Constructing Good Selves in Japan and North America

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Constructing Good Selves in Japan and North America

Steven J. Heine

University of British Columbia

Invited paper to appear in Culture and Social Behavior: The Tenth Ontario Symposium.

Constructing Good Selves in Japan and North America

Everyone has a self. That is, they have an integrated collection of beliefs about themselves, extending across time, that shapes their interpretations and reactions to particular situations and relationships with others. Likewise, I propose that everyone is motivated to have a good self. By a “good” self I mean a way of perceiving oneself, and acting in ways consistent with these perceptions, that is associated with favorable consequences for the individual. The consequences that befall upon an individual for any given way of thinking are not necessarily universal across time and place; rather they are contingent upon the environment that affords them. Different cultural environments will render different ways of thinking as beneficial or costly, and as such, there are potentially different ways of becoming a good self.

In this paper, I explore how the maintenance of positive self-views is associated with the construction of good selves in two cultural environments: Japan and North America. Positive self-views do not exist in isolation; rather, they are tethered to a number of psychological processes that sustain them. Hence, understanding how people strive to maintain positive self-views in different cultures will be fostered by exploring the cultural variability in specific psychological processes that relate to these views.

Self-Esteem and Face

There are at least two ways that we can conceive of people maintaining positive views about themselves. One way is that people can maintain their self-esteem; that is, they can strive to evaluate their self and its component features positively. This conceptualization of positive self-views is, of course, highly familiar to psychologists. According to Psycinfo, over the past 35 years there have been, on average, almost two publications per day on the topic of self-esteem. It is perhaps the most researched aspect of the self-concept.

An alternative route to positive self-views can be achieved by maintaining “face.” Face has been defined as “the respectability and/or 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, Ho, 1976). In contrast to self-esteem, face is not an especially familiar construct among Western psychologists, and there are a few key points from Ho’s definition that I would like to highlight. First, face is claimed from others. Individuals are not in the position to determine how much face they can have, rather, they must earn it from others. Second, the amount of face that an individual has is derived from their relative position within a network. The role that an individual occupies determines the amount of face that is available, not the individual’s qualities (although their qualities might influence the roles that they are able to achieve). Third, face is assessed to the degree that an individual has functioned adequately within their position. It is lost when individuals function inadequately, although it is not necessarily increased when they function more than adequately. I will return to discuss these features of face later .

The guiding thesis of this paper is that Japanese and North Americans differ in the importance that they weigh positive self-evaluations as derived through face or self-esteem, and, as such, differ in their efforts to maintain them. I will provide evidence to support this argument, and I will investigate the question of what psychological processes are implicated by a concern with self-esteem and a concern with face.

Self-Enhancing vs. Self-Improving Motivations

In exploring the processes implicated with self-esteem and face maintenance, a good place to start would be to consider the motivations that are most closely associated with them, namely, self-enhancement and self-improvement, respectively. These also represent the relevant processes in which the greatest amount of cross-cultural research has been conducted (for reviews see Heine, Lehman, Markus, & Kitayama, 1999; Ting-Toomey, 1994).

First, it is important to be clear what the terms “self-enhancement” and “self-improvement” mean, as the terms are broad and vague enough to shelter many potential meanings. By self-enhancement I mean a tendency to overly dwell on, elaborate, and exaggerate positive aspects of the self relative to one’s weaknesses. There are other ways that one could define self-enhancement, however, this definition captures the motivational pattern that I am exploring here and is consistent with all of the research that I discuss below. Likewise, by self-improvement I mean a tendency to overly dwell on, elaborate, and exaggerate negative aspects of the self relative to one’s strengths, in an effort to correct the identified shortcomings. This definition is consistent with motivations studied in much research conducted with East Asian populations, although it is a rather novel motivation within the context of North American psychological research. Note, that operationalized in these ways self-enhancement and self-improvement are not just distinct motivations, but are diametrically opposed in terms of their orientation towards positive information about the self. Self-enhancement emphasizes what is good about the individual whereas self-improvement emphasizes what is not yet good enough. Despite these differences in emphasis, however, both motivations are instrumental in efforts to become a good self.

The ways in which self-enhancement can facilitate self-esteem maintenance is quite straightforward. By emphasizing the positive features of the self, and downplaying the negative, self-enhancement can provide the individual with the favorable information necessary to build a solid foundation for self-esteem (Taylor & Brown, 1988). Indeed, it is hard to imagine how individuals could maintain self-esteem if they were not focusing on what is positive about themselves.

