The social psychology of globalisation

How would you react seeing Chinese dumplings being served as a pizza topping? Besides the taste factor and visual presentation, this is an example of culture mixing where local and global cultures converge in the same place. This is also an illustration of how globalisation has become an unstoppable and potent force that impacts everyday life and international relations.

In the third Sir John Monash Lecture, Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Li Choh-Ming Professor of Psychology and Dean of Social Science, Professor Chiu Chi-yue addresses nuanced understandings of individuals’ psychological reactions to globalisation in different parts of the world. This includes social psychology, consumer research, organisational behaviour, political psychology and cultural psychology.

His lecture on “The Social Psychology of Globalisation” answers the questions of how people make sense of, and respond to globalisation and its sociocultural ramifications; how people defend their integrity of their heritage cultural identities against the culturally erosive effects of globalisation; and how individuals harness insights from their interactions with global cultures.

“Culture is very complex,” Prof Chiu said. “It consists of different elements; some which are materialistic, symbolic, and sacred – and people can actually recognise these distinct aspects. We found that if a symbol belongs to the material domain, people can tolerate the contamination of that symbol. However, if it is a sacred symbol of the culture, it cannot be changed.”

For example, if the “dumpling pizza” is introduced in a food festival (material), participants of the research were quite all right with that. If it was presented in a cultural festival (symbolic), people were bothered by it, but not as much as if it was introduced in the Qing Ming Festival (sacred), where participants thought was highly unacceptable.

What are the psychological consequences of this kind of experience? Do people tend to embrace cultural diversity in a global environment or do people tend to think globalisation is not for them?

“The experience of culture mixing in globalisation can create some very reactive responses. In our research, we try to distinguish two kinds of psychological responses to cultural mixing. The first kind of response is exclusionary responses, or hot responses, while the second is integrative responses, or cool responses,” Professor Chiu said.

“Exclusionary responses are based on emotional reactions to culture mixing; often times negative emotions based on the human fear of cultural contamination. However, sometimes people may also embrace cultural diversity and see culture as a kind of intellectual resource in which we can hope to create ideas.

“Integrative responses are highly inclusive and innovative. I can see a lot of potential in Monash University Malaysia’s campus for integrated reaction. This campus creates an opportunity for everyone to learn from other cultures and to take other cultures as intellectual resources and combine them to generate new knowledge,” he elaborated.

In his research, Prof Chiu demonstrated that exposure to multiple cultures in a global environment can create creativity. In one case study, showing American students pictures of Chinese culture has no effect on their creative performance. What is necessary to create a creative benefit is to present pictures of American and Chinese cultures at the same time.

“This is important because when you present both cultures at the same time, they start to make comparisons; they start to see there is something in another culture that is not there in their culture. It is then that they start to think if these ideas can be mixed together.

“Even after five to seven days later, we saw the exact same pattern. Imagine the psychological, cognitive and creative benefits this can result in this campus where students are exposed to ideas and people from different cultures in the same classroom,” Prof Chiu enthused.

“If you want to leverage on the multicultural environment to promote intellectual growth, you have to promote deep cultural learning,” he added. Deep learning means that one needs to truly understand the core values of another culture and how their practices are related to those core values.

“We need to be able to truly appreciate why a certain culture has its kinds of practices. This analysis will help students understand the cultural differences and at the same time, see that different practices are embedded in different ways of living,” Prof Chiu said.

At the end of the day, why do people want to preserve the integrity of their culture? And if you go a step further you will be asking, what is culture and why do we need culture?

“One of the reasons why we need culture is because it somehow offers an existential security to an individual. All the major religious traditions in the world have one common goal, and that is to disclose the meaning of existence. Culture offers a solution as sacred ideas in tradition tend to resonate with this human need,” Prof Chiu said.