Ryder examines culture’s impact on meaning

Karen Herland

Andrew Ryder’s lab explores the way our cultural background informs how we understand emotions and behaviours.

Andrew Dobrowolskyj

Andrew Ryder’s Culture, Health and Personality Lab examines the ways in which culture shapes the meaning we ascribe to values, emotions or behaviours.

“The idea of Western individualism shapes the worldview of most people raised in North America or Western Europe, but can be interpreted as immature, dangerous, even downright narcissistic by people with a different set of cultural priorities.” Similiarly, your culture may influence whether you welcome someone touching you while you speak, or feel like you’re being hit on.

“For example, some of my previous research in China and Canada demonstrated that the experience of depression carries different meanings in the two cultures,” Ryder said.

Canadians were concerned about the individual cognitive and existential symptoms, like hopelessness. In China, people saw the problem as threatening to social networks and were concerned about how fatigue impaired their ability to work.

Ryder’s background allowed him to explore clinical psychology — the study of abnormal behaviour — and the recently developed field of cultural psychology — the study of how the mind and culture mutually influence each other.

“The two areas don’t describe human behaviour in mutually exclusive ways, [but] they tend to operate in isolation, even ignorance, of each other,” Ryder said in an email interview. “My hope would be to bring my dual training to bear on the ways in which culture shapes psychopathology.”

Currently, Ryder, who just became a licensed clinical psychologist, is juggling his work overseeing a number of different studies within the lab, working on a CIHR grant with Samuel Noh of Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (where he is an affiliated researcher) and dealing with a newborn baby at home.

Ryder’s CIHR research is furthering his doctoral work on the cultural meaning of depression, expanding to Korea and to Asian-Canadian immigrants. “The new study includes both rural and urban sites in each country, and will measure the influences of modernization and westernization on the experience of symptoms.”

Meanwhile, he is working with grad students on a number of studies. For instance, he is overseeing the work of MA thesis student Don Watanabe, who is interested in the process of acculturation of students.

“For example, someone who has a Chinese father, Japanese mother, identifies as Asian-Canadian and has both English and French-Canadian friends. What cultures will be most important for them to identify with?” This research is being conducted primarily with Arab and Chinese students on campus. Recruiting is going on now with the help of the International Students Office and the Concordia Student Union.

Another study tries to look at a Western construct (in this case a tendency towards pessimism) from a cultural point of view. “We’re looking at ways in which depressive personality might actually reflect a covert form of narcissism.” Another study explores sexual openness as a cultural construction.

Psychology students often sign up as participants for these studies as a way to earn extra credit (referred to as participant pool credit). These volunteers provide informed consent and can choose to have their data used or not. Either way, they go through the process of participating to gain greater understanding of the recruitment, preparation, and data collection processes necessary for studies involving human participants.

“This experience gives them a chance to experience and learn about ongoing research first-hand.” For more information: www.chp.concordia.ca/