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  • Symen A. Brouwers

The Positive Impact of Being Sensitive to Ecological Validity


A critical feature of human engagement within our global market is the movement of ideas, tools, and products between people of very different cultural backgrounds. A start-up in Ghana might learn of an interesting product in Germany and wanting to apply it at home. Or a philanthropic project in India might try to implement a cool intervention that was developed in Canada. But caution is necessary: A tool or product that works very well in one cultural environment may not in another. This is what in cross-cultural psychology we call ecological validity.


Defining Ecological Validity In 1977, Bronfenbrenner defined ecological validity as a match between the ways skills, interests, or behaviors are normally accessed in a targeted cultural community and the ways an outside operative tries to access them. Some of the first examples of bad ecological validity were in the field of culture and cognition. An early example is a study in Liberia on the ways in which unschooled tailors and adults with formal schooling solve arithmetic problems such as 3 x 3 and 2 + 5. When delivered in a formal, Western styled schooling way, the tailors did not perform very well and certainly less good than adults with formal schooling. But with task formats derived from tailoring itself, the tailors did better than the adults with formal schooling. We can say that delivery in Western styled schooling way was less ecologically valid than tailoring content in allowing solutions.

Potential of High Ecological Validity Analysis of the major variables in the success of international trade and developmental aid teaches that high sensitivity towards the ecological validity of ideas, tools, and products can have an enormous positive impact: Creating new markets or delivering interventions with lasting impact will follow when one can design and deliver ideas and product in an acceptable way.


A study from 2000, for example, says that international trade could multiply five times in size when companies would successfully be able to remove cultural barriers. One example of this successfully happening is the ground work Vietnamese immigrants in the USA lay with regards to trade between the USA and Vietnam. Knowledge about laws, but also sharing the same cultural values and social conventions, enabled Vietnamese immigrants in the USA to build an infrastructure and create a market. Easy access to ecologically valid business had a positive effect on non-Vietnamese owned businesses across the USA.

For developmental aid, most projects show good success during the running of the intervention, but disappearance of the positive effects after the projects have ended. Recipients do not seem to be fully committed. Non-ecologically valid steps such as the employment of professional staff in projects takes democratic control away from the recipients of the aid, replaces a group’s political and social agendas with those of the funders, and creates vertical patron ̶ client relationships. One example shows that agricultural communities in Kenya put a lot of stock in sowing and harvesting traditions. Knowledge that can give communities ownership of their practices and raise employment would make for longer lasting impact.

Impact at Hecht Insights At Hecht Insights, our cross-cultural psychologically experts help you reach a higher sensitivity to the basic tenets of ecological validity and help you design and deliver business strategies and interventions that create positive impact.


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