Fathali M. Moghaddam


Professor, Department of Psychology Director, Conflict Resolution Program, Department of Government


Department of Psychology
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301A White-Gravenor

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An Interview With Fathali M. Moghaddam
March 10, 2002 (This interview was originally conducted in Caracas, Venezuela, and adapted for this website)

Q: How did you become an academic psychologist?
A: I assumed academic psychology would be the best way to tackle some of the questions I had from an early age about human behavior. I was also very interested in economics, but in the end it seemed to me that psychology underlies economics and is more foundational. I did end up writing a book about issues raised by Adam Smith, so I did no completely abandon my earlier interest in macro economic issues (see 1).

Q: In an earlier account of your life written for a book edited by Michael Bond, you talk a lot about your cross-cultural experiences (see 2). How has that shaped your scholarly work?
A: Circumstances have pushed me from one country to another. I was born in Iran and moved to England with my family when I was only eight. I received all my formal education in England, then returned to work in universities in Iran immediately after the collapse of the Shah's regime. My doctorate research in England was in experimental laboratory work, but back in Iran I suddenly found myself in the real world laboratory of a radical revolution. Between 1979 and 1984 I had to take on a variety of jobs outside academia, including journalism and working for the United Nations. This was a period of re-education for me. In 1984 I moved to McGill, Canada, where I collaborated with Wallace Lambert and Don Taylor, and learned a lot of valuable lessons about field research and policy issues in managing cultural diversity (see 3, 4). Since 1990, I have been at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and I have been learning about the multitudes of cultures, at least hundreds of them, that comprise the United States. My scholarly work has been shaped by these various moves in one very important way: experience has taught me that human behavior is enormously elastic and malleable, and that context and culture play a monumental role in shaping behavior. As the Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich points out, there is not one human nature, there are human natures.

Q: A major concern for you in the 1980s was psychology in what you call the Three Worlds (see 5). What was that idea and is it still relevant today?
A: The idea of the ‘Three Worlds of psychology' is more relevant than ever. A starting proposition is that scientific psychology is a scarce resource that in important ways shapes the way people view themselves and the world around them; and this resource is very unequally distributed around the world. From early in the twentieth century the United States has been the only superpower, the First World of psychology. The second world is Russia and the Western European countries. The Third World is the low-income countries. Psychology is exported "wholesale" from the First and Second Worlds to the Third World. Most of what is exported is of use only to a tiny group of Third World elite, who tend to be western educated, affluent, urban, and modernized. The non-elite masses not only do not benefit, but typically are detrimentally effected by the importation of inappropriate First World psychology. Just as there is a need for appropriate technology for the Third World, there is even a greater need for appropriate psychology for the Third World.

Q: What would an appropriate psychology for the Third World be like?
A: It would begin by asking questions that arise from the Third World context, rather than the First or Second World contexts. The Third World has an urgent need for what I have termed generative psychology (see 6), concerned with instigating social change. What is preventing change? How can we bring about fundamental change, particular toward great democratization? How can we decrease corruption? These are the kinds of questions that need to be addressed in the Third World. They are more change-oriented, applied questions.

Q: What about the argument that the causes of behavior are the same everywhere?
A: I am certainly familiar with that argument, and believe it is correct within a limited domain, the domain of what I refer to as performance capacity (see 7)

Q: So you accept the idea that for some types of behavior, the causes are universal?
A: Yes, but we have to get far more precise about exactly what types of behavior we mean. We need to make a distinction between behavior that is causally determined by our biological characteristics, performance capacity, and behavior that is guided by meaning systems, performance style. For example, when you isolate me in a laboratory and measure my threshold for auditory perception, you are assessing performance capacity. This is causally determined by biological factors. If I were struck in the head and my eardrum was injured, this would cause my auditory threshold to change. This is cause-effect in the deterministic sense, and it is what in traditional laboratory research is envisaged through manipulations of the independent variable, the assumed cause, to measure its impact on the dependent variable, the assumed effect. But this particular kind of causal explanation is only appropriate for performance capacity, not performance style. That has to do with meaning systems.

Q: The difference between performance capacity and performance style reminds me of Wundt's distinction between laboratory based psychology and folk psychology. Is that what you mean?
A: Yes, performance style is in some ways similar to folk psychology (8). It is about how people collaboratively construct and perpetuate meaning systems. The sustaining of meaning systems is achieved through what I call carriers, which are like hooks on which we hang cultural meanings. For example, a national flag is a carrier. It sustains values, beliefs, and so on, that are important for a nation.

