Sociology Mind
2012. Vol.2, No.1, 127-132
Published Online January 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 127
Do Iranian and Canadian Females Make Different
Personal Decisions?
Mahin Tavakoli
Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Received April 5th, 2011; revised July 9th, 2011; accepted September 28th, 2011
This study examined cultural differences and similarities in the number and types of personal decisions
made by Iranian and Canadian females. Canadians made more decisions than did Iranians, indicating that
Canadians are more autonomous and independent than are Iranians. The types of decisions made more by
Canadians than by Iranians illustrate that, when making decisions, Canadians use primary control (trying
to change their situation) more than Iranians do, while Iranians use secondary control (trying to adjust to
the situation) more than Canadians do. The results support theories of cultural differences locating Canada
and Iran at opposite ends of individualism-collectivism continuum, and are consistent with the individual-
istic-collectivist distinctions made by Heine (2008), Savani, Markus, and Conner (2008), and Triandis
Keywords: Decision-Making; Ma king Choice; Iranians and Canadians; I ndividualism- Collectivism;
Comparative St udy; Cross- Cultural Study of Ma king Choice; Cultural Differe nces in
Decision-Ma king
In everyday life, most of us make a wide range of decisions.
Our decisions can be as trivial as deciding what toothpaste to
buy, which clothes to wear, what movies to watch, which club
to choose for membership, and which books to read. They can
also be as important as decisions about a career, finances, mar-
riage, education, parenting, and medical or health related issues.
While there is considerable research about economic, corpo-
rate, and policy decisions (e.g., Anthony, 1999; Budescu et al.,
2003; Fischhoff, 1992; Higgins, 2001; Luey, 2004; Nathan &
Hill, 1992; Shamsaie, 2001; Towner, 1975), there is almost no
research about the thousands of personal decisions people make
in their everyday lives. Hundreds of interesting questions about
personal decisions remain to be addressed. Among them are
questions about cultural differences in decisions made. One of
those questions is the focus of the present article: Do people in
individualistic Western cultures make more or make different
personal decisions than do collectivist non-Western cultures?
Features of Indi vidualist i c and Collectivist Cultures
Individualistic cultures such as those in North America em-
phasize personal autonomy and choice, and social independ-
ence of the self (Iyengar & Lepper, 1999; Vinken, Soeters, &
Ester, 2004). In contrast, collectivist cultures such as those in
Asia and the Middle East emphasize conformity to the society,
and encourage a strong attachment to extended families (Bond
& Smith, 1996; Triandis, 1994). While individualists have
fewer rules about conforming to social norms (Vinken et al.,
2004), collectivists value adherence to tradition and social
norms (Hynie, n.d.), and they produce many rules, norms, and
ideas about what is correct behaviour in different situations
(Triandis, 1994).
Cultural theories of individualism-collectivism indicate that
people in collectivist cultures tend to have larger families and
closer family networks, and to foster more obedience, tradi-
tional family norms, and conformity to social norms than do
people from individualistic cultures (e.g., Triandis, 1994). Choi
(1995) found that Americans foster autonomous and independ-
ent behaviours of infants, and view directiveness as an indicator
of parental mistrust, insensitivity, and a desire to dominate. In
contrast, Koreans view infants as passive and dependent, and
the norm is directive parenting. Similarly, Chinese tend to view
the ideal self as embedded in interdependent social relation-
ships rather than as an independent, self-sufficient entity; obe-
dience and respect for others are valued more highly in China
than are self-esteem or self-awareness (Chao, 1995). The Chi-
nese believe that children learn best with instruction, and view
directiveness as reflecting the notion of guan, a complex idea
that means to discipline or care for and to love simultaneously
(Tsang, 1998; Chao, 1995).
A study of cultural differences among American and Chinese
students in conforming to parents’ wishes and expectations
about academic achievement revealed that Chinese students
were more willing to accept their parents’ wishes and cared
more about fulfilling parents’ expectations (Chen & Lan, 1998).
Do such cultural differences also manifest themselves in the
personal decisions people make?
