Not all psychologists agree with this approach. Other psychological researchers (Adair, 1999; Adair & Diaz-Loving, 1999; Jackson, 2005) have argued for the development of many indigenous psychologies created within specific cultures and tailored to those specific cultures.

Clearly, research across cultures poses difficulties not found in studies conducted within a single culture. Nevertheless, two very useful approaches have emerged and many international studies to date have utilized one or the other. These two approaches are known as the individualism versus collectivism theory and the acculturation, identity, and adaptation theory. Each of these deserves detailed examination.

Individualism Versus Collectivism

The dimension of individualism-collectivism has been discussed by many psychologists, anthropologists, and other social scientists. Hofstede (1980, 1991) and Triandis (1987, 1995) have used the concept of collectivism/ individualism to identify some fundamental dimensions along which people describe themselves. Individuals in Western European and American cultures conceptualize themselves as autonomous, independent, and free. The model of an ideal person is thus one who is oriented primarily toward self-development, self-actualization, pursuit of personal goals, and individual success and achievement (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1998). Individuals in East Asian cultures conceptualize themselves very differently. In these cultures the person is interdependent with the group and the culture. The model of an ideal person is thus one who is oriented primarily in terms of relationships to others. Fulfillment comes from serving the larger goals of the family, the group, and the society, and in maintaining honorable and harmonious social relationships. However, in today’s world, many individuals move between cultures and must adapt. Another widely used theory addresses this challenge.

Acculturation, Identity, and Adaptation Theory

The United States is often described as a nation of immigrants. That description, however, fits many countries, and immigration is a growing worldwide phenomenon. In the process of immigrating, many millions of people must change psychologically and culturally to adapt to their new circumstances. The most influential theory addressing this process of adaption and acculturation is that of John Berry (1974, 1980). He defines this process as follows: “[A]cculturation is the process of cultural and psychological change that follows intercultural contact” (Berry, Phinney, Sam, & Vedder, 2006, p. 305). His theory proposes two independent dimensions underlying the process of acculturation: (a) an individual’s wish to identify with and maintain ties to his or her culture of origin, and (b) an individual’s wish to identify with and fully fit into his or her country of resettlement. Berry uses these dimensions to develop a 2 x 2 framework for describing four modes or sectors of the acculturation process (Berry, 1974, 1980; Berry et al, 2006). The four modes of acculturation are assimilation, separation, marginalization, and integration. “Assimilation” involves little interest in maintaining one’s original culture combined with a strong identification with and desire to fit in completely to one’s culture of resettlement. “Separation” involves a strong desire to maintain one’s original culture and to avoid involvement in one’s culture of settlement. “Marginalization” occurs when the individual wishes neither to maintain the culture of origin nor to participate in the culture of resettlement. “Integration” takes place when the individual seeks both to maintain strong identification with the culture of origin and to establish strong identification and involvement with the culture of resettlement.

Berry and others (2006) used this framework in a large international study (n = 5,366) to examine the acculturation and adaptation processes of immigrant youth from 26 different cultural backgrounds. These youth had resettled in 13 different societies. The researchers found that the youth who adapted best to their societies of resettlement were those who followed the integration mode of acculturation. The theoretical frameworks discussed in this section are examples of a larger body of work that has been developed to specify and integrate what are universal and what are culturally specific dimensions of psychological phenomena. Other examples that could be included are Hofstede’s (1980, 2001) theory of work-related values, Inglehart’s (1997) framework for assessing cultural change from traditional to modern to postmodern, and Schwartz’s (1992, 2004) theory of values.

And the search continues. Because of the complexity of examining psychological processes across cultures, researchers are continually trying to improve on the approaches thus far developed. Smith, Spillane, and Annus (2006) provide a comprehensive and nuanced model that builds on earlier theories. They have summarized and integrated a great deal of psychological work that has evolved around the idea that human behavior can be best understood as a complex and dynamic interplay of processes at three levels. Some psychological processes appear to be universal, yet manifest themselves in different ways in specific cultures. However, even within cultures there is much individual difference. Thus, the three levels are universal, specific culture, and individual differences. Smith et al. (2006) propose a model that combines the first two. It depicts a number of universal processes and explains how these universal processes may be exhibited within different local contexts. Examples of universal processes in their model include (a) the motivation to pursue belonging and social appraisal; (b) the motivation to be a good self; (c) the motivation to embrace values autonomously; and (d) the motivation to pursue competence. To illustrate their model, the authors provide an example of how the motivation to pursue belonging and social appraisal is adapted to the local contexts of different cultures. They use the dimension of individualism-collectivism, a cultural variable that has been studied extensively by other researchers. In individualistic (Western) cultures, the motivation for belonging leads to self-enhancement behaviors, whereas in collectivist (Eastern) cultures, the same motivation to pursue belonging and social appraisal manifests itself as self-defacement behaviors. It remains to be seen whether this approach will receive widespread acceptance.


