The Differences Between Behavior and Culture

The Differences Between Behavior and Culture

David Maxfield

Dear David,
How do you define the difference between behavior and culture? Does behavior drive culture, or does culture drive behavior?

Natural Order of Things

Dear Natural,

The short answer is that behavior determines culture, and culture determines behavior. But it’s more complicated than that, and the complications make it a fascinating topic. First, let’s turn back the clock. I did my doctoral work in psychology back in the 1970s, studying with Albert Bandura at Stanford University. Al looks at culture and behavior through a model he has labeled reciprocal determinism.

He developed this model to respond to the overly simplistic approaches that were popular in the 70s. The first of these approaches imagined that behavior was determined entirely by genes and personality. The second imagined that behavior was determined entirely by the environment.

Bandura recognized that behavior is influenced by both personal and environmental factors, but added that people, through their behavior, also influence themselves and their environment.

As an aside, when Bandura used the term environment, he placed special emphasis on our social environment as well as the physical world. This emphasis brings us back to your question about culture. I see culture as a part of our social environment. I’ll come back to this in a few paragraphs to make some finer distinctions. But for now, I’ll continue with Bandura’s model of reciprocal determinism.

Most importantly, it is a model that posits human agency. For example, suppose we want to exercise more. We can take two steps to exert our agency. First, we need to recognize the influences that are working against us. Bandura suggests we look at personal, social, and environmental influences. In Influencer and Change Anything, my co-authors and I classify these as Personal, Social (the social environment), and Structural (the physical world) influences.

Once we’ve identified the influences that are working against us, Bandura suggests we take action to change ourselves, our social environment, and our physical world so that all three exert positive rather than negative influences on our behavior. This ability to recognize and change the influences around us gives us agency over our behavior.

When we apply this model to culture, we see that we are influenced by our culture, but that we are also able to influence and change that culture. Instead of being a prisoner of our culture, we are both the product and parent of our culture.

Now, back to my earlier aside. I said that culture is an aspect of our social environment. What I really mean is that culture is the implicit part of our social environment. Our social environment includes both explicit and implicit elements. For example, if my boss asks me to work late, that’s a part of my explicit social environment. But, if my organization has an unspoken norm that everyone works late, that’s a part of my implicit social environment—my organization’s culture.

We often characterize this distinction as above the waterline and below the waterline. (As in the part of the iceberg that’s visible and that part that lurks beneath the surface.) Above the waterline are the explicit, acknowledged, and intentional influences of our social environment. Below the waterline are the implicit, unrecognized, and unseen influences. These include the norms, practices, habits, and unwritten rules that form our culture.

The implicit nature of culture makes it difficult to change. Sometimes we don’t even see the cultural influences around us. Other times the cultural rules are undiscussable—taboo to even talk about. Still other times cultural norms come with long histories, and are reinforced by multiple sources of influence. In these cases, it can feel as if culture determines behavior, and not the other way around.

However, we have been involved in many incredibly successful culture change initiatives. The key is to recognize the hidden influences that are supporting the status quo, and to enlist a critical mass of new influences in support of the change. It’s also important to recognize that your culture is a treasure, a source of pride and power. We describe our Influencer process as a precision tool we use to fine-tune a culture without undermining it.

I hope this helps. How do you see the relationship between culture and behavior?

Best Regards,


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