Cultural Differences in Decision-Making
If different cultures encourage different levels of autonomy
or conformity to the social norms, how can this affect the num-
ber and nature of personal decisions? Rising interest in cultural
differences in decision making, especially in Iranian-Western
differences (see Dehghani et al., 2009; Ekhtiari et al., 2009)
have tended to focus on decision processes, while ignoring the
number and nature of decisions made. It seems reasonable to
assume that culture wil l not only affect how people make deci-
sions but also how many and what kinds of decisions they will
Heine (2008) speculates that culture can influence the fre-
quency of decision-making, which he calls “making choices” (p.
259). The emphasis on autonomy among people of individual-
istic cultures encourages them to make more choices. While the
emphasis on the conformity and adjustability to the societal
norms among people of collectivist cultures leaves individuals
with fewer choices to make. Heine (2008: p. 258) suggests that
“Most Westerners, …, spend a good proportion of their time
obsessing about a few key choices that will have a big impact
on their lives: ‘What kind of job should I get?’ ‘Who should I
marry?’ ‘Where should we live?’ ‘Should we have kids, and if
so, how many and when?’ these tend to be seen as personal
decisions, or decisions between husband and wife. Many people
take years to decide these issues… In many parts of the world,
important decisions such as these are seen to reflect upon the
entire extended family. And often they are not made by the
individual but by his or her parents… In collectivist societies,
parental decision-making is more common”.
Two studies of the influence of the culture on decision-
making showed that Indians reported making fewer decisions
than Americans (Savani & Markus, 2006, as cited in Savani,
Markus, & Conner, 2008) and that Indians were slower than
North Americans in making choices (Savani, Markus, & Con-
ner, 2008). If making decisions at a slower pace results in mak-
ing fewer decisions in a given time period, then this result is
consistent with Heine’s (2008) suggestion that people in collec-
tivist cultures make fewer choices than do people in individual-
ist cultures. My study aimed to test this suggestion.
Concept of “Control”: An Explanation for Cultural
Differences in Decision-Making
Cross-cultural researchers have introduced two concepts of
primary versus secondary control, as outcomes of individual-
ism-collectivism (Rothbaum, Weisz, & Snyder, 1982). Primary
control means changing one’s situation to fit one’s wishes, and
it is especially seen in individualistic cultures. Secondary con-
trol means changing the self to fit the situation typically by
controlling the psychological consequences of the situation, and
it is especially seen in collectivist cultures (Rothbaum et al.,
Research comparing the need for the two types of control
among Americans and Japanese showed that Japanese showed
secondary control more than Americans (Rothbaum et al.,
1982). Americans not only showed primary control more often
than did Japanese, but also disliked secondary control-related
behaviours. Rothbaum et al. concluded that, whereas Ameri-
cans construct their sense of self through social influence,
Asians do so through social adjustment.
Other authors have introduced concepts similar to primary
and secondary control. Primary control is equivalent to intel-
lectual autonomy in Schwartz’s (1994) list of cultural values,
and is negatively related to social characteristics that he named
preservation and fitting in. Triandis (2004) introduced a similar
distinction called active-passive cultures. In active cultures,
individuals take initiative and are competitive and action-ori-
ented—consistent with the definition of primary control people
try to change their environment to fit themselves. In passive
cultures, people are more cooperative and concerned with get-
ting along with others, and change themselves to fit their envi-
As an indication of a tie between culture, decision-making,
and the concept of control, reportedly Japanese employees do
not decide to change jobs as frequently as Western employees
do (Weisz, Rothbaum, & Blackburn, 1984). In Japan, employ-
ers frequently offer lifetime employment, through which the
adjustment of the employees to the workplace is reinforced
(Weisz et al., 1984).
