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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2020

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2020 | Volume 24 | Number 4

How to Understand and Utilize the Principles of International Psychology

Karen Brown, PhD; Joyce Yip Green, PhD; and Deanza Spaulding, PhD
LINC International

While touring China, American students had an opportunity to visit a university and learn about the psychology practices that were being taught. The Chinese students and faculty members were excited to show the Americans the latest psychotherapeutic advances. As each Chinese student spoke about their experiences and successes they had achieved, the American students began to whisper to one another. One could see the Chinese students begin to falter in their speech and look toward the professor for assistance. Some lowered their heads as if in shame while others spoke more and more softly. Finally, one of the American students asked them to “speak-up.” That request resulted in the professor issuing profuse apologies and ushering the Chinese students out of the room to the dismay of the American students. The American students did not understand that their whispering signaled a disinterest and disrespect to the speakers. The American students were impressed with the successes and were expressing those thoughts among themselves so as not to disrupt the presentation. If the two sets of students had understood some of the cultural norms of the other, this awkward situation could have been avoided.

International psychology (IP) can be defined in many ways; however, its foundations are based on the acknowledgement and respect for intercultural interactions (Stevens & Wedding, 2004). IP promotes social justice, embraces indigenous psychologies, and recognizes the need for participatory action and collaborative efforts. Psychologists who operate as international psychologists have acquired a skillset that allows them to operate with cultural humility. Cultural humility recognizes, appreciates, and understands that each person is a unique individual deserving of acceptance and respect (Hook & Davis, 2017). Additionally, cross-cultural competency understands that cross-cultural engagement requires language and actions that are rooted in one’s cultural history, values, belief systems, and traditions. This also means centralizing the work on meaningful acts and engagement as defined from the perspective of those from within the culture.

To interact with individuals from diverse cultures, effective communication tools are needed to understand and convey meaning. To achieve effective intercultural communication, an international psychologist must use cultural tools which include communication through language, text, and other forms of media (Scollon, Scollon, & Jones, 2011). To understand how communications in all forms can affect national and international relations, one must start with a basic understanding of constructivism. Jean Piaget forwarded the Constructivism Theory, which says that people obtain knowledge and understanding based on their experiences (Wadsworth, 1996). These experiences generate ideas, develop character, and produce behavioral patterns. Constructivism looks at the interactions between experiences and behaviors (Ültanır, 2012). Ultimately, the field has a responsibility of conducting research to gain the understanding that will allow for effective collaborative communications and mutually beneficial interactions.

It is important to bridge the gap between academic discussions about IP and the practical applications of international interactions. It is easy to teach IP principles through on-line or on-ground instructions, but it is another thing to truly embrace the IP mindset in practical application. How will individuals utilize IP when faced with real-world situations that call for cultural understanding, acceptance, respect, and humility? IP, if misunderstood, can harm rather than heal by the actions that one takes, the words that one speaks, or by the thoughts that inform one’s behaviors.

Harmful Actions

Systemic oppression, racism, discrimination, and marginalization permeate societies all around the world. The actions and responses we take when working with marginalized and stigmatized groups can be detrimental, causing damage, or be positive and result in powerful connections. An example of harmful actions include the touring of a home of a marginalized citizen in Shanghai under the pretense of learning about the historical background of Chinese and Jewish interactions during WWII. The underprivileged family had been pressured by financial concerns to allow a group of Westerners to poke through their belongings and traipse around their home for mere pennies. It didn’t matter that the group believed that the house was a museum reflecting the integration of two vastly different cultures, what mattered was that the actions taken violated the foundational tenets of respect for the rights and dignity of others.

The awareness of unethical behaviors toward marginalized groups is one step in the right direction of our work across cultures, but it is not enough. In our interactions with marginalized groups, we can advocate to work collaboratively alongside and with thoughtful consideration of the needs, dignity, and sustainability of the local residents. Being aware of the power dynamics is the first step; we can then take action to reduce the risks of oppression and exploitation that can ultimately lead to community empowerment and restoration.