Introduction to Methods in International Psychology

Along with theory, research methods provide tools that the psychologist uses to gain knowledge about human behavior and human experience. International psychology researchers use the core scientific methods of Western psychology and some methods that are not part of Western psychological science (Pawlik & Rosenzweig, 2000a). For example, in international psychological research measuring instruments such as surveys or questionnaires often need to be translated into another language. There are detailed steps for developing a good translation, and these are described in Chapter 103, Cross-Cultural Psychology and Research. In addition to the steps described in Chapter 103, cross-cultural and international researchers sometimes utilize translators from different generations because language is always changing, and the translated instrument must use terminology that is widely understood in the foreign culture.

Another aspect of research in international psychology that differentiates it from traditional research is that qualitative methods often play a larger role when the psychologist is initiating a research program in another country. Qualitative methods are particularly useful in the early descriptive stages of developing a research program, when the challenge of establishing new measuring instruments is still at the nominal level of measurement.

Methods of international psychology also include attendance at international congresses and meetings. At such gatherings, scientists from different countries meet face to face and discover common research interests, which may lead to international collaboration. In addition, as a result of what scientists learn from one another at these meetings, they may alter their own research methods.

Other important methods are Fulbright visits by international scientists to the United States and by U.S. scientists to other countries, study abroad programs, as well as student and faculty exchange programs.

Formal Efforts to Describe Research Methods in International Psychology

Matsumoto and Yoo (2006) have recently described the historical development of research methods in cross-cultural psychology as developing through three distinct phases (in the past century). They identify the strengths and weaknesses of each phase and discuss the evolution from one phase to the next. Finally, they argue for advancing these methods to a fourth phase that will have advantages over the preceding methods. Because their work is both comprehensive and recent, I have drawn heavily from it to describe research methodology in cross-cultural/international psychology.

The first phase of cross-cultural/international research compares two or more cultural groups to identify differences across groups. Studies in phase one are quasi-experimental. Culture is used as an independent variable, and some psychological dimension or process is used as a dependent variable. This type of research has continued for more than 100 years. An early example is the work of Rivers (1905), who compared people from India, New Guinea, and England on optical illusion tasks and found that people from England were less often deceived by optical illusions than were people from India and New Guinea. Matsumoto and Yoo (2006) point out that, although the results of phase-one type studies are useful in describing similarities and differences across cultures, they have a serious weakness: the results often do not justify the interpretations that are made about them. The reason is that, although the participants differ in the cultures from which they come, they differ in many other ways as well. Thus, the confounding of cultural variables with noncultural variables is a pervasive problem that makes it impossible to justify empirically a cultural interpretation of observed differences. Moreover, culture is often used as an omnibus variable without specification of the dimensions or facets of the culture relevant to the observed differences. Matsumoto and Yoo (2006) refer to this confounding as “the cultural attribution fallacy—the inference that something ‘cultural’ about the groups being compared produced the observed differences when there is no empirical justification for this inference” (p. 235).

The second phase of cross-cultural research addresses some of these weaknesses. In this phase researchers identify specific cultural dimensions to use as independent variables. They attempt to distinguish cultural from noncultural differences across the groups they study. Nevertheless, the difficulty in defining culture remains a problem. Although culture can be generally defined as a system of shared meaning and shared information that is transmitted from generation to generation, the task of developing operational definitions for specific dimensions of culture for the purpose of research poses a daunting challenge.

The research of Hofstede on work-related values in numerous countries represents one of the best efforts to address this challenge. Hofstede (1980, 1984) collected data from individuals in 53 countries using a 63-item questionnaire on work-related values. Hofstede (2001) also reported data from more than 117,000 employees of a large multinational corporation from 72 countries. His participants represented more than 20 languages and seven occupational levels. Factor analyses on these data produced five dimensions of cultural variability: individualism versus collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity, and long-term versus short-term orientation (Hofstede, 2001; Hofstede & Bond, 1984). The dimension of individualism versus collectivism has received the greatest attention (Triandis, 1994, 1995, 2001), although all of the dimensions have received some attention (Matsumoto & Yoo, 2006).

Although Matsumoto and Yoo (2006) acknowledge that phase-two research is an improvement over that of phase one, it still does not fully address the cultural attribution fallacy. In the research of Hofstede, for example, group means are analyzed with the questionable assumption that all individuals from individualistic cultures are individualistic and all individuals from collectivist cultures are collectivist. In phase-two research, these assumptions are not empirically tested.

The third phase of cross-cultural research incorporates methods for separately identifying universal cultural and individual difference variables. A number of researchers have used the framework developed by Markus and Kitayama (1991) that Matsumoto and Yoo refer to as an example of phase-three research. These researchers examined the dimension of individualism-collectivism at the cultural level in conjunction with the concept of self at the individual level. They hypothesized that individuals from individualistic cultures develop concepts of the self as being an independent agent, while individuals from collectivist cultures develop concepts of the self as being interdependent and culturally embedded. Finally, they discussed the implications on the individual’s emotions, thought processes, and behaviors of these differing ways of construing oneself.

