For self (Markus & Kitayama, 1991), and analytic

many decades, cross-cultural differences in behaviour have been attributed to variations
in internalized individual-level characteristics (e.g. values, beliefs,
processing styles) held by members from different cultures (Chiu, Gelfand,
Yamagishi, Shteynberg, & Wan, 2010; Wan & Chiu, 2009). Prominent
examples of such variations include the dimensions of individualism versus
collectivism (Triandis, 1989), independent versus interdependent construals of
self (Markus & Kitayama, 1991), and analytic versus holistic processing
styles (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001). However, an emerging line
of research highlights the role of perceived norms, or the norms which
individuals in a culture assume other members within the same culture subscribe
to, in explaining behavioural differences both within and across cultures; this
paradigm is referred to as the intersubjective representation approach (Wan
& Chiu, 2009; Wan, 2012). The current paper attempts to provide a
theoretical background of the intersubjective representation approach, and to
highlight studies that have been conducted in recent years to support its
validity and utility in cultural research. Implications of employing this
approach, as well as suggestions for future research, will thereafter be outlined.


            Extant research in cross-cultural
psychology has been devoted to the study of behavioural differences across
members from various cultures. Although culture holds many definitions, the
general consensus among theorists is that it constitutes shared elements (e.g.
values, beliefs, behaviours, norms) which serve as benchmarks for “perceiving,
believing, evaluating, communicating, and acting among those who share a
language, a historic period, and a geographic location” (Triandis, 1996, p.
408). Thus, the sharedness of culture remains a distinctive facet through which
individuals seek to successfully function alongside others; yet, there are
arguably few elements which are entirely shared among members of a culture (Wan
& Chiu, 2011). For instance, no two individuals hold identical value
systems, and values endorsed by a majority of members within a culture may thus
be classified as the most important values of that culture (Wan & Chiu, 2011).

            Examining behaviour in terms of
internalized individual-level characteristics such as values has remained the
dominant practice in cross-cultural psychology for decades (Chiu et al., 2010; Gelfand,
Nishii, Raver, 2006; Yamagishi, Hashimoto, Schug, 2008). To illustrate, much
research in this domain has attributed culturally divergent views of oneself to
the extent by which individuals perceive themselves as independent, or
interdependent. An independent construal of self is characterized by an emphasis
on individual achievements, unique attributes, and autonomy; conversely, an
interdependent construal of self emphasizes interpersonal connectedness and
cohesion, where the self is embedded within the context of a larger social unit
(Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Sampson, 1988). Other notable examples include
the attribution of behavioural differences to the individualism-collectivism
dimension (Triandis, 1989), as well as the possession of either analytic or
holistic thinking (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001).

            Despite the pervasiveness of the
existing approach and the wealth of findings generated in support of it, researchers
have proposed several alternative paradigms to understanding culture-specific
behaviour. These include the institutional approach (Yamagishi et al., 2008),
which posits that such behaviour may arise not merely as a function of
internalized characteristics but also through strategies developed by the
individual to attain social incentives, as well as tightness-looseness theory
(Gelfand et al., 2006), which is based on the strength of social norms and the
extent of sanctioning within cultures. Of interest to this review is the
intersubjective representation approach (Chiu et al., 2010; Wan & Chiu,
2009; Wan, 2012), an emerging but previously overlooked aspect of culture.

            The intersubjective representation
approach was developed with the aim of complementing current perspectives in
cultural research (Chiu et al., 2010). Proponents of this approach argue that
due to the predominant focus on one’s internalized characteristics
(particularly values) to explain cultural variations in behaviour, little
attention has been devoted to what individuals may perceive when looking
outward into their social environments (Zou et al., 2009). Rather than
interpreting cultural behaviours as symptoms of internal traits, cultural
behaviours are thought to be goal-directed and arising from an understanding of
the limitations and affordances in an individual’s environment (Chiu et al., 2010).
To this end, the intersubjective representation approach emphasizes how cultural
knowledge is shared and understood by its members (Keesing, 1974); consequently,
individuals rely on these shared representations of culture to effectively navigate
their surroundings and attain goals such as successful communication with other
members of the culture, and forging a desired cultural identity (Chiu et al.,
2012; Wan, 2012).

