Cognitive biases in different cultures

twarze osób z różnych kultur
twarze osób z różnych kultur

Published: 14-06-2020

Last modified: 17-09-2021

Correspondence bias, self-serving bias… probably all psychology students have heard these concepts. I learned a lot about it myself, I also wrote about these and other biases in my ebook “Wszyscy jesteśmy nieracjonalni” (We are all irrational). Few people however mention intercultural diversity.Phenomena occurring in American culture, where most psychology research comes from, do not always occur in other cultures.

Self-serving bias and intercultural psychology

Self-serving bias is a tendency to attributing one’s successes to internal factors (own characteristics) and failures to external factors. An example of a situation in which this phenomenon may appear is the result of an exam at school. If a student receives a good grade, he/she will say that it is due to his/her hard work, skills or intelligence. The same student, if he/she gets a bad grade, will say that the exam was difficult, he/she felt bad or the teacher can’t explain. A lot of research conducted in the USA has confirmed the occurrence of this phenomenon, it is described in every textbook of social psychology and lectured in college as something that simply exists. Only recently have I read that it is not so common except for Western culture.

For example, a study conducted among Chinese from Hong Kong (Hau, Salili, 1991) showed that both failure and success at last week’s exam were mainly explained by internal factors (effort, interest in learning and skills). In another study (Mizokawa, Ryckman, 1990), American students of Chinese and Vietnamese origin explained successes and failures with ability (or lack of ability). Comparison of students from the USA and from various Asian countries (Yan, Geier, 1994) showed that students from the USA saw the reasons for good grades in effort rather than bad grades in the lack of effort. On the other hand, Asian students explained good grades by effort as often as bad grades by lack of effort. It has also been shown that Japanese more often than Americans look for reasons for failure in themselves and reasons for success in external factors (Kashima, Triandis, 1986). There are also studies indicating that self-serving bias does not exist in students from Nepal (Watkins, Regmi, 1989) and in students from Finland it is less common than in students from the USA (Nurmi, 1991).

Correspondence bias and intercultural psychology

Fundamental attribution error (correspondence bias) is the tendency to explain the behavior of other people with internal factors (their characteristics) and at the same time underestimating the impact on their behavior of external factors (the situation in which they find themselves). Many studies indicate that this error is is absent or less severe among Asians than among Americans.

For example, Korean law students have been shown to explain criminals’ deeds by situation more often than American students (Na, Loftus, 1998). Similar results were obtained from an analysis of newspaper articles by Morris and Peng (1994). They analyzed the content of articles from the American and Chinese newspapers about two mass murders. One of them was committed by an American and the other by a Chinese. Regardless of the nationality of the murderer, the American newspaper focused mainly on the characteristics of the murderer (“martial arts enthusiast”, “mentally unstable”, “impetuous character”). However, the Chinese newspaper mainly referred to the situation of the murderer (“just got fired from work”, “was influenced by a recent mass murder in Texas”, “was rejected by the local community”). Researchers also provided both murders to Chinese and American students and asked them to assess the importance of various factors in these events. Here too, the Americans assigned more importance to the characteristics of murderers, while the Chinese – to situational factors.

Studies (Norenzayan, Choi, Nisbett, 2003) in which Korean and American students were directly asked whether they agree with various statements given by researchers have shown that Korean students more than American students agree with the statement that human behavior is more influenced by circumstances than their personality. More than Americans, they also agreed with the statement that both personality and circumstances influence behavior.

Illusory superiority and intercultural psychology

Illusory superiority, called also above-average effect or superiority bias is a tendency to judge your own characteristics as more positive than in reality. This applies to many different qualities, e.g. intelligence, attractiveness, leadership skills, kindness, sense of humor… Most Americans think their positive characteristics are above average. This is probably the most visible in the case of the ability to communicate with people. In the Myers’s study (1987), nobody admitted that their skills to establish and maintain good relationships with others are below average, and almost 2/3 said they were in the upper 10% of the population. In another study (Alicke, Govorun, 2005), 1/4 of students admitted to being among the 1% most capable in this respect.

Research among Japanese students gave completely different results (Markus, Kitayama, 1991). When asked to evaluate their various traits and abilities, they estimated that about 50% students were better than they in this respect, so the above-average effect did not occur.

Hindsight bias and intercultural psychology

Hindsight bias is the belief that an event that has already happened was foreseeable. It is also known as the knew-it-all-along phenomenon. In contrast to self-serving bias, correspondence bias and the illusory superiority, which are more visible in Western than Eastern culture, research indicates that the hindsight bias is more pronounced in Asians.

Research on this topic was carried out by Choi and Nisbett (2000). The participants of their study were Americans and Koreans. They divided them into 3 groups. All participants in the study heard the story of a seminary student who was a very kind and religious man. One day the described student was in a hurry to preach and on the way he came across a lying man who was asking for help. The first group was asked to assess their likelihood that the student would help without telling how he actually behaved. The second group was told that the student had given help and asked how they would assess the likelihood of help if they did not know how he actually behaved, and the third group was told that he did not help and were also asked how they would assess the likelihood if they had not been told how he behaved. In the first and second groups there were no differences between Koreans and Americans. In both groups, participants of both nationalities rated the probability of help at around 80%. However, the differences were visible in the third group. The Americans said that if they did not know what the seminar student really did, they would assess the likelihood of help at 80%, so just as high as the group who was not told how he behaved. So hindsight bias did not occur. They also admitted that they were surprised that he did not actually help. Koreans from the third group, however, assessed that if they did not know that he did not help, they would assess the probability that he will help to 50%, so the hindsight bias occured. They also claimed that they were not surprised that he did not help.

It is possible that greater intensification of the hindsight bias in Asians is the result of their ability to look at the situation, not just human traits. Americans who had previously heard that the student described was kind and religious were surprised when they learned that such a person did not help and admitted that they did not expect such behavior. On the other hand, the Koreans probably acknowledged in this situation that it is not surprising that he did not help because he was in a hurry.

When reading the results of research in psychology, it is worth paying attention to which group they were carried out and be aware that not always what is true in American culture looks the same in other cultures.


  1. Kultura, ja, osobowość in: Matsumoto, D., Juang, L. Psychologia międzykulturowa, Gdańskie Wydawnictwo Psychologiczne, 2007.
  2. “Podłe nasienie” czy “to wszystko przez jego kolegów” in: Nisbett, R. Geografia myślenia. Dlaczego ludzie wschodu i zachodu myślą inaczej, Smak Słowa, 2009.
  3. Nurmi, J. (1991). Cross-Cultural Differences in Self-Serving Bias: Responses to the Attributional Style Questionnaire by American and Finnish Students, The Journal of Social Psychology, 132(1), 69-76.
  4. Watkins, D., Regmi, M. (1989). Self-Serving Bias: A Nepalese Investigation, The Journal of Social Psychology, 130(4), 555-556.

Author: Maja Kochanowska

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