The use of prevalence of primary versus secondary control in
Iran has not yet been studied scientifically. There is however
considerable casual observations that primary control is less
frequent in Iran than Canada. Canadians appear to change their
university major, partner or boy/girl friend, jobs, and their city
of residence far more often than do Iranians. Moving agencies
have proliferated in Canada in response to the demands of peo-
ple changing their jobs or residences; such agencies are rare in
Iran; an observation consistent with the literature suggesting the
prevalence of primary control in North Ame rica (e.g., Rothbaum
et al., 1982; Weisz et al., 1984). This paper examined such
observations of decision-making and control in Iran and Can-
Decision-Making in Iran and Canada
Research has documented the predominance of collectivism
in Iran and individualism in Canada (e.g., Hofstede, 1999,
2001). In his famous “IBM Study” in 1972, Hofstede (2001)
reports measures of individualism-collectivism from more than
50 countries. He found that Iran scored 41 out of 100 on indi-
vidualism while Canada scored 80. In that study, Hofstede con-
cluded that Iran is a collective culture. This is consistent with
my own observations of Iran and Canada.
Unfortunately, there has been no research in Iran since
Hofstede’s work examining the individualism-collectivism of
the country—in part because of restrictions on social research.
However, the prevalence of collectivism in contemporary Iran
is supported by Iranian authors who document the large size of
Iranian families, the emphasis on family, the existence of strong
emotional family ties, traditional values, the emphasis on ritual,
and the pressure for young people to excel academically in
order to improve the image of their family (e.g., Az adarmaki &
Bahar, 2006; Hatami, 2007; Khodayarifard, Rehm, & Kho-
dayarifard, 2007; Mortazavi, 2006; Yeganeh, 2007). In addition,
measures of trust and cooperation among in-groups and out-
groups (indicants of collectivism) showed Iranians to be higher
on all measures than were Americans (Buchan, Grimalda,
Brewer, & Foddy, 2007).
The shortage of empirical measurements of individualism-
collectivism in the literature is not limited to Iranian culture.
Surprisingly, the literature also lacks such measurements of
Canadian culture. Cross-cultural researchers have mostly relied
on the findings of Hofestede’s original study in 1972 to support
their argument that Canada is individualistic, and I shall too. I
should note, however, that waves of immigrants have probably
made Canada much less culturally homogeneous in the inter-
vening years.
Based on these characteristics of Individualism-Collectivism,
and on the literature that defines Iran as a collectivist culture
and Canada as an individualistic culture (e.g., Hofstede, 1999,
2001; Mortazavi, 2006; Yeganeh, 2007), the present research
128 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
tested the predictions that 1) Canadian participants will report
making more decisions than will Iranians; and 2) Iranians will
report using more secondary control when making decisions
than will Canadians. I also compared what types of decisions
Iranians and Canadians made every day.
Seventy nine undergraduate st udents participated in this study .
Iranians (31 females and 2 males) were living in Iran, and Cana-
dians (33 females and 13 males) were living in Canada. My at-
tempts to recruit male participants were unsuccessful. The pau-
city of males prompted me to exclude them from the study. All
Iranians were enrolled at Azad University, Semnan Branch (a
suburb of Tehran). Their age ranged from 18 to 24 years (median
= 20). All Canadians were Carleton University students. Twenty-
two of them were native born, and 11 were immigrants. Their age
ranged from 18 to 32 years (median = 22). The immigrant par-
ticipants had lived in Canada between 1.5 and 29 years (median =
12); five were born in China, tw o in Saudi Arabia, and one each
in Barbados, Guyana, Korea, and Mexico.
All participants in Iran and Canada completed a Background
Questionnaire (BQ) and a Making Personal Decisions (MPD)
questionnaire, both developed by myself. The BQ included
socio-demographic questions such as age, gender, country of
birth, and language spoken at home. The MPD questionnaire
listed 40 personal decision topics (choosing a university, choos-
ing a university major, and choosing to live independent of
parents, etc.) asking participants if they had ever made each
decision. The 40 topics were selected from an original pool of
about 100 appearing in letters to advice columnists in Iran and
in Canada, because these 40 topics appeared repeatedly and
covered a wide range of decisions.
One to six Canadian participants come at the same time to a
lab where the questionnaires were administered. Students com-
pleted the questionnaires in English in about 30 minutes. In Iran,
a Farsi version of the questionnaires, back-translated to im-
prove its fidelity, were administered. All the Iranian partici-
pants completed the questionnaire together during one session.