In contrast, self-improving motivations serve an important function for maintaining face. As face is achieved when others view individuals as meeting standards associated with their roles it becomes important for individuals to identify where they might stand to fall short of others’ expectations. By identifying those areas where others’ approval is in jeopardy, individuals are able to work towards correcting these potential shortcomings, and thereby insuring their face. In this way, self-improving motivations serve the purpose of directing individuals’ efforts towards the areas where their face is most vulnerable (Heine et al., 2001b).

Evidence for cultural differences in self-enhancing and self-improving motivations comes from a variety of sources. First, studies contrasting self-esteem across cultures reveal that East Asians tend to score far lower than North Americans, and these differences emerge with a variety of different measures (Bond & Cheung, 1983; Heine & Lehman, 2003; Mahler, 1976). That the cultural differences are observed across so many different measures of self-esteem suggest that the findings are not peculiar to any particular way of measuring self-esteem. North Americans are more likely than East Asians to endorse, or spontaneously offer, statements about their possession of desirable qualities.

A wide variety of other methodologies have been used to investigate the extent of cultural differences in these motivations. For example, much research reveals that North Americans have greater recall for their past successes than failures (e.g., Crary, 1966), however, East Asians recall these events equally well (Endo & Meijer, in press). Compared with North Americans, East Asians tend to be less satisfied with themselves in that they have larger actual-ideal and actual-ought self-discrepancies than do North Americans (Meijer, Heine, & Yamagami, 1999), and they score lower on measures of subjective well-being (Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995). East Asians are less likely to make the self-serving attributional bias (i.e., to take credit for their successes and blame others for their failures; for a review see Kitayama, Takagi, & Matsumoto, 1995), and they are also less likely to show evidence for other kinds of self-serving biases (e.g., Heine & Lehman, 1995; Heine & Renshaw, 2002; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Yik, Bond, & Paulhus, 1998). East Asians are more likely to view situations as causing a decrease in their self-esteem, whereas North Americans are more likely to see situations as opportunities for their self-esteem to increase (e.g., Kitayama, Markus, Matsumoto, & Norasakunnkit, 1997). Moreover, it does not appear to be the case that the cultural differences are limited to the current view of the self, but also to assessment of the future self. East Asians are less optimistic compared with North Americans (e.g., Heine & Lehman, 1995; Lee & Seligman, 1997).

An additional way that cultural differences in self-enhancing and self-improving motivations can be observed comes from research that investigates how individuals from different cultures react when they encounter negative information about themselves. A variety of studies have been conducted to determine whether culture shapes how people respond to failure. For example, much research has found that North Americans sometimes deal with an encountered failure by bolstering their self-assessments in an attempt to compensate for the acknowledged weakness (e.g., Baumeister & Jones, 1978). The impact of the failure is minimized in that the individual focuses on unrelated strengths that they hadn’t considered before. In contrast to this self-protective tendency, Japanese have been found to show a reverse compensatory self-enhancement bias (Heine, Kitayama, & Lehman, 2001a). That is, Japanese who encounter a failure in one domain rate themselves more negatively in other domains as well.

Similarly, much research on post-decisional dissonance with North Americans reveals that North Americans typically rationalize their decisions in an apparent attempt to convince themselves that they behaved responsibly (e.g., Steele, Spencer, & Lynch, 1993). Japanese, in contrast, do not show this rationalization in a standard post-decisional dissonance paradigm (Heine & Lehman, 1997b), suggesting that it is not as crucial for Japanese to view their decisions as correct (however, recent research has revealed different strategies by which Japanese rationalize their decisions; Hoshino-Browne, Zanna, Spencer, & Zanna, in press; Kitayama, this volume). Furthermore, while much research reveals that North Americans may deal with a failure by discounting the accuracy of the feedback (Heine, Takata, & Lehman, 2000), devaluing the importance of the task (Heine et al., 2001b; Simon, Greenberg, & Brehm, 1995), or by avoiding the task altogether (Feather, 1966), East Asians view failure feedback to be especially diagnostic and important (Heine et al., 2000, 2001b). East Asians are thus not just more likely to make more critical self-evaluations than North Americans; they actively respond to information indicating their weaknesses differently as well.

