No guarantees

Cultural psychology aims to describe the influence of culture on our ideas and behavior. The assumption is that different cultures foster different tendencies.

We usually contrast people raised in different geographic regions, for example American and Japanese students. We may also contrast people raised in different socio-economic strata, those raised in wealth and in poverty. As the field matures, we add new dimensions to along which to contrast.

One area that researchers have thus far missed: epochal cultural psychology, or the differences between people in different periods of time.

This is trickier than it might first sound. Comparing the behaviors of a twenty-year-old in 2016 and an eighty-year-old in 2016 is not the same as comparing a twenty-year-old in 1956 and a twenty-year-old in 2016. The latter requires quite a bit of foresight.

This also raises a logical challenge in how attached we should be to the results of any given study. Because cultures evolve over time, the patterns of behavior within the populations we’ve studied will change. Over time, we will fail to replicate a larger and larger percentage of important studies.

For now, every cultural psych study should add the footnote, “These are our conclusions today. Actually, our conclusions from a year ago, when we gathered the data. We’re not sure about before then. Things may have changed by the time of this writing. And certainly, no guarantees about the future.”