Q: Are there limits to what can become a carrier?
A: No limits (see 9). The power of carriers is that they are malleable, and when a carrier is no longer useful, it is abandoned. Every revolution, every movement, every attempt at change, involves experimentation with carriers, the abandoning of some and the continuation of others. But the most important feature of carriers is that they are collectively constructed and sustained, and they become part of the social world ‘out there', like clouds hanging over our heads, they do not depend on any single individual. Carriers, such as the Christian crucifix, are present, hovering above our heads when we enter this world, and they are there when we exit. They are passed on through traditions, myths, fairy tales, songs, slogans, stories, ceremonies, and so on, without there being conscious awareness of their role and power in societal stability.

Q: So individuals are at the mercy of carriers, in a sense?
A: No, this is a two-way process, both top-down and bottom-up. Carriers influence the behavior of individuals, but individuals also intentionally try to use carriers to influence larger societal trends. The parents who insist that their child learns the violin and goes to ballet class can be trying to influence change and stability at a larger level, with ideas like ‘I want my child to have the right values' ‘it is important for my child to develop a taste for the right kind of music' and so on.

Q: So there are universals in the area of what you call performance capacity, and in this area you accept that causal explanations are valid?
A: Yes, exactly.

Q: But causal explanations are not appropriate for behavior in the area of performance style?
A: No, they are not. But this is not to deny the existence of universals in the domain of performance style.

Q: Can you give an example of a universal in performance style?
A: Turn-taking is an example of a universal in performance style (see 8). Irrespective of the language used, all humans practice turn-taking to communicate. This is an example of what I term a primitive social relation, an aspect of behavior that must be present in order for a society to survive. Primitive social relations emerged very early in human evolution, and with the development of more complex cultures, primitive social relations were interpreted depending on cultural conditions. For example, turn-taking can be interpreted as involving a right to speak and/or a duty to listen. Much later, on the basis of turn-taking there developed elaborate court procedures that govern the cross-examination of witnesses ‘in turn', the term-limits of presidents and some other political appointments, so that each group of people can be represented ‘in turn' (see 10).

Q: How do you see the discipline of psychology developing in the future?
A: I expect the fundamental difference between psychology as a causal science and psychology as a normative science will become more apparent, and perhaps lead to the emergence of two more clearly identifiable domains. Both types of psychology are needed, because they complement one another. Psychology as a causal science, to do with performance capacity, informs us about the relatively fixed, inbuilt characteristics that shape behavior. Psychology as a normative science tells us about the collaborative construction of meaning systems, how we interact with others to ‘make' sense in and of the world. But at present the two psychologies are unable to complement one another as effectively as they should, because of the invalid but pervasive assumption that all psychology has to provide causal explanations in order to be a science. Unfortunately, this mistake is being made even in social psychology and cross-cultural psychology (see 11). However, I think we are turning a corner, and the future is much brighter, as indicated by exciting new journals such as Culture & Psychology.

Q: Finally, if a person wanted to read just one of your works, what would you suggest?
A: It would have to be my new book The Individual and Society: A Cultural Integration (see 7). People tell me it is easy to read, and it is very affordable.

(1) Moghaddam, F. M. (1997). The specialized society: The plight of the individual in a age of individualism. Westport, CT.: Praeger.

(2) Moghaddam, F. M. (1997). The Haji-Baba of Georgetown. In M. Bond (Ed.), Working at the interface of cultures: 20 lives in social science (pp. 191-201). London: Routledge.

(3) Taylor, D. M., & Moghaddam, F. M. (1994). Theories of intergroup relations: International social psychological perspectives. 2nd. Ed. New York: Praeger

(4) Moghaddam, F. M., Taylor, D. M., & Wright, C. S., (1993). Social psychology in cross-cultural perspective. New York: Freeman.

(5) Moghaddam, F. M. (1987). Psychology in the Three Worlds. American Psychologist, 47, 912-920.

(6) Moghaddam, F. M. (1990). Modulative and generative psychologies in the Three Worlds. Journal of Social Issues, 56, 21-41.

(7) Moghaddam, F. M. (2002). The individual and society: A cultural integration. New York: Worth.

(8) Moghaddam, F. M. (2001). Psychology is social: Exploring universals in performance capacity and performance style. Invited Distinguished Lecture, American Psychological Association Meeting, San Francisco.

(9) Moghaddam, F. M.., & Lvina, E. (2002). Toward a psychology of societal change and stability: The case of human rights and duties. International Journal of Group Tensions, 31, 31-51.

(10). Moghaddam, F. M., & Riley, C. J. (In press). Toward a cultural theory of rights and duties in human development. In N. Finkel & F.M. Moghaddam (Eds.), Human rights and duties: Psychology's contribution, the law's commentary. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association Press.

(11). Moghaddam, F. M. (1998). Social psychology: Exploring universals across cultures. New York: Freeman.


  • Ph.D. () University of Surrey, England,
  • M.Sc. () University of Surrey, England,
  • B.A. () University of Liverpool,


  • Farsi (speak, read, write)
  • French (read)