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


Internal versus External Frames of Reference



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Internal versus External Frames of Reference


Another mechanism theoretically related to self-enhancement that differs across East Asian and North American cultures can be seen in tendencies to seek an external frame of reference: that is, to attend closely to, and to try to adjust one’s behaviors in accordance with, standards that are shared by significant others. To the extent that the standards of others are viewed as more relevant for evaluating the individual than the individual’s own standards, self-deceptive strategies will be rendered less functional. Self-deceptive tactics such as viewing oneself in unrealistically positive terms may work fine in convincing the individual that he or she is doing well, however, it is an entirely different matter to deceive others about one’s performance relative to a consensually-shared standard. Typical self-enhancing tactics, such as favoring positive memories over negative ones (Crary, 1966), internalizing one’s successes and externalizing one’s failures (Zuckerman, 1979), or exaggerating the extent of one’s success (Taylor & Brown, 1988), will not serve to enhance how others view the individual. If anything, given the tendency of individuals to dislike self-enhancers, maintaining positive illusions might even serve to jeopardize other’s approval. Rather, others would most likely view the individual positively if he or she is meeting the standards held by others, and is making overt attempts to do even better. The individual would seem to fare best by adopting a preventive outlook (Higgins, 1999; Lee et al., 2000), and ensuring that their behavior is not falling short of the consensually-shared standards for their role. Hence, an external frame of reference should foster a self-improving orientation.

In contrast, if an individual adopts more of an internal frame of reference, self-enhancement should be more beneficial. When individuals are free to determine the standards of performance by which they are satisfied with themselves, they should be able to increase the positivity of their self-views. And an emphasis on what is positive about the individual should be associated with feelings of self-efficacy and positive self-feelings in general (Bandura, 1982; Taylor & Armor, 1996). Thus, when individuals dwell on their own standards they should be more able to reap the benefits of self-enhancement.

There is much evidence consistent with the notion that East Asians tend to favor external standards compared with North Americans. The Japanologist, Eshun Hamaguchi states that in contrast to a perspective of the self as a subject, the Japanese self “is an object seen from the point of view of his partner” (p. 312; Hamaguchi, 1985; also see Nakamura, 1964). Theoretical discussions of the role of an external frame of reference in East Asia and self-evaluations is most evident in the literature on “face” (mentsu in Japanese or mien-tzu in Chinese) in East Asia. Ho (1976) defines face as “the deference which a person can claim for himself from others by virtue of the relative position he occupies in his social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in that position” (p. 883). Face is not possessed by individuals so much as it is earned from others. Much literature has discussed the great importance placed on maintaining and enhancing one’s face in East Asia (e.g., Ting-Toomey, 1994). However, face appears to be a concept that is not elaborated much nor fully understood among North Americans. The Oxford English Dictionary finds that the words “lose face” first entered the English language in the latter half of the 19th century, as a direct translation from Chinese. Morikawa and Heine (2000) found that Americans did not distinguish between face-loss or embarrassment situations, whereas Japanese saw a clear distinction between these two. Face appears to be a more salient and socially relevant construct among East Asians, although little empirical research has investigated it thus far.

A concern for face makes East Asians highly sensitive to insults and negative sanctions from others (De Vos & Wagatsuma, 1973; Gudykunst & Nishida, 1993; Lebra, 1976). When others are the arbiters of whether one has performed up to the consensual standards, individuals should be motivated to publicly present a formally impeccable self, free of any defects that might jeopardize a positive appraisal (for a similar discussion of maintaining honor and presenting oneself positively in other cultural contexts see Cohen, Vandello, Puente, & Rantilla, 1999). Indeed, Japanese culture has been characterized as having various layers of insulating rituals, such as codes of formal communication, highly conventionalized forms of greetings, rules for posture, gesture, etc., all of which serve to prevent the exposure of potential flaws of the individual (Hendry, 1993; Lebra, 1983).

Empirical research confirms this theoretical difference between East Asian and North America. For example, Leuers and Sonoda (1999) compared how individuals presented themselves in photographs in Japan and the US. Japanese tended to present themselves in rather polished terms, posing neatly in front of the camera, in a way likely to secure a favorable impression from others. Americans were more likely to reveal themselves “warts and all,” with less apparent effort to ensure a positive self-presentation.