Respect for Others

Another example of a detrimental action involves the lack of awareness of the impact of traumatic loss. A humanitarian group decides to take Haitian youths on a field trip to purchase supplies soon after an earthquake left 5 million people displaced. The youth were brought on a bus from a shelter that housed other victims of the devastation. Many of the youth had lost their parents in the disaster and had not left the shelter, nor had they seen the desolation that lie outside the shelter. As the bus drove past remnants of the neighborhoods that the children had once lived in, the children broke out in tears, leaving the humanitarian workers ill-equipped as to how to respond to the trauma.

The use of reflective thinking to look at all scenarios is one IP option that could have resulted in forwarding several courses of action from which to choose when discussing field trips for youths in Haiti. Risk assessments that take into account safety as well as retraumatization is another tool that could have been utilized by the well meaning humanitarian group. Also, discussing with the local leaders the potential impact of the trip and the potential effect on the children’s well-being could have also prepared the humanitarian workers to respond with support and empathy. IP seeks to prevent and or mitigate further harm, especially to those who are already suffering.

Harmful Words

Words as simple as the mislabeling of organizations can produce behaviors that ignore past experiences. This was found to be the case in the country of Rwanda, where an appalling 90-day period of country-wide genocide resulted in the slaughter of 800,000 citizens. The loss of so many people to mass exodus, death, and subsequent incarceration resulted in a large population of displaced children. Today, the idea of having orphanages is a distasteful reminder to the people of Rwanda as the population is striving to progress toward a more positive message and outlook. To continue referring to group homes for displaced children as orphanages sends a message that is disrespectful, demeaning, causes division, and ultimately refuses the attempt by Rwandans to move forward.

Being aware of the use of language is critical in our work with diverse cultural groups. It is important to take the time to learn the nuances of the local language as well as the origins of terms according to the group’s political, historical, and social context. As one learns and is instructed concerning the use of various terminologies, one must take every opportunity to acknowledge, respect, and accommodate the language and social preferences of the host culture (Street, 1993).

Harmful Thoughts

Thoughts are the highest form of ignoring the basic tenets of IP as they inform actions, words, behaviors, and prejudices. Aboriginals in Australia have suffered from oppression and marginalization on a scale that can be compared to that of Native Americans in North America. Their struggle for equality mirrors that of African Americans during the tumultuous 1960s. Preconceived notions and antiquated beliefs about the history and culture of Aboriginal Family Kinship Groups have led to mass incarceration of Aboriginal citizens, contributed to higher than average mortality rates, and supported policies that continue to oppress members of the Aboriginal population. For over one hundred years, the Australian government implemented forced assimilation policies, the last ending in 1961. Although officially discontinued, these policies continue to inform behaviors of both the Australian majority and Aboriginal populations alike. Despite being the original inhabitants of Australia, Aboriginals were not considered as citizens until 1967 and were classified as Flora and Fauna until the late 1960s. After being turned out of orphanages and private homes with nowhere to go, Aboriginal women and men were summarily arrested and incarcerated for loitering and often spent 10 to 15 years in overcrowded prisons. The refusal of hospitals to treat Aboriginals in the past still causes many to distrust the medical profession in general and non-Aboriginal providers specifically. Western doctors routinely disregard the knowledge and understanding of indigenous healing practices and reject recommendations from traditional Aboriginal healers. The rate of improvement for Aboriginal life in Australia is slow and is further hampered by the political rhetoric that ignores the historical evidence and allows mainstream Australia to continue the misappropriation and exploitation of Aboriginal culture.

IP encourages the use of research and education as tools to inform and create spaces for collaborative engagements that provide opportunities for personal development and bridge social, religious, racial, and ideological divides. IP also encourages participatory action and advocacy programs that address human rights violations, obstacles faced by marginalized groups, mental health outcomes, and other challenges that occur as a result of the implicit biases that inform negative behaviors and actions.

