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

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Japanese Self-Improvement

In general, evidence for self-enhancing motivations (as operationalized by my definition above) is weak and elusive among Japanese samples. Cross-cultural studies reveal that, relative to North Americans, Japanese exhibit significantly less positive self-ratings as evident in lower self-esteem scores (Bond & Cheung, 1983; Heine & Lehman, in press; Yeh, 1995) and larger actual-ideal discrepancies (Heine & Lehman, 1999; Meijer, Heine, & Yamagami, 1999); significantly weaker tendencies to exaggerate the positivity of their self-views (Heine & Lehman, 1995; Heine & Renshaw, in press; Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto, & Norasakkunkit, 1997; Markus & Kitayama, 1991a), and significantly weaker tendencies to try to maintain a positive self-view (Cross, Liao, & Josephs, 1992; Heine, Kitayama, & Lehman, in press; Heine & Lehman, 1997b). The standard indicators of self-enhancement are much less evident among Japanese.

Different methodologies yield vastly different degrees of self-enhancement (Taylor & Armor, 1996). For example, the better-than-average effect (estimates of the percentage of others better than the self, or differences in estimates of self and other) yield higher rates of self-enhancement in both Americans and Japanese (e.g., Heine & Lehman, 1997a; Ito, 1999; Markus & Kitayama, 1991a) than other methodologies. Research with North Americans consistently reveals evidence of self-enhancement regardless of methodology, suggesting that self-enhancing motivations in that sample are robust (for a review see Taylor & Brown, 1988). In contrast, whether studies reveal self-enhancement or self-criticism among Japanese appears to hinge a lot on the methodology (e.g., Heine & Lehman, 1995), sometimes revealing weak self-enhancement (Ito, 1999; Markus & Kitayama, 1991a), and sometimes pronounced self-criticism (Heine & Lehman, 1999; Heine & Renshaw, in press; Heine et al., 2000; Kitayama et al., 1997; Takata, 1987). This suggests that Japanese self-enhancing motivations are weak enough that the choice of methodology affects whether they are evident or not. Cultural differences in the degree of self-enhancement appear consistently regardless of methodology, however, and these appear to be protected from a few alternative explanations. They do not appear to be due to asking Japanese participants to evaluate themselves on characteristics that are not relevant to them as the cultural differences tend to be as pronounced for characteristics that Japanese rate as most important (a number of studies find more self-criticism among Japanese for more important traits; e.g., Heine & Lehman, 1999; Heine et al., in press; Heine & Renshaw, in press; Kitayama et al., 1997, although some investigations of the better-than-average effect reveal the opposite pattern; e.g., Ito, 1999; Matsumoto, 2001). They do not appear to be due to Japanese having stronger group-enhancing motivations as cross-cultural comparisons reveal that North Americans exhibit at least as much, if not more, group-serving biases than Japanese (Heine & Lehman, 1997a; Kitayama, Palm, Masuda, Karasawa, & Carroll, 1996; although Japanese do appear to enhance their relationships to the same extent as North Americans; Endo et al., 2000). Last, they do not seem to be due to feigned modesty on the part of Japanese as the cultural differences are at least as pronounced in studies utilizing hidden measures of self-enhancement (Heine et al., in press; Heine & Lehman, 1997b; Heine et al., 2000).

In sum, the evidence converges on the notion that self-enhancing motivations are more pronounced in North American samples than they are among Japanese. Self-enhancing motivations thus appear to be intimately tied with Western cultural experiences. Cultural psychology maintains that culture and psyche are mutually constituted (Shweder, 1990). Hence, to understand the psychological processes common within a culture, it is important to first understand the culture that sustains them. Cultural psychological explanations for the differences in self-enhancing tendencies tend to highlight various cultural practices common in the different cultures that appear to underlie them, such as rewarding excellence in American schools and self-reflection practices (hansei) in Japan (e.g., Heine et al., 1999; Karasawa, 1998; Kitayama & Markus, 2000; Lewis, 1995; Markus, Mullally, & Kitayama, 1997). The parallels between the cultural practices and the psychological processes are striking.