            The intersubjective representation
approach is grounded on three premises (Chiu et al., 2010). First,
individual-level characteristics (values, beliefs, etc.) in a culture may not
always correspond to what individuals perceive other members in the culture to
endorse. The aggregated values, beliefs, preferences, and behaviours within a
group are termed statistical (actual) norms, and serve to mirror objective
reality (Wan & Chiu, 2009). In other words, statistical norms are an
indication of what members in a culture are actually like, rather than what
they think the culture is like (Wan et al., 2007). For example, ideals of
freedom and patriotism may be considered statistical norms within the United
States, while values of filial piety and industriousness may be considered
likewise in China. Conversely, widely shared assumptions among members of a
culture regarding the values, beliefs, preferences, and behaviours endorsed by
most members within that culture are termed intersubjective (perceived) norms
(Wan & Chiu, 2009).

            An intersubjective reality is
created when there is a general consensus within a culture that certain values
and beliefs are commonly shared (Zou et al., 2009), and such representations
may differ from objective reality. The referent group thus shifts from a
self-report of one’s internalized characteristics (e.g. rating how important
certain values are to “your” life) to reporting how one believes others in the
same culture might feel or think (e.g. rating how important the same values are
to “an average student at the university”) (Fischer, 2006; Wan et al., 2007). To
illustrate, Hirai (2000) found that despite how some Japanese privately
endorsed individualistic rather than collectivistic values, they instead
assumed that other Japanese individuals endorsed collectivistic values. Research
has also demonstrated how correlations between personally held values and the
perceived importance of those values to other cultural members range from negative
(House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman, & Gupta, 2003) and small (Shteynberg,
Gelfand, & Kim, 2009), to moderate (Wan et al., 2007). These imperfect
overlaps indicate that intersubjective norms are distinct from statistical
norms, and both may independently contribute to observed differences in
cultural behaviour (Wan et al., 2007). Thus, there is consistent evidence for the
dissociation between individual values or behaviours in a culture (objective
reality), and intersubjective representations of these characteristics, i.e.
what is perceived to be “typical” in that culture (Hashimoto & Yamagishi,
2009; Shteynberg et al., 2009; Terracciano et al., 2005; Wan, 2012; Zou et al.,

            Second, individuals occasionally
behave in accordance with the intersubjective norms in their culture, which may
contradict their personally held values and beliefs. This can occur regardless
of whether an individual has actually internalized those intersubjective norms
(Wan, 2012). A frequently cited instance of this is a study on pluralistic
ignorance by Prentice and Miller (1993), where male college students were found
to privately oppose binge drinking practices on campus; nevertheless, they
perceived binge drinking endorsements to be much higher among the average
student, and even participated in the practice for fear of social rejection. In
another study by Fischer (2006), individuals were found to rely on their
personal values and preferences when deciding whether to engage in voluntary
behaviours that had no strong norms attached to them (e.g. trying
environmentally-friendly products, taking time to understand other people’s
world views). However, conservation behaviours which were tied to strong norms
of conformity and fitting into society (e.g. avoiding arguments or spending
more money than one can afford) were found to be governed by culture-referenced
ratings, or intersubjectively referenced norms. These findings not only
highlight the discrepancy between actual versus perceived reality; more
importantly, they raise the possibility that intersubjective norms may in fact influence
behaviour more strongly statistical norms. Indeed, proponents of the
intersubjective representation approach argue that individuals may behave in
accordance with the intersubjective reality even more than they act on their
personal values and beliefs (Chiu et al., 2010; Wan et al., 2007), some
evidence for which will be discussed subsequently.

            Third, individuals constantly engage
their social ecology in a dynamic, iterative process of co-construction (Wan
& Chiu, 2011; Wan, 2012). Rather than being passive recipients of environmental
influences, individuals continually access their environment to create and
negotiate the cultural code (Chiu et al., 2010). This requires them to not only
consider their internal preferences, but to also adopt the perspective of the
“generalized other” to ensure effective information exchange and discourse (Mead,
1934; Wan, 2012). Consequently, not all individuals in the culture share an
identical understanding of their culture’s theories (Keesing, 1974). There is thus
a bi-directional relationship between how culture influences individual
perceptions, and how individuals in turn create the intersubjective reality
through social interactions with other members in the culture. It follows,
then, that the intersubjective reality is not necessarily a static entity (Wan,
2012). As cultural behaviour is subject to circumstantial factors, individuals
adapt to these contingencies and actively reinforce their intersubjective
perceptions due to updated interactions with others in their environment (Chiu
et al., 2010). Information that is most congruent with currently shared
representations of the culture is likely to be retained and transmitted (Lyons
& Kashima, 2003), while information that is less relevant gets dropped. This
process often occurs unconsciously, and thus the intersubjective reality is
prone to subsequent changes as members interact within an evolving cultural
context (Chiu et al., 2010; Wan, 2012).