It was not possible to duplicate the laboratory conditions of
Carleton University because there are no labs in psychology
departments in Iran.
To offset boredom and order effects (Neter, Kutner, Nacht-
sheim, & Wasserman, 1995), the order of the 40 topics of ad-
vice was counterbalanced for all Canadians and Iranians. Half
of the participants answered the questions about topics 1 - 40 in
that order; the others answered the questions in reverse order.
Number of Decisions Made
Before analysing differences in decision-making between Iranian
and Canadians, I tested for differences in the number of decisions
made by native-born Cana dians and immigrant-Cana dians. To test
this, I summed the “yes” responses that each Canadian (native
versus immigrant) participant gave to the question about making
each of the 40 decisions. A t-test did not show a significant differ-
ence, t(32) = 0.71, p = 0.5. Native- born Ca nadians reported ma k-
ing an average of 32.1 of the 40 decisions; immigrant-Canadians
reported an average of 31.0. There was no significant difference in
these averages, p > 0.5. I therefore combined the two groups into
one that I call “Canadians”.
I then conducted another t-test to assess the prediction that
Canadians would report making more decisions than would
Iranians. The t-test showed a significant difference between
Iranians and Canadians in the number of decisions they made,
t(57) = 5.7, p = 0.00. As predicted, Iranians reported making
significantly fewer decisions (M = 23.2 out of 40) than did Ca-
nadians (M = 31.4).
Types of Decisions Made
In order to examine cultural differences and similarities in
the types of decisions made among Iranian and Canadians, and
to compare Iranians and Canadians usage of primary versus
secondary control, I analysed which decisions showed the
greatest and smallest cultural differences. There is no useful
multivariate statistical procedure for testing frequency differ-
ences in 40 dichotomous dependent variables. So instead, I
calculated 40, 2 × 2 (culture × mention), G indices as a rough
index of the strength of obtained cultural differences. Such
multiple indices are, as most statistics texts indicate, inferen-
tially improper because they exploit chance in finding signifi-
cance. However, the purpose in current research was not to use
the Gs for making inferential decisions, but to use them as an
indicator of the size of cultural differences, then to look for
themes in the largest and smallest differences.
I counted the number of participants who said “no” and who
said “yes” to each of the 40 decisions and conducted 40 G-tests.
For example, in response to a question about living independent
of parents, 24 Canadians and 18 Iranians said “yes” they had
made the decision, and 9 Canadians and 13 Iranians said “no”. I
then calculated 2 × 2 (Culture-by-Yes/No) G statistic on these
four frequencies; a similar G statistic was calculated on the
frequencies obtained for the remaining 39 decisions. I sorted
the 40 decisions from those showing the greatest G values, to
those showing the smallest.
Table 1 shows the 22 decisions that produced a G value
reaching at least a p < 0.05 level of significance, a very rough
indicant of a reliable difference between participants in two
cultures. The 22 differences are ranked from largest (drinking)
to smallest (choosing a career).
There are several interesting results shown in Table 1. First,
it is noteworthy that all the significant differences follow a
similar pattern: the percentage of Canadians making these 22
decisions is always higher than the percentage of Iranians mak-
ing them. Iranians did not report making any decision more
frequently than did Canadians. The greater proportion of Cana-
dians who report making these 22 decisions supports the hy-
pothesis that individualist Canadians would report making more
decisions than would collectivist Iranians.
Second, Canadians more frequently than Iranians reported mak-
ing decisions about changing their job, living independently of
parents, ending their education, and breaking up or not with their
partner. Iranians making less decisions about these topics suggest
that Iranians more than Canadians adjusted themselves to the em-
ployers, education system, parents, and partners.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 129
Table 1.
Significant cultural differences in percent of participants saying yes.
