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A cross-cultural comparison of the role of symbols on human behavior

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A cross-cultural comparison of the role of symbols on human behavior

Man is named as the only being that broadly utilizes symbols as a means of communication. In fact, White states that, “…All human behavior originates in the use of symbols.” According to her, the symbol played an immense role in the transformation of our ape-like ancestors into the current human form. She further asserts that all forms of civilization can be credited to the use of symbols. The existence of symbols did not only lead to the rise of culture, but has continually enabled its perpetuation. Speech has been named to be the most crucial component of symbolic expression without which there would be no forms of social organization. Human behavior is not only dependent upon symbols, but is equated to symbolic behavior as well.

As a result of the key role played by symbols to humanity, it has become a popular area of research in various disciples such as Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Communication among others. In particular, anthropology focuses on what certain symbols mean to people from various cultural backgrounds. Other culture-symbol related studies always attempt to uncover the impacts culturally held beliefs have on various symbols. Morrison notes that a more recent wave of research work is placing emphasis on what impacts symbols have on cognitive processes of different people. Findings of several studies indicate that the use of symbols is deeply rooted in man’s sub-conscious that they can’t tell that they are using them. In light of the above, this paper seeks to compare how symbols are used among different cultures.

There is a variety of contentious definitions that have been given by various people in their bid to explain what symbols are. The word has its origin from a Greek verb and nou which mean “to throw together” and to “tally” respectively. White is of the opinion that the meaning of a symbol can neither be obtained nor determined from its physical characteristics.  Instead, she declares that such meanings and determinations come from the people through physical encounter with them. For this reason, she says that a symbol must exist in a physical form or else people would not experience them. However, she is keen to note that the meaning of symbols do not emanate from mere physical encounters of people but most importantly by a “… non-sensory, symbolic means…”   Bertalanffy attributes three characteristics to symbols. He defines symbols as signs which are both freely formed and representative.  In this case, the term free has been used to mean that the symbols are not as a result of reflexes or any conditioned behavior. Cassier defines a symbol as an outcome of both language and the cultural classification of concepts. Luna and Gupta have also attempted to describe what a symbol is and have stated that, “symbols are a broad category of processes and objects that carry a meaning that is unique to a particular group.”

Chu conducted a study among graphic design students to determine their visual comprehension of symbols. The study’s objectives included an investigation as to whether there existed any difference in how these students perceived and interpreted the meaning of symbols. In addition to that, the study intended to find out how much the participants knew not only about their cultural images, but that of other cultures as well. In order to effectively create, design and deliver intended graphic messages, it is crucial that the cultural differences are taken into consideration. Chu points out that it is for reason that studies to find out how much people from different cultures know about other cultures other than their own so that the education system can be tailored to fill any gaps.

A one hundred and twenty population sample consisted of students from United States and Hong Kong took part in Chu’s research. These students attended the University of Minnesota and Hong Kong Polytechnic respectively. In the study, Chu made use of twenty visual symbols from both the countries in equal proportions. Each 10 set country category consisted of 5 business logos and another 5 national symbols. In addition to the above, a survey was carried out among a 90 undergraduate student sample. The American culture symbols were arrived at as a result of a consultation process with the advisory committee and they were aimed at identifying the top most symbols that people believe are representative of the American culture. The national images for Hong Kong on the other hand were advised by a committee well versed with the culture of Hong Kong. Through content analysis of the highest circulating magazines, the business visual images were arrived at. The magazines were classified as hobbies and entertainment, business, science and technology, general editorial and news.  A booklet and survey questions were then formulated and administered to the participants.

Repeated-measure design analysis was employed to analyze the responses.  The results indicated that there is a distinct difference in how symbols are perceived by people from different cultures. They also indicated that there is a difference between how respondents responded to their cultural symbols and how they reacted towards the cultural symbols of others.  This goes to show that American and Hong Kong graphic design students are different in terms of how they perceive symbols that represent their culture and those that are from another culture.  The results of this study affirmed the hypothesis of the study which was that there exist perceptual differences between the two cultures of visual images.

In their framework, Gupta and Luna give a critical analysis of consumer behavior from a cross-cultural perspective. Peoples’ value systems are influenced by the cultures to which they belong and in this same fashion, the behavior of consumers is influenced. A person’s consumption conduct may be observed by other members of a group and either get imitated or declined. This can then be adopted as the group’s norm and further identified as its culture. Marketers therefore, are faced with a crucial task to translate the symbolic meanings attached certain cultures into the goods and services they are offering. Consumer researchers have primarily focused on language as the prime symbol to be understood so as to meet their targets. Studies have shown that in order to hit the market, advertisements that incorporate the values and beliefs of a particular culture are the key ingredient.

Hence, studies of the language used in advertising, have become increasingly important. According to Dolinsky and Feinberg, the processing of a second language results in overload of information and suboptimal choices as compared to the processing of first language. As stated by Scmitt and Zhang, language forms mental representations that cause lead to different decisions in different cultures. Other investigations have made use of the interpretative research method in their culture-consumer behavior studies. An analysis of the symbolic consumption of clothes between the Turkish and Danish people brings out a clear difference of what they value.