Culture can also serve as a useful tool for highlighting the psychological mechanisms underlying cultural differences. Cross-cultural comparisons allow us to test hypotheses regarding the kinds of psychological processes that would emerge if the social rules were different. To the extent that members from two cultures differ in a construct (such as independence), and independence is shown to relate to another construct (such as self-enhancement), then we can “unpackage” the cultural differences (Bond, 1994; Singelis, Bond, Lai, & Sharkey, 1999). That is, cultural differences can serve to isolate the psychological mechanisms that are associated with the construct under study. In the case of cultural differences in self-enhancement, there does not appear to be just a single mechanism at work. However, a careful consideration of the cultural evidence reveals a few, interrelated mechanisms that appear to sustain the difference.

Clearly, there is an enormous amount of variance for any psychological dimension within any culture. The between-culture contrasts of self-enhancement and associated mechanisms reported in this paper provide a useful tool for identifying cultural differences, although they do not imply that individuals from these cultures never experience the motivations and thoughts that are more pronounced in the comparison culture. Cultural differences are ones of degree, not of kind, and I focus on dichotomies of the phenomena under investigation in order to highlight broad patterns by which we can identify cultural influences.

Independent versus Interdependent Selves

Much research contrasting North Americans and East Asians has focused on differences in the self-concept. Markus and Kitayama (1991b) distinguished between independent and interdependent self-views in these two cultural groups, respectively. Some of the defining characteristics of the independent view of self are that people wish to view themselves as independent and separate from each other, as autonomous, self-sufficient, and as individuals who are complete in themselves. Such an orientation of self is cultivated by self-enhancing. It would appear to be very difficult to feel self-sufficient, independent, and complete as an individual if one does not evaluate oneself positively. Successfully realizing the cultural ideal of independence, that is becoming the kind of person that North American culture views as normal or appropriate, would appear to necessitate feelings of self-esteem (Heine et al., 1999).

In contrast, the core of the interdependent view is that people have a fundamental need to fit in with others, to have a sense of belongingness, and to maintain interpersonal harmony (Markus & Kitayama, 1991b). Such an outlook would seem to have very little to do with how positively one views oneself. Thinking of oneself as great will not serve to enhance one’s relationships or one’s sense of belongingness with others – if anything it would seem to highlight how one is distinct from and not interdependent with others. Achieving interdependence requires the cooperation and goodwill of others; it is earned when others are appreciating the individual. To become the kind of person viewed as normal or appropriate in an interdependent culture requires that one gains the respect of others, not of oneself.

In sum, this reasoning suggests that values related to the independent self theoretically should be intimately related with self-enhancement, whereas those related to the interdependent self should be largely unrelated, or even negatively related, to self-enhancement. Heine and Renshaw (in press) conducted an empirical test of this hypothesis. They measured the self-concept of individuals using Takata’s (1999) independence/interdependence scale, and they also measured self-enhancement among Japanese and American students. Self-enhancement was operationalized as the difference between how positively students evaluated themselves and how positively four of their peers evaluated them. Self-enhancement was positively correlated with trait independence within both cultures and negatively correlated with trait interdependence within the American sample (the relation within the Japanese sample was not significant). Similar relations between trait independence and interdependence and self-esteem have been found by a number of researchers within a number of different cultures (Heine et al., 1999; Heine & Renshaw, in press; Kiuchi, 1996; Singelis et al., 1999; Yamaguchi, 1994). The ranges of the correlations from these different studies are summarized in Table 1.


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Similarly, Lee, Aaker, and Gardner (2000) investigated the relations between independence and interdependence and promotion and prevention motivations. Promotion motivations are characterized by the pursuit of gains and aspirations towards an ideal, whereas prevention motivations are characterized by an avoidance of losses and of the fulfillment of obligations (Higgins, 1999). Lee et al. found that those with more interdependent views of self (or those who had interdependent aspects of the self-concept made salient through an experimental manipulation) demonstrated more prevention concerns, whereas those with independent self-views (or those who had independence primed) evinced more promotion concerns. These data are consistent with the notion that a sensitivity to positive information about the self is more associated with independent selves, whereas a sensitivity to negative self-relevant information is more linked to interdependent selves.

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