A decision about CanadiansIranians
Whether or not to drink alcohol** 97% 3%
Whether or not to smoke** 94% 6%
Whether or not to change your job** 85% 6%
To continue or end your e d ucation** 100% 23%
To break up o r n ot with your partner** 82% 13%
To have or no t h ave a boyfriend** 94% 52%
Where to live** 73% 35%
When to have children** 52% 19%
Whether or not to lose weight* 97% 65%
To live inde p endent of pa r ents** 73% 42%
How to solve your communication problems** 94% 65%
Whether or not to bring home frie n ds** 94% 68%
What type of school to choose for your child* 24% 3%
How much time to sp end with your family* 94% 74%
Whether or not to use cosmetics* 97% 77%
How to behave with peopl e* 100% 82%
How to plan y our schedule* 97% 81%
How to spend your money* 100% 84%
Whether or not to go out with friends* 100% 84%
Which party to attend or not to a ttend* 100% 84%
Which films to w atch or not to watch* 100% 87%
Choosing a career 61% 39%
**p < 0.01. *p < 0.05 by G-test (df = 1).
The third interesting feature of the results shown in Table 1
is that Iranians reported making fewer decisions even about
such common matters as which film to watch or not to watch,
where to live, how to plan their schedule, and how much time
to spend with their family.
The lower two-thirds of Table 1 also reveals topics that pro-
duce relatively high rates of “yes” responses for Iranians. Al-
though a greater proportion of Canadians made decisions about
these topics than did Iranians, the solid majority of Iranians
making most of these decisions reveals that most young Irani-
ans do have their sphere of autonomy.
Table 2 shows the 18 decisions that produced small and sta-
tistically insignificant G values. Again, they are ranked from
the largest difference (vacation) to the smallest (practicing re-
The bottom half of Table 2 shows the decision topics that
exhibited the greatest similarities of percentages between cul-
tures. These might be considered the cultural universals for the
participants’ age group.
Table 2.
Insignificant cultural differences in percent of participants saying yes.
A decision about CanadiansIranians
Where to go for your vacation 94% 77%
What clothes to wear or not to wear 100% 90%
How to spend y our free time 100% 90%
Which names to give your children 30% 39%
Whom to vote f or 79% 87%
When to marry 55% 61%
Whom to marry 61% 68%
Which sport to play or not 88% 81%
What friends to choose 100% 94%
How to raise your children 27% 23%
Which books to re ad or not to rea d 94% 90%
How often to visit relatives 85% 81%
Which university major to choose 97% 100%
Which univer si ty to choose 100% 97%
Whether or not to study in another country 45% 42%
Which clothing to choose fo r your children 15% 13%
Which social values to teach your children 30% 32%
Practicing or not practicing your religion 70% 71%
Not surprisingly, few participants in either culture reported
making decisions about children, simply because few had chil-
dren. Popular decisions showing no significant difference were
largely related to personal life. Interestingly, there was no sig-
nificant difference in the proportion of Canadians and Iranians
who had made their own decisions about practicing their relig-
ion. In both cultures, about three-fourths of participants re-
ported making this personal choice.
This study tested two hypotheses about cultural differences
in decision-making between Iranian and Canadian female stu-
dents. Supporting my first hypothesis, the findings revealed that
individualist Canadians, who have more personal autonomy,
reported making more decisions than did collectivist Iranians.
None of the 40 decision topics considered were made by more
Iranians than Canadians. The finding is in line with Heine’s
(2008) speculation that an emphasis on autonomy in individu-
alist cultures results in more decision opportunities among peo-
ple of individualist cultures. It is also consistent with Savani
and Markus (2006) who found Indians recalled making fewer
choices during the day than did North Americans.
Examination of the 40 decision-making topics showed that a
higher percentage of Canadians than Iranians reported making
decisions about changing their job, continuing or ending their
130 Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
education, living independently of parents, and breaking up or
not with their partner. All are topics related to changing the
decision maker’s situation, the defining tactic of primary con-
trol. The relative paucity of Iranians reporting these decisions
supports my second hypothesis and Rothbaum et al.’s (1982)
suggestion that while individualist cultures (e.g., Americans)
rely on primary control and social influence, collectivist cul-
tures (e.g., Asians) rely on secondary control and social ad-
justment; a concept also called preservation and fitting in
(Schwartz, 1994). The finding is also consistent with Weisz et al .’s
(1984) observation that collectivist Japanese change their jobs
less frequently and adjust to their work-environment more fre-
quently than do individualist North Americans.