The cultural diversity in self-enhancing and self-improving motivations thus appear across a broad range of methodologies. The magnitude of this diversity is not trivial. According to Cohen (1988) effect sizes greater than .7 are considered to be large. A meta-analysis of 81 published cross-cultural studies of self-enhancing tendencies between East Asians and Westerners revealed that the average effect size (d) of the cultural difference of self-enhancement between North Americans and East Asians was .83. The cultural differences emerge consistently as well; 79 of the 81 revealed significant differences in the expected direction (Heine & Hamamura, 2003). These differences also seem to be protected from several alternative explanations (see Heine, in press, for a discussion on this point). In sum, cultures in which self-esteem maintenance is emphasized show more evidence of self-enhancement than those in which greater importance is ascribed to face maintenance.

Promotion vs. Prevention Focus

Another psychological process that would appear to be implicated by differential emphases of self-esteem and face is regulatory focus. There are two different ways in which individuals can strive to regulate their goal pursuit. The first is a promotion focus, which elaborates upon achieving a positive outcome. When individuals are maintaining this outlook they are concerned with their advancement, accomplishments, and aspirations. In contrast, a prevention outlook focuses on not achieving negative outcomes, and elaborates upon safety, responsibilities, and obligations (Higgins, 1996). As successful functioning in any environment would seem to hinge both on attaining rewards and avoiding costs, these two orientations should be of universal significance, and are clearly evident across species (e.g., Jones, Larkins, & Hughes, 1996).

That motivations to attain rewards and avoid costs must be universal, however, does not mean that individuals will engage in these two orientations to an equal extent. A prevention focus should become more evident when an individual is confronted with a looming threat, whereas a promotion focus should be enhanced when individuals have the opportunity to achieve a significant gain. Likewise, managing resources that can be easily lost should lead an individual to adopt a prevention focus, whereas considerations of resources that can be more easily accumulated should lead to a promotion focus.

Self-esteem and face are two resources that vary in their ease of accumulation and vulnerability to loss. As a resource, self-esteem carries the advantage of being somewhat under the discretion of the holder. To the extent that individuals want to maintain positive thoughts about themselves, they are likely to selectively elaborate upon any information that is consistent with this desire, and downplay any information that is inconsistent with it. This motivation to view oneself positively distorts our ability to accurately process self-relevant information (Epley & Dunning, 2000). As information about the self is considered only after being filtered through the lens of the individual’s desires to form a positive evaluation, the individual will rarely encounter information that constitutes a clear threat to the self. Threats to the self have a difficult time getting past the self-evaluation censor, whereas boosts to the self are quickly escorted to the front of consciousness. As such, self-esteem is easily enhanced, but is more difficult to be lost. This biased processing in the favor of positive self-relevant information renders a promotion orientation functional for self-esteem maintenance.

In contrast to self-esteem, however, face is more easily lost than it is gained. First, because face is a resource that is earned from others, individuals will only have as much as others are willing to grant them. Because others are unlikely to share the individual’s desire that they be viewed positively, evaluations will not be distorted in a self-serving way. Thus a promotion focus is not automatically favored.

Furthermore, as Ho’s definition highlights, one’s face is maintained provided that one’s performance is viewed by others as adequate. Failing to live up to the standards associated with one’s roles will lead to a loss in face. As it is never completely clear to the individual what others’ standards are, nor how their performance is being interpreted, individuals can rarely feel certain that they are clearly transcending these standards. Face is thus rather vulnerable as it can be potentially lost in any occasion where the individual’s performance is judged to be inadequate.

On the other hand, it can be extremely difficult to enhance one’s face. The amount of face that an individual has is prescribed by their role within the group. As such, the way to enhance one’s face is to move up the hierarchy and occupy a more prestigious role. However, such promotions are not easily accomplished. Because each person’s position is relative to that of others, the advancement of one person within a group is possible only with the relative demotion of others. Fluid movement among members in a hierarchy will breed intragroup competition, and thus weaken interpersonal harmony. It is thus not surprising that societies that emphasize face and hierarchy tend to operate more on seniority systems (e.g., Nakane, 1970), where the hierarchy remains relatively fixed compared with more meritocratic systems. There are few easy opportunities for individuals to increase their face.