            Extant research on intersubjective
representations has primarily focused on exhibiting its incremental value in
explaining culture-specific behaviours and cognition, compared to the
conventional approach of examining individual-level characteristics (Wan, 2012).
Notably, intersubjective representations have been shown to influence implicit
cognitions, explicit judgments, as well as other forms of behaviour. This paper
focuses on the first two aspects, as much research to date has investigated the
utility of intersubjective representations in these regards.

            Intersubjective representations have
consistently been found to predict explicit judgments. To illustrate, a study
among Poles and Americans found that while perceptions of cultural consensus
were expectedly more collectivistic for Poles than Americans (Zou et al., 2009,
Study 1) perceived consensual collectivism, rather than individually held
values, mediated the association between culture on compliance judgments, an
interpersonal process. Similar findings were obtained with intrapersonal
processes, with perceived consensual dispositionism partially mediating Chinese
and American participants’ tendencies to make internal attributions above even
after controlling for any influence of personal beliefs (Study 2), and
perceived consensual regulatory focus mediating Chinese and American
participants’ counterfactual thoughts (Study 3). Across all three instances,
intersubjective representations successfully accounted for cultural differences
in both interpersonal and intrapersonal behaviours, whereas personal
endorsements did not. This highlights the incremental utility of
intersubjective representations in explaining behaviours traditionally
attributed to internalized values and beliefs.

            Research examining other forms of
explicit behaviours corroborates the findings from Zou et al. (2009). In the
area of parenting and socialization, studies by Tam and colleagues found that
Chinese, American and Singaporean parents selected not only personal values,
but values they perceived as normatively important to the culture, to socialize
their children with (Chan & Tam, 2016; Tam & Chan, 2015; Tam & Lee,
2010; Tam, Lee, Kim, Li, and Chao, 2012). This was moderated by factors such as
need for closure, the extent of identification with parents’ ethnic group, as
well as whether the parents were immigrants residing within a host culture.
Notably, values intersubjectively perceived to be important in the
socialization process were found to be occasionally internalized in the
children as personal values, and influenced their cultural identification (Chan
& Tam, 2016; Tam et al., 2012). In studying cross-cultural differences in
personality, Heine, Buchtel, and Norenzayan (2008) showed how intersubjective
norms (perceptions of national character) significantly correlated with
numerous cross-national indicators of conscientiousness (e.g. postal workers’
speed, clock accuracy, walking speed). In contrast, aggregated self-reports and
peer reports were not found to be associated with these indicators. Evidence
for the role of intersubjective norms in influencing explicit behaviours has
also surfaced in cross-cultural investigations of intergroup relations (Guan et
al., 2009), career decision-making traits (Guan et al., 2015), social
comparisons (Tam et al., 2012), as well as blame attribution and harm
perception (Shteynberg et al., 2009).

            In addition to explicit judgments,
intersubjective perceptions have been found to influence implicit cognitions in
areas such as political behaviour. For example, research by Kwan, Chiu, and Leung
(2014) explored the psychological mechanisms by which former American President
George Bush remained a prominent cultural symbol, potentially due to associations
with intersubjectively important American values. Findings indicated that
American undergraduates perceived hierarchy and affective autonomy to be the
primary values within their country. Additionally, although participants
reported greater liking towards then President Obama than Bush, they a)
reported a stronger association between Bush and the intersubjectively
perceived primary values, compared to between Obama and these values, and b)
predicted that other Americans who endorsed those perceived values would prefer
Bush. The same primary values were also intersubjectively perceived to be
related to iconic local brands, such as Starbucks and Apple. In line with this,
the researchers found that priming participants with Bush (versus Obama)
increased their liking for those brands, and this was mediated by their common associations
with the intersubjectively essential American values (Kwan et al., 2010).

