The term adaptation originally derives from the biological sciences as a phenomenon of person-environment fit. In psychology, adaptation is a process by which individuals or groups make necessary or desired changes—cognitive, behavioral, and affective—in response to new environmental conditions or demands in order to meet basic needs, function, and maintain a good quality of life. Adaptation is integral to the study and practice of multicultural counseling. In a rapidly changing world with increased cross-cultural interactions, people must engage in a continuous process of overcoming internal and external obstacles in order to survive and thrive. Failure to adapt leaves individuals in a prolonged state of culture shock that can create long-term damage to mental and physical well-being.

Important Distinctions

Several distinctions are important for understanding adaptation within the context of multicultural counseling. Although cross-cultural adaptation is similar to adaptation to other major life changes (e.g., loss of a loved one), Linda Anderson speaks to what is unique to cross-cultural adaptation; that is, a person experiencing a new culture is automatically an outsider adapting to the dominant culture. The work of John Berry delineates this acculturation process as a step toward adaptation. In response to the new environment, individuals make changes to “fit” by employing an assimilation or integration strategy or “not fit” by utilizing a separation or marginalization strategy.

Colleen Ward makes an important distinction between psychological adaptation and sociocultural adaptation. Psychological adaptation arises from the stress/coping paradigm and refers to emotional changes that vary over time until equilibrium is reached (e.g., tolerance of ambiguous situations). Sociocultural adaptation comes from the social learning paradigm and refers to cognitive and behavioral changes that follow a more linear progression (e.g., accepting new cultural mores). Although these modes of adaptation are linked theoretically and statistically, they are also distinct processes with different predictor variables.

Andrew Garrison reviews adaptation as a goal of all psychotherapy. He argues that the intrinsic problem of this goal is that it comes from an individualistic point of view, a bias of Western culture. Using the individual as the unit of analysis in the study and practice of psychology neglects the notion of interdependence and adaptation goals that are good for all human beings (e.g., equitable distribution of resources). Furthermore, good mental health is often viewed as the individual adjusting to the environment, a conceptualization that ignores unhealthy aspects of cultures to which individuals are adjusting (e.g., unfair social conditions). Inherent to multicultural counseling is the empowerment of clients not only to adapt in new cultural contexts but also to impact the environment (e.g., managing global warming) such that humanity can adapt as a whole.

Future Directions

The study of cross-cultural adaptation is complex. It is a process that occurs over a long period of time and, thus, calls for longitudinal studies using both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Furthermore, each cross-cultural interaction is unique. Thus, Berry’s work calls for systematic, comparative studies. Finally, research has focused on how individuals adapt to the environment. Consideration of the impact of individuals on the environment as a process of adaptation is called for as well.


  1. Anderson, L. (1994). A new look at an old construct: Cross-cultural adaptation. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 18, 293-328.
  2. Berry, J. W., & Sam, D. (1997). Acculturation and adaptation. In J. W. Berry, M. H. Segall, & C. Kagiticibasi (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology: Vol. 3. Social behavior and applications (pp. 291-326). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  3. Garrison, A. (1997). Adaptationism, mental health, and therapeutic outcome. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 34, 107-114.
  4. Ward, C., Bochner, S., & Furman, A. (2001). The psychology of culture shock (Rev. ed.). Hove, East Sussex, UK: Routledge.

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