It is perhaps telling that the one occasion in which Japanese society is highly meritocratic is in the university entrance exam competition. Because the university that one enters has an enormous influence on one’s future occupation, students’ performance during this competition will largely determine the amount of occupational face that they will earn in their futures (Cutts, 1997). It seems that much of the meritocratic sorting of individuals in Japan happens at this one competition, which is played out nationwide. By limiting meritocratic opportunities largely to this one occasion, and having that competition played out on such a large impersonal scale that an individual’s success is not so obviously at the expense of someone close to them, the costs to interpersonal harmony are minimized.

To summarize, the biased processing of information associated with self-esteem maintenance renders self-esteem to be more easily gained than lost. Self-esteem maintenance should thus be associated with a promotion focus. In contrast, face is more easily lost than it is gained. Whereas an individual runs the risk everyday of potentially losing face by failing to live up to others’ standards, there are few easy opportunities available to gain face. The vulnerability of face as a resource should lead to a prevention focus.

To the extent that face is a greater concern for East Asians, whereas self-esteem is dwelled upon more in North America, we should see corresponding cultural differences in regulatory focus: that is, East Asians should be relatively more prevention focused and North Americans should be more promotion focused. A few recent studies have been conducted that provide evidence in support of this. For example, Lee, Aaker, and Gardner (2000) found that East Asians viewed tennis games that were framed as opportunities to avoid a loss as more important than North Americans, whereas North Americans viewed the same games when framed as opportunities to secure a win as more important than East Asians.

Relatedly, Elliot, Chirkov, Kim and Sheldon (2001) contrasted personal goals among Koreans and Americans and found that avoidance personal goals were more commonly identified among the Koreans than they were among the American sample. Moreover, whereas the presence of avoidance personal goals is associated with lower subjective well-being among Americans these relations did not hold for Koreans (also see Ip & Chiu, 2002).

These hypothesized cultural differences in regulatory focus predict that Japanese and North Americans should respond to success and failure in distinct ways. That is, in their search for possibilities of advancement, promotion-oriented North Americans should become especially motivated after encountering a success. Working on one’s strengths increases the likelihood of securing future gains. In contrast, prevention-oriented Japanese should be more motivated following failures. Directing efforts towards those areas where one is not performing well works towards correcting one’s shortcomings, and thereby reduces the likelihood that one will fall short of others’ expectations. Indeed, research reveals that whereas North Americans will persist longer after successes than failures, Japanese persist more following failures than successes (Heine et al., 2001; also see Hoshino-Browne & Spencer, 2000; Oishi & Diener, in press). Regulatory focus varies importantly across cultures.

One important point to note, is that the logic that I propose here for a link between prevention focus and face-maintenance is just one possible equilibrium that can emerge when individuals are concerned about an audience’s evaluation of them. I do think that other equilibria are possible when other conditions in the culture are different (see Cohen, 2001, for an excellent discussion of how different cultural equilibria emerge). For example, another way that we can consider the pursuit of face is in honor cultures, such as among males in the US South (e.g., Nisbett & Cohen, 1996) or in the inner-city (Anderson, 1999). The distinctions between honor cultures and face cultures are subtle, as they are both concerned with one’s reputation in the eyes of others. However, there seems to be pronounced differences between people from these cultures in terms of their self-enhancing tendencies or promotion orientations (e.g., there is perhaps no greater a contrast with the modest displays of a Japanese office worker than that of the confident swagger of an inner city gang member). One difference between the two kinds of cultures seems to be that in many honor cultures individuals (particularly males) are in competition with each other over vulnerable resources, so an individual must strive to enhance his honor relative to his competitors. The amount of honor that is available is the amount that an individual can successfully claim for himself from others. The more that an individual can claim, the better off he will be, provided that the individual can bear the cost of that claim. In such a situation we might expect that a concern with honor would lead to a promotion orientation. In contrast, East Asian cultures differ from that of these other honor cultures in that the amount of face available is not in direct competition among individuals. The hierarchy of roles within groups is consensually defined and the amount of face available to the individual is tied to the his or her role. Moreover, the expectations associated with these roles are widely shared, and the roles are viewed as largely fixed, and are not open for negotiation (Su et al, 1999). In this context, individuals need not actively strive to claim their face, but instead aspire to live up to the standards of the amount of face that is ascribed by the roles that they occupy. This kind of context should lead to an equilibrium point of maintaining a prevention orientation. In sum, the relations that I am proposing between concerns with face and self-esteem and other psychological processes are dependent on other cultural variables that might affect the equilibria that emerge.