The large cultural differences in ending or not ending one’s
education are also concordant with differing cultural norms
about higher education. Canada has long tried to provide a uni-
versity education for every Canadian who wants one. This is
very different in Iran. The opportunity for higher education in
Iran is severely limited, and competition for university admis-
sion is extreme. Graduates of Iranian high-schools (11th grade)
who want to be considered for a university position must study
for an additional year to participate in a long and difficult na-
tional university entrance exam competition called the Konkoor.
If their Konkoor rank gives them the opportunity for university
admission, most of the students and their parents would want to
continue their education. Families place high value on higher
education in Iran, and dropping out would bring shame to the
family. Also, Iranian universities do not allow students to
change their major unless they drop out of the program and
again participate in the Konkoor. So there is little reason for
young Iranian females to make their own decisions about major
changes in their education activit ies.
Surprisingly, some Iranians reported not having made such
routine decisions as which film to watch or not to watch, how
to plan their own schedule, how to spend their money, whether
or not to go out with friends, which party to attend or not to
attend, and how to behave with people. This finding is consis-
tent with Savani and Markus’s (2006) finding that collectivist
Indians identified fewer choices in their daily actions than did
individualist North Americans. The finding is also consistent
with Heine’s (2008: p. 258) speculation that, in collectivist
cultures, many of the routine decisions are made by the entire
extended family and not by individuals, leaving individuals
with fewer opportunities for decision-making.
Finally, the finding indicating Iranians making fewer deci-
sions about drinking alcohol, smoking, breaking up or not
breaking up with their partner, and choosing a career also re-
flects a common observation that the temptations, freedoms,
and autonomy afforded to Canadian females are far less com-
mon for Iranian females. Most university-aged female Canadi-
ans are allowed (though perhaps not encouraged) to drink al-
cohol and to smoke; most are encouraged to make their own
choices among a variety of jobs, and most have the autonomy
to pursue intimate relationships. University-aged females in
Iran have fewer opportunities to make choices about such mat-
ters. Most Iranian parents are not as tolerant as their Canadian
counterparts in raising their daughters. Majority of Iranian par-
ents restrict their daughters working in service jobs, such as
jobs in retail stores or restaurants. In addition, most Iranian
parents disapprove of their daughters drinking, smoking, and
having boyfriends. Daughters are expected to conform to their
parents’ wishes. Even those who do not obey their parents
would rather not talk about these topics, which are seen as the
most private part of their lives, with people other than their
close friends; and they likely don’t feel comfortable or safe to
report it when participating in research. So it is not surprising
that few Iranian females would report making decisions about
working, drinking, smoking, and boyfriends.
Limitations and Future Research Directions
All psychology research is influenced by the participants’
characteristics and developmental stages. This research studied
decision-making among female Iranian and Canadian university
students. Future research should study a more diverse sample of
ages, education level, gender, religion, and people from other
cultures. My sample of female undergraduate university stu-
dents likely would respond differently than would their parents
or grandparents and than those who receive less or more educa-
tion. They would also respond differently than males. Most of
my participants were unmarried, did not have children, lived
with parents or were financially dependent on them. All of
these characteristics almost certainly influence the amount and
kinds of decisions they make.
This study sampled a list of 40 decision topics, asking par-
ticipants if they had ever made such decisions. Future research
should sample a larger group of decision topics, and explore
alternative methods for eliciting decision memories—for ex-
ample, asking people to remember decisions they have made
during the previous day. Research also could further explore the
underlying reasons for above cultural differences and similari-
ties in Decision-making between Iranian and Canadian females.
Despite these limitations, the study did show that cultural
differences consistent with theories of individualist and collec-
tivist culture can be reliably detected by reports of decisions
people make. Further refinements of methods for collecting
decision information could improve standardized indicators of
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