Cohen and Gunz (2001) hypothesize that one consequence of adopting an external frame of reference will lead Asians to experience the world more from the perspective of those around them. That is, Asians should view themselves in ways that are consistent with how they are viewed by others. This hypothesized “outsider perspective” has rather profound consequences on psychological experience: Cohen and Gunz (2001) find that Asian-Canadians are more likely to experience third person than first person memories for situations in which they were the center of attention. That is, their recall of their past experiences includes much imagery of how they appeared at the time to others – imagery which was never accessible to them directly. Their heightened sensitivity of an audience leaks into their memories of themselves. In contrast, Euro-Canadians’ self memories showed significantly less of this third-person imagery. Their memories of experiences when they were at the center of attention had more imagery that was consistent with how they originally saw the event. Much cultural research on holistic thinking also suggests that East Asians are more likely to attend to contextual information than North Americans (e.g., Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000; Masuda & Nisbett, in press; Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, in press), further demonstrating an external frame of reference.

Similar evidence is found in cross-cultural research on self-awareness. When individuals are aware of how they appear to others they are said to be in the state of objective self-awareness (Duvall & Wicklund, 1972). That is, they are aware of how they appear as an object, a “me,” in contrast, to the experience of being a subject, an “I.” It would seem that to the extent that East Asians are aware of an audience and are adjusting their behaviors to that audience they should more likely be in a habitual state of objective self-awareness than North Americans. If this is the case then stimuli that enhance objective self-awareness (for example, seeing oneself in front of a mirror) should have little effect on East Asians. Even without a mirror present East Asians should be somewhat aware of how they appear to others. A cross-cultural study corroborates this hypothesis: Heine, Leuers, Sonoda, and Moskalenko (2001) found that whereas Americans showed a decrease in self-esteem and an increase in self-discrepancies when they saw their reflection in a mirror (consistent with much past research on self-awareness; e.g., Duval & Wicklund, 1972), Japanese self-evaluations were unaffected by the presence of the mirror (see Table 2). Moreover, American self-discrepancies and self-esteem were at similar levels to Japanese when in front of a mirror, but were much more positive when the mirror was absent. One reason that self-evaluations tend to be so much more positive for North Americans than Japanese may be that North Americans are less likely to be considering how they appear to others. When individuals are led to view themselves in more objective terms, either by seeing themselves in a mirror or taking into consideration how others are viewing them, they are not as free to engage in self-deception (also see Diener, Scollon, Oishi, Dzokoto & Suh, 2000, for similar arguments in cultural differences in subjective well-being). Objectivity constrains the ability to self-enhance.

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Entity versus Incremental Theories of Abilities

The utility of self-enhancement versus self-improvement will also hinge importantly on the perceived malleability of abilities. One way of considering abilities is to view them as deriving from a set of relatively fixed, unchangeable, and consistent inner attributes. Dweck and colleagues have termed this lay understanding of abilities an entity theory of self (e.g., Chiu, Hong, & Dweck, 1997; Dweck, Hong, & Chiu, 1993; Dweck & Legget, 1988; Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999). If one subscribes to a theory that abilities are largely the result of innate, stable factors, then it becomes more functional to view the self and its component features in the most positive light. Viewing oneself as having the requisite capability to perform well would provide the individual with the confidence to perform at one’s best. In contrast, discoveries of weaknesses of the self would be especially debilitating as they would be seen as relatively permanent inadequacies. Those with entity views of self should thus emphasize positive information about the self over negative information (cf., Hong et al., 1999). Moreover, possessing a positive evaluation of the self should be a more focal and central concern than efforts to work towards becoming a better self. To the extent the self is viewed to be largely immutable any attempts to improve should yield little reward. Stable views of the self should thus be associated with greater tendencies to self-enhance, and heightened feelings of self-efficacy following this enhancement.

In contrast, on the other end of the continuum one can view abilities as fluid and malleable, capable of being improved through continued efforts. Dweck and colleagues call the belief that the self is improvable an incremental theory of self (e.g., Chiu et al., 1997; Dweck & Legget, 1988; Hong et al., 1999). To the extent that one endorses the view that achievement hinges primarily on efforts, and thus is changeable, then a motivation to improve the self increases in importance (cf., Hong et al., 1999). It would be more beneficial to dwell on the areas in which there is room for improvement than on areas in which one is already competent. By maintaining a self-critical perspective, and making corresponding efforts to correct the shortcomings that are noted, individuals with more malleable views of self should experience enhanced performance and feelings of efficacy. Hence, individuals with more incremental theories of self should be more concerned with becoming a better self than of evaluating the self positively: a positive evaluation of the self is relatively uninformative and inconsequential if the self is viewed as fluid and changing. Beliefs in the malleability of the self should thus be associated with more concern for self-improvement than self-enhancement.