Internal vs. External Frame of Reference

Perhaps the most straightforward, and important, way that self-esteem differs from face is with respect to who is doing the evaluating. High self-esteem can only be achieved if individuals view themselves positively. To secure positive self-views people need to be concerned with their own evaluations, and as such, must consider their performance by comparing it to their own standards (which will be determined, in part, by what people assume others’ standards to be). I term this consideration of oneself from one’s own perspective an internal frame of reference. In contrast, face is secured when others view the individual positively. To secure face, people need to be concerned about how others are viewing them, and as such, must consider how they are measuring up to others’ standards. I term this tendency to consider oneself from others’ perspectives and standards an external frame of reference. These different frames of reference are important components of self-esteem and face, and they require distinct strategies to secure them.

Self-esteem maintenance involves a rather straightforward goal. Individuals need to convince themselves that they are good. Aiding them in this important task is an arsenal of self-deceptive tactics: for example, positive views can be increased by elaborating memories of positive events compared with negative ones (Endo & Meijer, in press), rationalizing one’s behaviors to render them sensible (Festinger, 1957), choosing an appropriate downward comparison target (Wills, 1981), derogating one’s past self to provide one with a favorable contrast (Wilson & Ross, 2001), switching one’s focus to one’s strengths whenever a weakness is identified (Baumeister & Jones, 1978), affiliating oneself with successful others (Cialdini et al., 1976), trivializing the importance of a setback (Heine et al., 2001b), or rounding their evaluations upwards whenever given the chance (Taylor & Brown, 1988). It is not a surprise that the vast majority of North Americans have high self-esteem (Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989). If one is sufficiently motivated, this array of self-deceptive tactics can disarm many potential threats to self-esteem.

A critical feature of these self-deception strategies, however, is that they are employed to deceive the self, not others. Whereas the self is very cooperative when being misled to think of itself in overly positive terms, others are not so easily swayed. For example, upon witnessing a performer demonstrate less than adequate behavior, the observer is unlikely to call up the same array of possible rationalizations that the performer is. Moreover, no amount of efforts by the performer to deceive themselves will have much effect on the evaluations of the audience. Regardless of how motivated an individual is to view themselves positively, face maintenance hinges on the evaluations of others. Unless the performer is someone who is a close relation of the evaluator that reflects upon their self, heightening the motivation of the evaluator to judge them positively (e.g., Brown, Collins, & Schmidt, 1988; Heine & Lehman, 1997a), performers will likely be evaluated in cold, objective terms, where failures are interpreted simply as failures. Even worse, in many situations evaluators might view performers in overly harsh terms because of the greater impact of negative information (Rozin & Royzman, 2001), a tendency to view performance in dispositional terms (e.g., Ross, Amabile, & Steinmetz, 1977), or by motivations that derive from their own self-deceptive desires to find downward social comparison targets (Wills, 1981).

Individuals are in a very vulnerable position when the key source of evaluation moves from the amenable, easily deceived self, to the potentially critical perspective of an audience. It would seem that when individuals are concerned about face maintenance and living up to the standards of an audience, the best strategy would be to adopt a perspective that is at least as critical as that of the audience. By identifying behavior that might potentially fall short of others’ standards, and by working towards correcting and eliminating these vulnerabilities, the individual is best able to protect their face.

The differential emphasis placed on face and self-esteem in different cultures predicts comparable cultural differences in frames of reference. Indeed, recent evidence indicates that East Asians are more likely than North Americans to maintain an external frame of reference. For example, Leuers and Sonoda (1999) compared how Japanese and Americans presented themselves in photographs. A greater concern for an external frame of awareness would be indicated if people made efforts to create a positive impression in the photograph. Indeed, Leuers and Sonoda found that 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. In contrast, Americans were more likely to reveal themselves “warts and all,” with less apparent effort to ensure a positive self-presentation.

Cohen (this volume) hypothesized 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 “outside-in perspective” has rather profound consequences on psychological experience: for example, Cohen (this volume) found 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’ memories for themselves at the center of attention 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.

