Culture and Health Psychology: Insights from a Socio-Cultural Perspective

A recent set of studies further underlines the need to test health-related findings in Western groups against those in groups of other cultural backgrounds. Uchida, Kitayama, Mesquita, Reyes, and Morling (2008) explored the relationship between emotional support and well-being and physical health. In their initial study of college students, a positive effect of perceived emotional support on subjective well-being was found to be weak among Euro-Americans; it disappeared when self-esteem was statistically controlled. In contrast, among Japanese and Filipinos, perceived emotional support positively predicted subjective well-being, even after self-esteem was controlled. The authors extended these findings in a second study with an adult sample using different well-being and physical health measures; in this study, perceived emotional support positively predicted well-being and health for Japanese adults, but such effects were virtually absent for American adults. Note that unlike the studies reviewed earlier showing the detrimental effects amongst Asians and Asian Americans of social support seeking (Kim et al., 2008), these studies show the beneficial effects of perceived support (i.e., support that was not necessarily asked for). As these studies illustrate, cultures vary in the impact of perceived emotional support on well-being and physical health.


So far, the evidence suggests that socio-cultural environments play an important role in health and illness-related outcomes. Importantly, research shows that socio-cultural factors can shape psychological constructs such as the factors that determine how people respond to health messages and use their social support networks as well as how illness-related thoughts are shaped and when behaviour is likely to change -- issues commonly tackled by psychological models of health behaviour. It is therefore essential that existing models of health behaviour are tested cross-culturally and modified accordingly. Increasing the understanding of the role of culture in health and illness would also help developing culturally sensitive and effective ways of preventing and curing disease. Despite the growing amount of research on culture and health and the preliminary attempts to collate the vast amount of knowledge accumulated in the hitherto disconnected subfields of cultural and health psychology, more research is certainly required which will help researchers, practitioners, and lay people acquire a better understanding of how the psychological experiences of illness and health are shaped by individuals’ socio-cultural environment.


Adams, G. (2005). The cultural grounding of personal relationship: Enemyship in North American and West African worlds.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 948–968.

Cesario, J., Grant, H., & Higgins, T E. (2004). Regulatory fit and persuasion: Transfer from “Feeling right”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 388-404.

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