Cultures appear to show much variability with respect to beliefs that the self is fluid or stable. In particular, there has been much literature consistent with the notion that Japanese view their selves and their abilities in more incremental terms than North Americans. First, this distinction is evident in the ways that making efforts have been moralized in Japanese culture. For example, the terms “gambari,” “doryoku,” and “gaman,” have remarkably positive connotations compared to their English equivalents of perseverance, effort, and endurance, respectively. Indeed, doryoku and gambari have been identified as the two most liked words in the Japanese language (Shapiro & Hiatt, 1989) and cultivating gaman has been viewed as an important aspect of education (Duke, 1986). Similarly, tendencies to identify shortcomings in oneself has been institutionalized in the school system in the practice of hansei (literally, self-reflection). Many classes have hansei time at the end of the day where they review what mistakes were made and how one can improve (Lewis, 1995). Furthermore, malleability of the Japanese self is evident in a diverse ethnographic literature that focuses on the importance of adjusting the self to different situations (Bachnik & Quinn, 1994; Hamaguchi, 1985; Lebra, 1976; Rosenberger, 1992).

Much evidence for greater fluidity of the self among Japanese (and other East Asian groups) has also come from the psychological literature. For example, East Asians have been shown to have a more malleable sense of self than North Americans in the sense that they: a) are more likely to report feeling differently about themselves across situations (Kanagawa, Cross, & Markus, 2001; Suh, 2000); b) are more likely to view achievement as a product of efforts (e.g., Heine et al., in press; Holloway, 1988; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992); c) are less likely to make dispositional attributions (Choi & Nisbett, 1998; Morris & Peng, 1994); d) are more likely to make unstable attributions about their performance (Kashima & Triandis, 1986; Kitayama, Takagi, & Matsumoto, 1995); e) are more likely to try to change themselves than change their environment (Morling, Kitayama, & Miyamoto, in press; Weisz, Rothbaum, & Blackburn., 1984); and f) are less likely to view people as having innate differences in abilities (Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989). The degree of beliefs in the incremental nature of abilities can be seen quite clearly when participants are asked to estimate the percentage of intelligence that is due to efforts. European-Americans estimated that 36% of intelligence comes from one’s efforts, Asian-Americans estimated 45%, and Japanese 55% (Heine et al., in press). Culture has an impact on the perceived malleability of the self (but see mixed evidence on cultural comparisons of Likert scale measures of malleability; e.g., Heine et al., in press; Hong et al., 1999; Norenzayan, Choi, & Nisbett, 2001).

There is also evidence demonstrating that the greater malleability of the self is related to cultural differences in self-enhancement. First, whereas much past research finds that North Americans tend to have greater motivation to persist on a task after doing well on it than after doing poorly (Baumeister, Hamilton, & Tice, 1985; Feather, 1966, 1968; Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1983; Shrauger & Rosenberg, 1970), research with East Asians finds the opposite pattern: namely, after failure East Asians demonstrate more motivation to work on a task (and to view the task as important and diagnostic of ability; Heine et al., in press) than they do if they have succeeded (Hoshino-Browne & Spencer, 2000; Oishi & Diener, 2001; cf., Blinco, 1992; Fujinaga, 1990). An awareness of weaknesses appears to be directly linked to efforts to correct the perceived shortcomings.

Second, tendencies to persist after failure are significantly correlated with measures of incremental theories (Heine et al., in press; Hong et al., 1999) for members of both East Asian and North American cultures. Furthermore, experimental manipulations of incremental theories of abilities corroborate the cultural differences (Heine et al., in press). Leading Japanese to believe that performance on an experimental task is enhanced by effort has no impact on their persistence after failure relative to a control group; they apparently endorse this belief in the absence of the manipulation. In contrast, leading Americans to believe that performance on a task is enhanced by effort leads to significantly greater persistence after failure than a control (see Figure 1). Apparently, this manipulation provides novel information for Americans. The opposite pattern holds when participants are led to believe that the experimental task measures innate, stable abilities: that is, Japanese persist significantly less after failure when informed that the task is based on innate abilities (indicating that this is novel information to them), whereas Americans’ persistence is unaffected by this information (suggesting that they already possessed this belief). Being sensitive to weaknesses and working at correcting them is only a beneficial strategy if one believes that the weakness is correctable.

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