International Psychology’s Reconstructive Principles and Strategies

To effectively work with diverse cultures and groups, it is important to adopt a contextually informed mindset that takes into consideration not only the behaviors, values, belief systems, traditions, and norms of the people one engages with, but one’s own values, belief systems, and assumptions. To do so requires a lens that sees individuals within the context of their family, neighborhood, cultural group, and social and political environment, as well as the histories and experiences that their people have been exposed to (Fox, Prilleltensky & Austin, 2009). One must understand their own contexts as well as the contexts of others. By adopting the practices of self-reflection and awareness, intercultural communication and collaboration, we can work ethically and effectively across diverse cultures.

Cultural Humility

International psychologists are guided by the Universal Declaration of Ethical Principles (2016) which incorporate respect of all cultural customs, beliefs, and experiences. Additionally, this framework requires international psychologists to view the cultural companion as the expert on their cultural traditions, values, belief systems, and norms. Cultural humility (Hook & Davis, 2017)) for international psychologists has to do with the posture of listening, learning and centering the work on cultural traditions, definitions and perspectives within the culture where one is working. It is common in Western psychological models for psychologists to operate as the expert. International psychologists decentralize the power dynamics by acknowledging that the people within the culture are the experts of tradition, experience, and norms. Advocacy efforts in Australia on behalf of Aboriginals concerning their right to determine their lives in a manner that is consistent with their history, experience, values, and dignity aligns directly with the goals and interests of upholding the statutes of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the foundational tenets of IP.


IP is not considered to be a “hard science” as in other fields of psychology such as clinical and industrial psychologies. It is aspirational, participatory, inclusionary, experiential, and contextual. Unlike most fields of psychology, IP can be easily taught, readily adapted, promptly utilized, and is applicable to a variety of areas, situations, and circumstances both national and international. It is a field of psychology that can be utilized by companies, corporations, organizations, institutions, agencies, and individuals alike. The field and its practitioners are uniquely qualified to advocate, conduct research, engage in international activities, and operate within a contextual environment. The potential applications are endless and should be considered among others when seeking methods of engagement.


Fox, D., Prilleltensky, I., & Austin, S. (2009). Critical psychology: An introduction, 2nd Edition. London, United Kingdom: Sage.

Hook, J. N., & Davis, D. E. (2017). Cultural humility. The International Encyclopedia of Intercultural Communication, 1–5.

Scollon, R., Scollon, S. W., & Jones, R. H. (2011). Intercultural communication: A discourse approach (3rd ed., Language in society, v. 38). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Stevens, M. J., & Wedding, D. (2004). The handbook of international psychology. New York, NY: Routledge.

Street, B. V. (1993). Culture is a verb: Anthropological aspects of language and cultural process. In Language and culture: Papers from the Annual Meeting of the British Association of Applied Linguistics held at Trevelyan College, University of Durham, September 1991 (Vol. 7, p. 23). Multilingual Matters.

Ültanır, E. (2012). An epistemological glance at the constructivist approach: Constructivist learning in Dewey, Piaget, and Montessori. International Journal of Instruction, 5, 195–212.

Wadsworth, B. J. (1996). Piaget's theory of cognitive and affective development: Foundations of constructivism. Longman Publishing.

Karen Brown, PhD, spent 26 years in the U.S. Army as a Combat Medic. She believes and promotes holistic well-being which encompasses mind, body, and spirit. She is the founder of LINC, International, providing collaborative solutions to national and international organizations based upon the foundations and perspectives of international psychology.

Joyce Yip Green, PhD, LMFT, ATR-BC, is an international psychologist, the cofounder of Linc International and Associate Editor of the APA Division 52 International Psychology Bulletin. She is also a professor and dissertation mentor for the International Psychology program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

DeAnza Spaulding, PhD, LMHC, MA, is an international psychologist, the cofounder of LINC International, teaching organizational strategies rooted in International Psychology to address globalization. She is a trauma therapist in Seattle and founded Renew Therapy & Consultation. Dr. Spaulding developed a curriculum called Embodied Healing: A Human Right, Anti-Oppression Approach to Trauma. She teaches students the mind-body-spirit connection to healing and trauma.

Copyright 2020 (Vol. 24, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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