10 Cultural Universals: Beliefs

Imagine you’re in the Amazonian jungle.

You’re with a tour group, camera in hand, thrilled to spot a colorful exotic bird or a dragon in antiquity. You’ve got your finger on your camera’s shutter button as if it were the pulse of culture.

And that’s when you see culture in all its natural glory:

A woman standing, alone, extracting the fruit of nuts from a palm tree, cracking them open with ease.

When she turns, she is shocked to see a tourist group descending upon her. You and the crowd surround her, not asking for permission to take her photograph. Simply click-click-clicking away, capturing culture on camera.

The woman drops the nut on the jungle floor and appears to be having a panic attack. In complete shock, she cannot breathe. She breaks down. She works herself up into such a state that she has to be taken to the hospital.

The episode leaves you and your fellow tourists wondering, “What frightened her so?”

Range of Beliefs

Beliefs are often interconnected with values and rituals, which is why all three are grouped together in the 10 Cultural Universals.

Cultural beliefs range from seemingly trivial superstitions to more significant and impactful convictions.

Let’s take, for instance, the Chinese belief that the number, 4, is bad luck. This superstitious belief is rooted in the language of Mandarin – “4” (, SÌ) sounds like “death” (, sǐ) in Chinese.

This is why you won’t find a 4th floor button on a Chinese elevator. A superstition, seemingly trivial to others, but it does affect building construction throughout China.

More impactful beliefs – such as beliefs about gender roles, healthcare, education, etc. – are much more involved.

For instance, religious faith and belief sometimes holds unexplainable healing powers, which the believers site as miracles. In some cases, the health of patients who are provided a placebo improves with no explanation.

What heals them? Is it belief? The Holy Spirit?

As Eric Vance writes in Unlocking the Healing Power of You:

“Scientists have known about the placebo effect for decades and have used it as a control in drug trials. Now they are seeing placebos as a window into the neurochemical mechanisms that connect the mind with the body, belief with experience.”

Beliefs can also have far-reaching consequences, if ill-informed.

For instance, sometimes cultural beliefs interfere with health-seeking behavior.

According to an article published in the African Journal of Disability:

“In a study on the abuse of disabled children in Ghana, the cultural belief that disabled children were cursed, led to such severe stigmatization that children were often hidden away by their parents, or left at a river to die.”

Cultural beliefs are often innocuous, but they can sometimes be harmful. As they were in the case of the Amazonian woman.

All-Powerful Beliefs

The scenario detailed in the intro actually happened to Michael J. Balick, PhD, Director of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden when he visited Brazil.

In his own words, Dr. Balick explained what had so frightened the woman:

“She was convinced that the people had stolen her spirit. And it was the belief, not the clicking cameras, that caused the physical reaction.”

What we believe at our core is so deep-seated that just such an ambush of our beliefs can make us physically ill.

This is one reason why understanding another’s cultural beliefs will make you more sensitive to how they walk through the world. You can then apply this understanding to alter behaviors that, in another culture, might be considered harmful.