Cross-cultural research on self-awareness also identifies cultural divergences in frames of reference. 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 considering themselves in terms of how they appear to others. A pair of recent cross-cultural studies corroborate this hypothesis: Heine, Takemoto, Sonoda, and Moskalenko (2003) found that whereas Canadians and Americans showed a decrease in self-esteem and an increase in self-discrepancies when they saw their reflection in a mirror (replicating much past research on self-awareness; e.g., Duval & Wicklund, 1972), Japanese self-evaluations were unaffected by the presence of the mirror. Moreover, although North American self-evaluations were much more positive than Japanese when the mirror was not present, they were at relatively similar levels to Japanese when they were in front of the mirror. 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. Objectivity constrains the ability to maintain a positive self-view.

Entity vs. Incremental Theories of Abilities

Self-esteem and face are also implicated in the lay theories that we hold about the nature of abilities. One way of thinking about abilities is to view them as arising from a set of relatively fixed and innate attributes. This kind of “entity theory” (Dweck & Legget, 1988) of abilities reflects beliefs in an underlying essence that is tied to abilities. With such a worldview an individual’s successes and failures directly reflect upon his or her perceived capabilities and self-worth. Successes indicate the innate talents that are part of the individual, whereas failures reveal unsightly blemishes, which, unfortunately, are perceived as being relatively indelible. It would seem, then, that beliefs in entity theories will be associated with a need for self-esteem. To the extent that abilities are perceived to be largely immutable and reflecting of essential aspects of the individual, having a positive assessment of them would seem to be accompanied by subjective well-being, and would also provide the individual with the requisite confidence to perform at their best on a task. Viewing one’s abilities negatively, on the other hand, would seem to be closely tied to depression and would decrease any motivation to improve. There is little reason to try harder if one’s failures are perceived to be immutable.

A second way of conceiving abilities is to view them as being malleable, and ultimately improvable. This kind of “incremental theory” of abilities reflects a belief in the key role of efforts in abilities. With this kind of worldview successes and failures are seen to be less diagnostic of one’s capabilities and self-worth, and more revealing of the extent of one’s efforts. Doing poorly on a task does not indicate that one is lacking the potential, but rather that one needs to direct additional efforts to improvement. This suggests that those with incremental views of abilities should not find failures as painful, and successes as pleasant, as those with entity theories, and hence performance on tasks should be less tied to their self-esteem.

In societies characterized by hierarchical interdependence, such as much of East Asia, incremental views of abilities can become importantly tied to face. As an individual’s performance on group-relevant tasks affects the group’s success, it becomes critical for individuals to be perceived as doing their best towards what are, in many cases, shared goals of the group. That performance on these group goals is viewed as being so closely tied to efforts means that how hard one works becomes a matter of moral significance. Face, in terms of how the ingroup is evaluating the individual, is influenced by whether the individual is perceived as doing sufficiently well, and is demonstrating concentrated efforts to the group. One’s face will be maintained to the extent that one is seen as making efforts to do one’s best and maximally contributing to the group’s welfare. Some evidence for this moralization of efforts can be seen in the Japanese language. Words related to effort come to take on extremely positive connotations: surveys find that “effort” (doryoku) and “persistence” (gambaru) have been rated as the first and second most popular words in Japanese, respectively (Shapiro & Hiatt, 1989). When employees are finished for the day, the standard words of departure are either “You must be exhausted,” or “I am sorry for leaving before you.” The extent of the value placed on hard work for the good of others is also evident in cultural practices in the Japanese workplace such as the remarkably high rates of voluntary overtime (e.g., Kumazawa, 1996), tendencies of many to refuse to take their paid holidays (e.g., Harada, 1998), and the occasional instance of death by overwork (karoshi; Nishiyama & Johnson, 1997).

Beliefs in the important role of effort in East Asia are also revealed clearly in cross-cultural education research. A number of studies have identified greater tendencies for East Asians compared with North Americans to attribute school achievement to efforts, and not abilities (e.g.., Holloway, 1988; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Japanese teachers are reluctant to discuss differences in students’ abilities, and schools do not track students (Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989). This tendency to explain performance in terms of effort is also evident in cross-cultural studies of self-serving attributions where, often, Japanese explain both successes and failures more in terms of effort than do North Americans (see Kitayama et al., 1995). Cultural differences in the degree that beliefs in the incremental nature of abilities are embraced 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., 2001b). 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., 2001b; Hong, Chiu, Dweck, Lin, & Wan, 1999; Norenzayan, Choi, & Nisbett, 2002).

Furthermore, experimental manipulations of incremental theories of abilities corroborate the cultural differences (Heine et al., 2001b). 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. 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.