In every sphere of human interaction that involves the making of decisions, trust is a very important component for success to be achieved. The creators of avatars continually struggle to create avatars that foster relationships based on trust (Morrison, 2008). Human interactions on the internet call for trust no matter how parties are digitally represented. Just as cultural symbols may influence the creation of avatars, so can it influence which avatars one feels comfortable using. In other words, the cultural symbols of various people will influence their levels of trust and determine which avatars they would choose to use. Research findings generally indicate that people from the similar backgrounds tend to be more trusting and accepting each other making them more dependable as opposed to those from different backgrounds. This experience in real life translates to the virtual world and influences people’s choices of avatars. It is said that the human-to-human interaction together with all its dynamics are translated into the human-avatar relationship. This translation includes the impacts of prejudices and the visual manifestation which can go a long way in determining whether an individual will find a certain avatar trustworthy or not.

Business students at a state university took part in a study that set out to determine whether the use of archetypal avatars which are generally associated with trustworthiness will develop trust and be related to trusting behavior when used for communication by people via computers. The results of the study showed that indeed, when archetypal avatars which are related to trustworthiness are used lead to the development of trust. Results also showed that the use of archetypal symbols which were related to trustworthiness were associated to trusting behavior.

Allen, Gupta and Monnier conducted a study to investigate whether taste evaluation among people from different cultures is as a resultant combination of cultural symbols and personal values on taste. They state that the cultural activities that people undertake play a big role in transferring meaning to both foods and beverages. Individuals there after evaluate this information based on their own personal values and if what society prescribes and their values have no conflict, they experience a pleasant taste. On the contrary, if the two are not in sync, they will experience bad taste. The results of their study showed that among different cultures, that red meat signified social power. On the other hand, there was a cross-cultural acceptance that vegetables, fruits and grains symbolized power rejection.

In their experiment, they used sausage beef rolls and a vegetarian alternative. The people who rejected power tended to have a more favorable evaluation of the taste, better attitude and even the intention to purchase upon belief that they had consumed a vegetarian roll whether or not what they ate was a sausage or a vegetarian roll. This was a complete opposite of what those who supported social power went through. On the part of beverages, those participants who supported the values that Pepsi incorporated such as life enjoyment, social power and recognition as well as exciting life, had a more favorable evaluation of taste, better attitude and the intention to buy after tasting Pepsi as compared to when they tasted another beverage.

In conclusion, culture plays an important role in formulating the values and belief systems that people become accustomed to throughout the course of their lives. The experiences that people go through play another key role in determining which meanings will be assigned to various concepts depending on their cultural backgrounds. As a result, different cultures have different understandings of what different symbols mean. Even though there are distinct differences in the ways different cultures assign meaning to various symbols, there lie some similarities as well. This has been exemplified soundly in the case of avatar usage in computer-enhanced communications in the present day world. There are certain archetypal symbols which have similar meanings across cultures. In spite of the existent differences, it is important that people take their time to learn about others’ cultures and the meanings they have assigned to various symbols so as to foster greater social cohesion.


Allen, W. M., Gupta, R., & Monnier, A. (2008). The interactive effect of cultural symbols and      human values on taste evaluation. Journal of Consumer Research, 35, 1-15. Retrieved           from http://www.scribd.com/doc/4015305/The-Interactive-Effect-of-Cultural-Symbols  and-Human-Values-on-Taste-Evaluation

Chu, S. (n.d.). Cross-cultural comparison of the perception of symbols. Journal of Visual   Literacy, 55(1), 69-80. Retrieved from            http://www.ohio.edu/visualliteracy/JVL_ISSUE_ARCHIVES/JVL23%281%29/JVL23281%29_pp.69-80.pdf

Luna, D. & Gupta, F. S. (n.d.). An integrative framework for cross-cultural consumer behavior.    International Market Review, 18(1), 45-69. Retrieved from            http://iba8010kelly.alliant.wikispaces.net/file/view/Culture+and+Innovation+            +An+integrative+framework+for+cross-cultural+consumer+behavior.pdf

Morrison, G. R. (2008). An examination of the relationship between culturally recognized symbols as avatars and trust in computer mediated communication environments.    Retrieved from            http://etd.auburn.edu/etd/bitstream/handle/10415/1482/Morrison_Rodger_17.pdf?sequece=1

Morrison, R. (2011). A new method of identifying archetypal symbols and their associated           meanings. European Journal of Social Sciences, 27(1), 57-70. Retrieved from            http://www.academia.edu/3470280/A_New_Method_of_Identifying_Archetypal_Symbols_and_their_Associated_Meanings

White, A. L. (n.d.). Symbol: The basic element of culture. Retrieved from            http://dpferry.com/pdf/White___Symbol_the_basic_element_of_culture.pdf


  1. saloni says:

    Hi.. the link for Morrison’s paper you have uploaded in the references is not working. If you could, please email me the paper on gandhisal@gmail.com.


  2. saloni says:

    Morrison, R. (2011). A new method of identifying archetypal symbols and their associated meanings. European Journal of Social Sciences, 27(1), 57-70. Retrieved from http://www.europeanjournalofsocialsciences.com/ISSUES/EJSS_27_1_08.pdf

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