Matsumoto and Yoo (2006) argue for the advancement of a fourth phase in cross-cultural research methodology. They argue that what is needed in this fourth phase are “linkage studies . . . (that) empirically link the observed differences in means or correlations among variables with the specific cultural sources that are hypothesized to account for these differences” (p. 236). In spite of the many challenges presented to researchers who wish to undertake research studies across cultures, much useful work has been done, and the future holds promise of further progress.


Psychologists, particularly those prepared to think and work globally, can be valuable members of interdisciplinary and international teams working to better understand and address important aspects of life that transcend national boundaries. From eating breakfast to putting a man on the moon, virtually every facet of our lives now and in the future is related to human behavior.

The 16 divisions of the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP) provide an illustration of the breadth of international psychology and its many applications.

  1. Work and Organizational Psychology
  2. Psychological Assessment and Evaluation
  3. Psychology and National Development
  4. Environmental Psychology
  5. Educational, Instructional and School Psychology
  6. Clinical and Community Psychology
  7. Applied Gerontology
  8. Health Psychology
  9. Economic Psychology
  10. Psychology and Law
  11. Political Psychology
  12. Sport Psychology
  13. Traffic and Transportation Psychology
  14. Applied Cognitive Psychology
  15. Students
  16. Counseling Psychology

Although the above list is not inclusive, it provides a good representation of the areas of application of international psychology. International health psychology is growing rapidly and provides a good illustration.

Although domestic health policies are limited by national borders, many health issues ignore these boundaries. The problems of obesity, sedentary lifestyle, smoking, substance abuse, and others are common to many countries and can better be addressed as international issues than as strictly domestic problems. A growing number of international psychologists are using an international perspective to address issues of health (Aboud, 1998; Davis, 1999; Desjarlais, Eisenberg, Good, & Kleinman, 1995; Gurung, 2006; Jansen & Weinman, 1991).

The field of international health combines the efforts of individuals, national agencies, and international organizations (Aboud, 1998). Individuals pay taxes, make voluntary donations, and even volunteer themselves, working in sometimes heroic ways (see Bergman, 2003) to resolve problems resulting from natural disasters and human conflict. The international health psychologist typically works as a member of a team. Other team members often include individuals trained in public health, epidemiology, social work, and medicine. Infectious diseases are rarely contained within national borders. In today’s world they spread rapidly because of international tourism, business travel, human migration, and even migration of wild birds and other animals.

International health psychologists also contribute to the development of social and behavioral science measures for health research, family planning and contraceptive use, the behaviors that spread AIDS and HIV, nutrition for child growth and development, health education and promotion, and mental health and illness (Aboud, 1998). They also study cultural differences in approaches to health. For example, they study the roles of stress, human development, and factors surrounding illness, pain, and death, as well as various models of behavior change appropriate to different cultures (Gurung, 2006).

An important aspect of international health that requires further development is the training of health psychologists for work in international arenas. A number of psychologists have addressed this problem (Davis 1999; Desjarlais et al., 1995; Jansen & Weinman, 1991).

Fully as important as international health—and an area not included in the IAAP divisions—is international conflict/terrorism/national security. International understanding and international solutions are appropriate and valuable in the prevention/resolution of international conflict. International terrorism must be addressed at the international level, and psychology has much to contribute. A number of psychologists have addressed the topic of psychology in the service of national security (Banks 2006; Davis, 2004; Mangelsdorff, 2006; Street, 2006).

Recognition of the fact that business and commerce have long been international in scope, the first IAAP division to be established was the Division of Organizational Psychology. Industrial/organizational psychology now plays an increasingly major international role. Tourism is a growing business that is becoming increasingly international. As recognized by the IAAP Division of Environmental Psychology, air and water pollution are common and are among the many environmental issues best addressed on an international basis. Education is expanding internationally also, and each year a growing number of international students enroll in higher education in the United States and in many developed countries. In secondary education the international baccalaureate degree is growing in popularity in the United States as school administrators and communities realize that other countries are outpacing the United States in crucial areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.


Is psychology ultimately a universal science? Are there universal principles or laws of behavior that broadly apply to all humans and to other animals as well? Or is psychology always going to be local or bounded by a particular cultural context? One school of thought that has arisen in several non-Western countries (e.g., India, parts of Latin America) is that indigenous psychologies need to be developed to address the needs and the realities of each local culture. Generally those that advocate for such indigenous psychologies have found Western psychology to be poorly suited to the needs and realities of their local cultures. While these theorists often provide extremely relevant criticisms of the Western approach, they may be limiting their effectiveness by rejecting useful methods of scientific enquiry as well as some of the assumptions that often accompany these methods. Western psychology is often justly criticized for presenting its findings as if they are culture-free and can generalize universally. Research in a number of areas including social psychology, cognitive psychology, sensation and perception, and developmental psychology have shown reliable differences in fundamental findings when studies are conducted in other cultures. The advancement of international psychology promotes greater recognition of the relevance of psychology to both national and international endeavors and may ultimately contribute to the unification of psychology as a global discipline.


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