Culturally Conferred Conceptions of Agency: A Key to Social Perception of Persons, Groups, and Other Actors

By Daniel R. AmesMichael W. MorrisTanya Menon
2000| Working Paper No. 1662

Many tendencies in social perceivers’ judgments about individuals and groups can be integrated in terms of the premise that perceivers rely on implicit theories of agency acquired from cultural traditions. Whereas, American culture primarily conceptualizes agency as a property of individual persons, other cultures conceptualize agency primarily in terms of collectives such as groups or non-human actors such as deities or fate. Cultural conceptions of agency exist in public forms (discourses, texts, and institutions) and private forms (perceiver’s knowledge structures), and more prominent the public representations of a specific conception in a society, the more chronically accessible it will be in perceiver’s minds. We review evidence for these claims by contrasting North American and Chinese cultures. From this integrative model of social perception as mediated by agency conceptions, we draw insights for research on implicit theories and research on culture. What implicit theory research gains is a better grasp on the content, origins, and variation of the knowledge structures central to social perception. What cultural psychology gains is middle-range model of the mechanism underlying cultural influence on dispositional attribution, which yields precise predictions about the domain-specificity and dynamics of cultural differences.