An Exploration of Cultural Variation in Self-Enhancing and Self-Improving Motivations

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Cultural Differences in Self-Enhancement

An Exploration of Cultural Variation in Self-Enhancing and Self-Improving Motivations

Steven J. Heine

University of British Columbia
Please address correspondence to:

Steven J. Heine

Department of Psychology

2136 West Mall, University of British Columbia

Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4 Canada

Tel: (604) 822-6908. Fax (604) 822-6923
Invited Article to appear in the Nebraska Symposium of Motivation, (2001).

Cultural differences in various measures of self-enhancement (e.g., self-esteem, self-serving biases, and self-evaluation maintenance) are routinely observed between North American and East Asian samples. This paper explores a number of psychological mechanisms that can help “unpackage” these differences. Self-enhancement appears to be associated with cultural values of independence, a tendency to weigh intrapsychic concerns more than interpersonal ones, a largely internal frame of reference, and stable views of self. In contrast, self-improvement is associated with interdependence, a greater weighting of interpersonal concerns over intrapsychic ones, an external frame of reference, and malleable views of self. Cultural differences in psychological phenomenon aid us in identifying the underlying psychological mechanisms that sustain them.

An Exploration of Cultural Variation in Self-Enhancing and Self-Improving Motivations

Cultural psychology concerns itself with the excavation of the cultural foundation of human nature (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991b; Shweder, 1990). This paper explores how culture has shaped the utility of maintaining positive or critical self-views, that is, of motivating the self through self-enhancement or self-improvement.

As labels such as “self-enhancement” and “self-improvement” tend to be broad and ambiguous, and potentially shelter a variety of different motivations, I first operationalize what I mean by these two terms. I define self-enhancement as the tendency to overly dwell on, elaborate, and exaggerate positive aspects of the self relative to one’s weaknesses. This definition is consistent with many different research paradigms, such as research on self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1965), self-serving biases (Taylor & Brown, 1988), and self-evaluation maintenance (Tesser, 1988). There may be other ways in which selves are “enhanced” that do not fit into this definition. To the extent that other phenomena don’t fit this definition, I suggest that they represent somewhat distinct processes. Throughout this paper, when I use the term “self-enhancement” I am referring to processes captured by the above definition.

In contrast, I define self-improvement as the tendency to overly dwell on, elaborate, and exaggerate negative aspects of the self relative to one’s strengths in an effort to correct the perceived shortcomings. This definition is consistent with research conducted with East Asian populations (e.g., Heine et al., in press; Kitayama & Markus, 2000), although it is a rather novel motivation within North American psychological research. There are surely other ways in which selves can be “improved,” however, the kind of self-improvement that I explore in this paper is restricted to the above definition.

North American Self-Enhancement

The notion that people are motivated to self-enhance is perhaps the most widely shared assumption in psychology regarding the self (e.g., James, 1890; Maslow, 1943; Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, 1991; Tesser, 1988). Roger Brown (1986) referred to this need as an “urge so deeply human that we can hardly imagine its absence” (p. 534). Indeed, a perusal of research conducted on the self-concept in North America reveals widespread evidence of self-enhancing motivations across a diverse array of paradigms.

First, measurements of self-esteem consistently find that the vast majority of North Americans tend to view themselves in unambiguously positive terms (Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989; Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999). It is relatively rare for North Americans of European descent to score below the theoretical midpoint on self-esteem scales (less than 7% of one large sample, Heine et al., 1999). Measures of North American self-esteem tend to reveal such a skewed distribution that what much research operationalizes as low self-esteem (for example, by a median split) actually reflects moderately positive self-assessments. The most common view of self in North American samples is one that is viewed distinctly positively.

Further evidence for self-enhancement motivations can be found in the wide array of studies that reveal that North Americans tend not to be satisfied in just viewing themselves positively, but rather tend to view themselves in unrealistically positive terms. This tendency to exaggerate the positive aspects of the self is evident in a diverse variety of content domains, for example, in trait evaluations (Dunning, Meyerowitz, & Holzberg, 1989), attributions for performance (Zuckerman, 1979), recall of past memories (Crary, 1966), attitudes (Campbell, 1986), assessments of the future (Weinstein, 1980), assessments of one’s ability to be in control (Langer, 1975), evaluations of one’s group (Heine & Lehman, 1997a), and evaluations of one’s relationships (Endo, Heine, & Lehman, 2000). These tendencies are identified so consistently in North American samples that they have been viewed as signs of a healthy, normal personality (Taylor & Armor, 1996; Taylor & Brown, 1988), as the products of an “intrapsychic evolution” (Greenwald, 1980), or as errors inherent in the course of information-processing (Miller & Ross, 1977). Moreover, these self-serving biases are evident despite the considerable interpersonal costs that are associated with maintaining them (Colvin, Block, & Funder, 1995; Paulhus, 1998).

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for self-enhancing motivations can be seen in studies that investigate how people respond when they are denied the opportunity to view themselves positively. When confronted with negative self-relevant information North Americans engage in a variety of tactics to restore a positive self-view. For example, they may align themselves with winners and distance themselves from losers (Cialdini & Richardson, 1980), further handicap their own performance for an excuse that protects their self-esteem (Tice, 1991), rationalize their behaviors or decisions (Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993), sabotage the performance of a friend (Tesser & Smith, 1980), engage in comparisons with those performing worse than them (Wood, 1989), make external attributions for their poor performance (Zuckerman, 1979), or discount the feedback that they’ve received (Heine, Takata, & Lehman, 2000). The diversity of the occupants of this self-evaluation maintenance zoo is telling of the premium that is placed on having a positive self-view; when negative information about the self is discovered, whatever aspect of the situation that is most amenable to change will be rationalized in order to reinstate a positive assessment (Tesser, Crepaz, Beach, Cornell, & Collins, 2000).

In this above summary I have used the rather awkward term “North Americans” rather than the more encompassing term “people.” I do this as the majority of research on self-enhancing motivations has been conducted in North America and, to a lesser extent, in other Western countries. This geographic quirk of the literature makes it impossible to assess whether this motivation is a human universal or a Western cultural product. Whether self-enhancing motivations are evident to similar degrees in people of other cultures is an empirical question, and can be addressed by contrasting evidence for these motivations across cultures. I have spent much of the past decade gathering data relevant to self-evaluations from Japan.

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