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IACCP Research Heroes: Ype Poortinga

Author: 
Elina Halonen

Continuing our interview series of key figures in the history of IACCP and cross-cultural psychology is Ype H. Poortinga, who is a former president and honorary member of IACCP. He studied psychology at the Free University in Amsterdam, where he obtained his PhD (1971) on research conducted in South Africa. He is emeritus professor of cross-cultural psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, and at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. His most consistent research interest has been in the conditions under which psychological data obtained in different cultural populations can be meaningfully compared.

1. I first got into cross-cultural psychology because...

shortly after obtaining my MSc I had the opportunity to join a team of psychologists trying to map the cognitive abilities of Bushmen or San in the Kalahari Desert, who at the time (1960s) still were living as hunters and gatherers. Coming from a rural and rather conservative background in the Netherlands where differences between “us” and “others” were deemed essential and big, I was fascinated by the strong evidence of similarity in basic cognitive abilities (see a monograph by Reuning and Wortley, 1973 on this).

2. I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career...

 that the playing field between cultural variation and invariance is not even and that cultural differences are considered far more important than psychological invariance, also among cross-cultural psychologists. (This would not have changed my later perspective on culture and behavior, but I would have been warned.)

3. I most admire academically the late Donald Campbell, because...

of the combination of cross-cultural empirical research, methodology and (meta-)theory in his work and his excellence in all three. Famous empirical projects include Campbell, Segall and Herskovits (1966)on susceptibility to visual illusions, and Brewer and Campbell (1976) on intergroup relations. In methodology Campbell has been at the basis of the distinction between experimental and quasi-experimental designs and the limitations on inference of cause in the latter type of research, which includes most cross-cultural research. His evolutionary epistemology has provided challenging ideas about parallels between evolution in biology and epistemology.

4. The best research project I have worked on during my career... 

is usually the latest I was involved in. 

At the moment this is an attempt to identify antecedents of value differences in Europe at the level of regions and individuals within regions. The results suggest that values are established early in the life of individuals. Contrary to popular beliefs, presumed roots of cross-cultural differences in earlier history were largely insignificant (Van Herk & Poortinga, 2012, JCCP).

5. The worst research project I have worked on during my career...

was an attempt to show that there would be no interaction of cultural context with basic personality traits. The study compared an Indian illiterate group and students on “strength of the nervous system” (a Russian concept related to arousability) using measures of EEG and heart rate. The results came pretty close to expectations. However, in retrospect it was somewhat naïve to think that method artifacts could be controlled sufficiently to demonstrate the hypothesized invariance, independent of the question whether or not such invariance does exist.

6. The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research….

was the ability of Bushmen or San to deal with western cognitive tricks (see question 1).

7. The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance…

 …. No idea (I must have made my students or children listen to it).

8. A research project I wish I had done... And why did I not do it…

In the mid 20th century the ethologist Tinbergen argued that analysis of a behavior pattern has to answer four questions (causation, survival value or function, ontogeny, and evolution). Even if in part we need to formulate other questions (e.g., history of a behavior pattern) the idea of addressing multiple questions simultaneously may be a way forward for cross-cultural psychology.

I never did such a project because the principle dawned on me rather late in my professional life, and because delineating a pattern (as meant by Tinbergen) in human behavior is not simple.

9. If I wasn't doing this, I would be...

doing something else that I had not planned, but that came to evolve from seizing some opportunity.

10. The biggest challenge for cross-cultural psychology in the next 10 years is...

to redefine itself. The further accumulation of all kinds of (cross-)cultural differences is in danger of imploding. Studies with weak designs tuned to finding some r ≠ 0.00 or rejecting some 0-hypothesis (that has a much higher prior probability than p < .05) may not be a viable strategy for much longer.

11. My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is...

to complete your PhD, take a deep breath and start pursuing one of your wilder ideas. Your strongest asset is probably what Dan Berlyne has called “epistemic curiosity”

12. I would define cross-cultural psychology as...

the search for external and internal antecedents of differences in behavior between groups (IS definition), or

the search for psychological invariance and how cultural differences emerge as variations on common themes (SHOULD BE definition).

 

Departmental website: http://www.tilburguniversity.edu/webwijs/show/?uid=y.h.poortinga

  

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