Cultural Values

Culture is a pattern of responding to basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, family organization, religion, government, and social structures. Culture can be further described as discrete behaviors, traditions, habits, or customs that are shared and can be observed, as well as the sum total of ideas, beliefs, customs, knowledge, material artifacts, and values that are handed down from one generation to the next in a society. Cultural artifacts are the objects or products designed and used by people to meet reoccurring needs or to solve problems. Institutions are structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of two or more individuals. Cultural norms are rules that are socially enforced. Social sanctioning is what distinguishes norms from values.

Values are core beliefs and practices from which people operate. Each culture possesses its own particular values, traditions, and ideals. Integrity in the application of a “value” over time ensures its continuity, and this continuity separates a value from simple beliefs, opinions, and ideals. Cultural groups may endorse shared values. However, a given individual within that culture may vary in agreement with the group cultural values.

Role of Cultural Values

Cultural universalism asserts that all human beings create culture in response to survival needs. Only humans rely on culture rather than instinct to ensure survival of their kind. What seems unique to humanity is the capacity to create culture. Cultural relativism informs us that each culture possesses its own particular traditions, values, and ideals. Judgments of what is right or wrong, good or bad, acceptable or taboo are based on particular cultural values. Values underlie preferences, guide choices, and indicate what is worthwhile in life. Values help define the character of a culture, but they usually do not provide a specific course of action. Values generally prescribe what one “should” do but not how to do it. Because values offer viewpoints about ideals, goals, and behaviors, they serve as standards for social life. All groups, regardless of size, have their own values, norms, and sanctions.

Although it may seem obvious that values are rooted in the culture from which they originate, this has not always been the way values have been operationalized.

For many years in the United States, the fundamental values of White European American males were often accepted as universal rather than culturally specific. Deviations from mainstream values were labeled as abnormal and inferior rather than merely different. Psychologist Gilbert Wrenn challenged the notion that White European American culture was universal by writing about the “culturally encapsulated counselor,” and the multicultural counseling movement has expanded the notion of culturally bound values.

Formation of Cultural Values

Cultural values are formed through environmental adaptations, historical factors, social and economic evolution, and contact with other groups. Individuals develop cultural perceptual patterns that determine which stimuli reach their awareness. These cultural perceptual patterns also determine judgments of people, objects, and events. When the individual or society prioritizes a set of values (usually of the ethical or doctrinal categories), a value system is formed.

Values dictate what is important. They serve as a guide for the ideals and behavior of members of a culture. As guided by its values, culture can be seen as a dynamic system of symbols and meanings that involves an ongoing, dialectic process where past experience influences meanings, which in turn affects future experience, which in turn affects subsequent meaning. Cultural values provide patterns of living and prescribe rules and models for attitude and conduct.

For example, several culture-specific values have been identified for specific groups. It should be noted, however, that there is considerable within-group variability in what is valued. In traditional Hispanic and Latino/a cultures, the following have been identified as shared cultural values among many of its members: an emphasis on family unity, welfare and honor (familismo), a preference for close personal relationships (personalismo), and respect (respeto) for elders and authority figures.

Traditional African American values have been identified as including the following: an emphasis on collectivism, kinship, the importance of extended families, the centrality of spirituality, and holistic thinking. Commonly among African Americans, both the nuclear family (parents and children) and the extended family (relatives, friends) are important. The concept of familismo among African Americans generally includes both biological and nonbiological members.

Another shared cultural value of African American families is that of role flexibility. The head of the household may not necessarily be the father, as many African American homes are headed by the mother or grandparents.

Traditional “American” values (derived from a White European male perspective) include individualism, competition, accumulation of material possessions, nuclear families, the separation of religion from other aspects of culture, and mastery over nature. It is important to recognize that these values may not be internalized equally among all European Americans; thus, a great deal of variability exists in the adoption and expression of traditional “American” values.

Cultural values guide interactions, and these values can come into conflict with the values of a dominant cultural group and can lead to acculturative stress. Cultures are not confined to racial or ethnic groups. Cultural values can be found in diverse groups by gender, sexual identity, class, country of origin, disability, or a variety of variables. Therefore, an individual can belong to a host of cultures simultaneously, and the issue of navigating cultures with incompatible value systems (e.g., religion and sexual identity) may lead to a fragmented sense of identity or self-hatred.

Categories of Cultural Values

Some researchers suggest that cultural values can be divided into six main categories: (1) ethics (notions of right and wrong, good and evil, and responsibility); (2) aesthetics (notions of beauty and attractiveness); (3) doctrinal (political, ideological, religious, or social beliefs and values); (4) innate/inborn (values such as reproduction and survival; this is a controversial category); (5) non-use/passive (includes the value based on something never used or seen, or something left for the next generation); and (6) potential (the value of something that is known to be only potentially valuable, such as a plant that might be found to have medicinal value in the future).

In multicultural societies, cultures may come into conflict. Parochialism occurs when members of a given culture believe their way is the “only” way. They do not recognize other ways of living, working, or doing things as being valid. Equifinality has been suggested as a more appropriate assumption to make in a multicultural world. This assumption asserts that the way of any given culture is not the only way.

Instead, there are many culturally distinct ways of reaching the same goal or living one’s life. Another conflict may involve ethnocentrism. This occurs when members of a culture recognize the existence of other cultures and yet believe their way is the “best” way and all other cultural valuations are inferior. The notion of cultural contingency may be a more appropriate response in a multicultural world; that is, cultural values are seen as choices that are equally valid for the individuals involved.

Role of Psychologists

Psychologists are charged with dealing with cultural values in several ways. First, they are compelled to understand their own cultural values and how these values affect their work and worldview. Therefore, psychologists should be aware of their own cultural values, and in cases where their cultural values may lead to harm with culturally different clients, psychologists must refer these clients to culturally competent practitioners. In addition, psychologists should actively learn about the cultural values of their clients and, where possible, work with these cultural values as strengths rather than as liabilities or pathological beliefs. For example, psychologists might involve cultural spiritual leaders in the treatment of culturally different clients. The notion of cultural competence extends to all other professional arenas of psychologists, including education, teaching, research, and consultation.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2003). Guidelines on multicultural education, training, research, practice and organizational change for psychologists. American Psychologist, 58, 377—1-02.
  2. Paniagua, F. A. (2005). Assessing and treating culturally diverse clients: A practical guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  3. Pedersen, P. B., Draguns, J. G., Lonner, W. J., & Trimble, J. E. (Eds.). (2002). Counseling across cultures (5th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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