The greater incremental view of abilities in East Asia is also evident in people’s reactions to success and failure. Compared with North Americans, East Asians do not demonstrate as strong a relation between actual-ideal self-discrepancies and depression (Heine & Lehman, 1999; Marsella, Walker, & Johnson, 1973). Likewise, Japanese have a weaker emotional reaction to encounters with success or failure than North Americans (Heine et al., 2001b). The relatively muted reactions to the feedback among Japanese are consistent with them viewing their performance as a reflection of their efforts rather than abilities.

Independent vs. Interdependent Views of Self

A final process implicated by concerns with maintaining self-esteem and face is with regard to how people view themselves. One way of considering the self is to see it as a relatively autonomous, self-sustaining, collection of attributes, that is largely independent from others. This independent view of self has been the working model for many of the theories of self that have been developed by a Western-dominated social psychology. In contrast, a second way of construing selves is to see them as being fundamentally interconnected, situationally-variable, and grounded in roles and relationships with significant ingroup others. This interdependent view of self has recently become a focus for research, particularly in non-Western cultures, and has been linked to a wide array of distinct phenomena (for reviews see Heine, 2001; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Triandis, 1989).

There are a couple of ways that independence and interdependence would seem to be linked with self-esteem and face maintenance, respectively. First, to the extent that the feelings of identity of an individual with an independent view of self are based on herself and herself alone, it would seem especially important for that individual to come to view herself positively. It would be difficult to feel as though she is autonomous and self-sufficient if she did not view herself as competent and talented. It would seem that being able to feel as though one does not have to rely on others and is able to take care of oneself requires that one embraces a relatively positive self-view. In contrast, feelings of identity for individuals with interdependent views of self importantly hinge on their relations with others (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Elaborating on what is positive about oneself will not serve to increase one’s belongingness with others (and indeed, might have the opposite effect; see Paulhus, 1998). Rather, belongingness will be enhanced when significant others are viewing you as desirable, and as contributing satisfactorily towards the ingroups’ goals. As such, maintaining one’s face should be associated with the maintenance of belongingness.

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. A variety of studies have measured the correlations between trait independence and interdependence and self-esteem or self-enhancement. These studies have consistently found clear positive relations between independence and positive self-views, regardless of culture, and negative (albeit weaker) relations between interdependence and positive self-views (Heine et al., 1999; Heine & Renshaw, 2002; Kiuchi, 1996; Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeier, 2002; Singelis, Bond, Lai, & Sharkey, 1999. Self-enhancement is related to independence and is opposed to interdependence.

A second way that independence and interdependence are differentially related to self-enhancement can be understood by considering the consequences of elaborating a positive self-view. Self-enhancement is associated with both costs and benefits to the individual. Paulhus (1998) makes the case that these benefits and costs are realized in two different domains. First, benefits of self-enhancement tend to be intrapsychic in nature. That is, focusing on what is good about the self tends to be associated with subjective well-being and self-efficacy, and is negatively associated with dysphoria and depression (Taylor & Armor, 1996; Taylor & Brown, 1988). If people are more often considering their strengths than their weaknesses, they will likely experience more rewarding thoughts and warm feelings about themselves. Indeed, positive views of the self show clear and pronounced correlations with measures of positive feelings and subjective well-being (Taylor & Brown, 1988; Taylor & Gollwitzer, 1995). One clear benefit of self-enhancing, then, is that it feels good.

However, the intrapsychic benefits that derive from self-enhancement come at the expense of one’s relationships. A number of researchers have highlighted how self-enhancers risk attracting the scorn of those around them (Colvin, Block, & Funder, 1995; Exline & Lobel, 1999; Paulhus, 1998; Vohs & Heatherton, 2001; for a contrary view see Taylor, Lerner, Sherman, Sage, & McDowell, 2003). To put it simply, most people tend not to particularly like self-enhancers, especially over time. Paulhus (1998) found that after 7 weeks of interacting with each other self-enhancers were less likely to be viewed positively by their peers than were non-self-enhancers. Other research has underscored how positive self-presentations result in the individual being liked less (e.g., Godfrey, Jones, & Lord, 1986; Tice, Butler, Muraven, & Stillwell, 1995). These interpersonal costs are especially evident in long-term relationships (Robins & Beer, 2001), the kinds of relationships that are especially implicated in interdependent selves.

