High self-esteem may be culturally universal, international study shows

Jun 07, 2007

The notion that East Asians, Japanese in particular, are self-effacing and have low self-esteem compared to Americans may well describe the surface view of East Asian personality, but misses the picture revealed by recently developed measures of self-esteem, according to a new study by a team of researchers from the United States, China and Japan.

For the first time psychologists used those new measures in exactly parallel fashion to compare samples of university students from the three countries. Surveying more than 500 students, they found that implicit, or automatic, self-esteem was strongly positive among students from each of the nations. The consistency of the findings across cultures was so clearly apparent that the researchers conclude in this month's issue of the journal Psychological Science that high implicit self-esteem may be culturally universal.

The researchers used the Implicit Association Test (IAT) created by University of Washington psychologist Anthony Greenwald and a co-author of the study, to probe the students' positive associations with themselves. Different versions of the test have been widely used to investigate automatic attitudes and evaluations such as racial bias, and gender and age stereotypes. In this study it was used to provide an index of self-esteem.

Psychologists previously equated self-esteem with the extent to which people describe themselves as having positive characteristics. These self-descriptions are called explicit self-esteem and are measured by asking for agreement with statements such as "I feel that I have a number of good qualities." No questions are asked to measure implicit self-esteem. Instead the test measures how rapidly a person can give the same response to words that are pleasant and words that refer to one's self.

To ensure that their sample was geographically diverse, the researchers recruited students from seven universities -- the University of Tokyo, Osaka University and Shinshu University in Japan; East China Normal University and Northwest Normal University in China and the UW and Harvard University -- to take the test, which was administered by computer.

Although East Asians are perceived by both others and themselves to be modest and self-effacing, the test results painted a different picture. Students from all three countries had highly positive implicit self-esteem, with the Japanese students showing especially higher self-esteem than their Chinese and American counterparts.

"Ordinary East Asians are aware that they hold strongly positive self-views. But the prevalent modesty norm prevents them from expressing it publicly," said Susumu Yamaguchi of Tokyo University and lead author of the study. "The IAT successfully unraveled East Asians' unexpressed self-esteem in our study."

The authors speculate that cross-cultural similarities in positive implicit self-esteem may arise from cross-cultural similarities in child-rearing.

"It may be that parents in all societies, especially mothers, adore their children and put them on a pedestal so that children worldwide absorb a highly positive self-concept," Greenwald said. "In Japan the culture explicitly tells you that you are not better than others. But this culturally approved explicit self-concept doesn't remove the base of adoration created by parents and other relatives since childhood. In China, where there is pressure for having smaller families, children are perhaps more precious than they were years ago."

Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychologist, co-developer of the test and co-author of the study said: "When we see cultural variation in human behavior, we understand that societies and cultures mold their members in different ways. When we see cultural invariance, as we do here in East-West self esteem, we understand that we are also all the same."

Source: University of Washington

Explore further: Psychopathic violent offenders' brains can't understand punishment

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Obama recommends extended wilderness zone in Alaska

16 hours ago

US President Barack Obama said Sunday he would recommend a large swath of Alaska be designated as wilderness, the highest level of federal protection, in a move likely to anger oil proponents.

NASA craft set to beam home close-ups of Pluto

17 hours ago

Nine years after leaving Earth, the New Horizons spacecraft is at last drawing close to Pluto and on Sunday was expected to start shooting photographs of the dwarf planet.

Navy wants to increase use of sonar-emitting buoys

18 hours ago

The U.S. Navy is seeking permits to expand sonar and other training exercises off the Pacific Coast, a proposal raising concerns from animal advocates who say that more sonar-emitting buoys would harm whales ...

Recommended for you

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.