            Similar supporting evidence for the
instrumental role of intersubjective perceptions in implicit cognition is seen
in Wan, Tam, and Chiu (2010). The authors hypothesized that stronger agreement
between American voters’ personal political beliefs and beliefs perceived as
important to the voters’ political party (Republican or Democrat) would predict
voting in favour of that party, and that this association would be mediated by
party identification. Explicit indicators of political preferences (e.g.
attractiveness of major presidential candidates John Kerry and George Bush)
were obtained from prospective voters shortly before the 2004 US General
Election (Study 2a), and participants also indicated who they had voted for
after the election. Findings supported the mediation hypothesis, and in a
follow-up study (Study 2b), the voters completed an Implicit Association Task
(IAT) to measure their attitudes towards Bush, compared to Kerry. The
researchers not only managed to replicate the mediation effect from Study 2a;
more importantly, alignment with intersubjectively important beliefs in the
voters’ party successfully predicted more positive attitudes towards the
party’s respective candidate, as well as voting in favour of that candidate.
Conversely, alignment with popular personal political beliefs in the voters’
party was not found to predict those outcomes. Collectively, the abovementioned
studies not only demonstrate the incremental contribution of intersubjective
representations in governing explicit and implicit measures of behaviour and
thought, but reinforce how intersubjective perceptions may occasionally supersede
personal beliefs when engaging in such processes as well.

few implications are worth noting when considering the intersubjective
representation approach. Chiu and Chao (2009) argue that due to cultural
variations in behaviours being solely attributed to internalized values and
beliefs, researchers risk oversimplifying culture as aggregated indicators of
individual-level characteristics. Similarly, Yamagishi et al. (2008) contend
that “culture-specific behaviour does not occur in a social vacuum” (p. 579),
and highlight the need to consider individuals’ expectations of how others in
their social environments would behave. The intersubjective approach takes a
person-situation perspective in asserting how cultural behaviours are strategic
and adaptive; rather than exhibiting fixed symptoms of internalized
characteristics, individuals are active participants in the process of cultural
construction, and tailor their behaviours according to changing circumstances
to attain valued goals, such as successful information exchange and cultural
identification (Chiu et al., 2010). Thus, the intersubjective approach
effectively bridges individual-level psychology with collective-level culture
(Wan, 2012), and adds dimensionality to the existing values approach.

representations also offer a new understanding to cultural competence. Keesing
(1974) describes how a culturally competent individual may be someone with an
awareness of his or her culture’s intersubjective reality, even if this
individual does not identify with the culture itself. In other words,
successful cultural navigation may not necessarily arise from a personal
endorsement of core values and beliefs from one’s culture, as conventionally
believed. Research from Mak (2011) reinforces the pivotal role of
intersubjective representations in cultural competence through the implementation
of EXCELL, a skills-based learning program for international students targeted
at improving social interactions with members in host cultures, while
maintaining the students’ original cultural identity. EXCELL was reviewed
across institutions in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom,
and was found to be effective in improving participants’ social interaction
skills and intercultural self-efficacy (Ho, Holmes, & Cooper, 2004). This
supports the perspective that individuals do not necessarily need to
internalize the core values and beliefs of the culture they are in to develop
cultural competence. Rather, it is possible that

knowledge of the
culture’s intersubjective reality (and subsequently translating that knowledge
into behaviours) contribute more strongly to the acquisition of such

            This paper has presented an overview
of the intersubjective representation approach, an emerging paradigm that seeks
to complement current practices in cultural research. The three premises
underlying the approach were delineated, followed by examples of current
research that demonstrate the utility and validity of intersubjective
representations compared to personal values and beliefs, in understanding
culture-specific behaviours. Despite consistent support for the incremental
value of intersubjective representations, no standardized measure for measuring
such perceptions currently exists (Chiu et al., 2010). In addition, individuals
within the same culture may develop different intersubjective realities due to
different social experiences from factors such as socioeconomic status
(Stephens, Markus, & Townsend, 2007, as cited in Wan, 2012). Future
research could thus work towards the development of a standardized psychometric
test assessing one’s knowledge of intersubjective reality, as well as address
how to potentially mitigate the divergent intersubjective realities that may
arise within a culture, in seeking to arrive at a more informed understanding
of both inter- and intracultural differences.