The costs and benefits of self-enhancement in these two domains suggests that to the extent an individual places more weight on intrapsychic over interpersonal concerns, self-enhancement would be a beneficial strategy. The positive feelings that arise from self-enhancement will be seen as worth the price of the alienation of those around one. In contrast, to the extent that individuals are more concerned about their interpersonal relationships than their intrapsychic rewards, they should benefit more by self-improvement and face-maintenance. The benefits of deepening their relations with others outweigh the costs of the negative feelings associated with self-improvement. This logic can be extended to cultures. Cultures that place more emphasis on feeling good should make self-enhancement a more beneficial strategy, whereas cultures that place greater relative weight on maintaining harmonious interpersonal relationships should benefit more by self-improvement and face-maintenance.

There is considerable evidence that Japanese and North Americans differ in the extent to which they differentially emphasize intrapsychic and interpersonal concerns. First, there is consistent evidence that North Americans report feeling more positive feelings than Japanese (Diener, Diener, & Diener, 1995; Kitayama, Markus, & Kurokawa, 2000; Mesquita & Karasawa, 2002; Oishi, 2002). One way to make sense of this difference is that North Americans tend to elaborate the positivity of their feelings as these are more relevant to a successful life. Suh, Diener, Oishi, and Triandis (1998) find that the experience of positive feelings is more closely tied to subjective well-being for North Americans than Japanese (and between people from individualistic and collectivistic cultures more generally), whereas fulfillment of role expectations is more closely tied to well-being for people from collectivist cultures. Thus, intrapsychic concerns are arguably dwelled on to a greater extent by North Americans.

In contrast, the greater importance placed on maintaining harmonious interpersonal relationships in East Asia relative to North America has been discussed in a variety of domains. These concerns are argued to lead to less confrontational and more compromising negotiation strategies, such as bargaining and mediation (Leung, 1987), and to favoring a seniority based system of rewards over a meritocratic system (e.g., Clark, 1979; Nakane, 1970), as the former is associated with less competition among colleagues. Individuals behave such that they are more likely to fit in with others (e.g., Kim & Markus, 1999) and adjust their behavior to that of significant others (Iyengar & Lepper, 1999; Morling, Kitayama, & Miyamoto, 2002). Hence, some evidence suggests that East Asians tend to emphasize interpersonal concerns more, and intrapsychic concerns less, and thus the cost-benefit ratio of self-enhancing is not as favorable for them relative to North Americans.


There are at least two ways that people can aspire towards positive self-views. One way is for the individual to come to view themselves positively, that is, they can possess, enhance, and maintain self-esteem. This motivation is well understood by psychologists, and research investigating it has dominated the pages of social psychological journals. A second way is for the individual to come to be viewed positively by others, that is, they can possess, enhance, and maintain face. This motivation, in contrast, has received relatively little empirical or theoretical attention thus far (see Ting-Toomey, 1994, for an important exception). Whereas both of these motivations are clearly universal in the sense that members from all cultures surely experience both concerns with self-esteem and face, the degree to which these are emphasized varies importantly.

Although the pursuit of these two kinds of positive self-views likely reflects a similar underlying concern with becoming a good cultural member, the strategies that one takes to achieve them vary considerably. The pursuit of self-esteem is associated with self-enhancing motivations, a promotion orientation, an internal frame of reference, entity theories of abilities, and independent views of self. These processes all work in concert when individuals are concerned with evaluating themselves positively. In contrast, the pursuit of face is associated with self-improving motivations, a prevention orientation, an external frame of reference, incremental theories of abilities, and interdependent views of self. These processes are all relevant when individuals are concerned with being viewed positively by others in terms of their ability to live up to the standards associated with their roles.

These different orientations highlight an issue critical to conceiving of human universals. At some level, it would seem that all human motivations stem from a universal foundation, that is, they are derived from a set of concerns that had adaptive significance in the evolutionary environment. At a distal and abstract level, we can conceive of both self-esteem and face maintenance as ways for people to become good selves and receive beneficial outcomes associated with living up to cultural standards of what a good person is. At a more proximal and concrete level, however, we can see a great deal of cultural variability in the specific psychological processes that are implicated – the level at which most psychological research is conducted. That universal motivations, such as striving to become a good cultural member, can express themselves in such culturally divergent phenomena at the proximal level underscores the critical role of both biology and culture in making sense of human nature.

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