41 Culture and Positive Self-Regard Is There a Universal Need for Positive Self-Regard?

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Is There a Universal Need for Positive Self-Regard?

Steven J. Heine

University of Pennsylvania
Darrin R. Lehman

University of British Columbia

Hazel Rose Markus

Stanford University

Shinobu Kitayama

Kyoto University

Please address correspondence to:

Steven J. Heine

Department of Psychology

3815 Walnut Street

University of Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, PA 19104

Psychological Review (in press)
Running Head: A Need for Self-Regard


A basic assumption in social psychology is that people seek positive self-regard; that is they are motivated to possess, enhance, and maintain positive self views. We addressed the cross-cultural generalizability of such motivations by examining a culture outside of North America: namely, Japanese. Our anthropological, sociological, and psychological analysis revealed that many elements of Japanese culture are incongruent with such motivations. Moreover, the empirical literature provides scant evidence for a need for positive self-regard among Japanese and indicates that a self-critical focus is more characteristic of Japanese. We argue that the need for self-regard must be culturally variant because the constructions of “self” and “regard” themselves differ across cultures. The need for positive self-regard, as it is currently conceptualized, is not a universal, but rather is rooted in significant aspects of North American culture. Conventional interpretations of positive self-regard are too narrow to encompass the Japanese experience.

Is There a Universal Need for Positive Self-Regard?

People have a need to view themselves positively. This is easily the most common and consensually endorsed assumption in research on the self (e.g., Allport, 1955; Epstein, 1973; James, 1890; Maslow, 1943; Rogers, 1951; Steele, 1988; Tesser, 1988). In fact, positive self-regard is thought by many to be essential for achieving mental health (e.g., Baumeister, 1993; Leary, Tambor, Terdal, & Downs, 1995; Taylor & Brown, 1988). Although the presumption of this need appears across research paradigms (e.g., self-esteem, self-enhancing biases, self-evaluation maintenance), the vast majority of research hinging on this assumption has been conducted in North America within a context of Western philosophical thought. No doubt, we have a solid understanding of self-evaluation for the average North American research participant: He or she possesses a positive self-view (e.g., Baumeister, Tice, & Hutton, 1989; Diener & Diener, 1996), tends to enhance the positivity of his or her self-view (e.g., Blaine & Crocker, 1993; Greenwald, 1980; Taylor & Brown, 1988), and actively seeks information that maintains this positive self-view (e.g., Baumeister & Jones, 1978; Greenberg & Pyszczynski, 1985; Steele, 1988; Tesser, 1988). Clearly, then, the normative view of self in North America can be described as biased or skewed in terms of its valence. The center of gravity of the North American self lies distinctly above the theoretical midpoint of the self-evaluation spectrum (Baumeister et al., 1989).

Significantly less research on self-views has been conducted outside of North America, particularly in East Asian cultures. Yet the available evidence indicates that people participating in East Asian cultures do not have similarly skewed distributions of self-views (Campbell, Trapnell, Heine, Katz, Lavallee, & Lehman, 1996; Diener & Diener, 1995). The suggestion, then, is that tendencies to possess, enhance, and maintain positive self-views may not be basic to humankind, but may depend, in large part, on significant aspects of contemporary North American culture.

In this paper, we review studies carried out in two cultural contexts: Japanese cultural contexts and North American1 cultural contexts. We focus on a comparison of just two cultural contexts for the purpose of articulating how specific socialities (i.e., specific social environmental arrangements of practices and institutions), can promote and sustain particular mentalities (i.e., the psychological experiences associated with self-regard). We selected these two particular cultures because they are best represented in the self literature among East Asian and Western cultures, respectively. Other cultures likely possess similar psychological and cultural experiences to these two, and to the extent that they do, we expect that our discussions would generalize to them. We employ this two-cultural comparison to highlight how cultural variation urges us to reconceptualize what we mean when we speak of human nature.

Similar to other psychological phenomena that have been shown to be influenced and shaped by culture (for a review see Markus & Kitayama, 1991b), we propose that self-evaluations do not exist within a cultural vacuum. At the most general level, our thesis is that human development has much to do with the individual constructing his or her own identity as a meaningful cultural entity. We argue that in North America a key component of constructing the self involves the continual self-affirmation of the individual as an autonomous agent who has functioned, is functioning, and will continue to do so effectively in future, daily social life. In Japan, a key component of constructing the self involves the continual affirmation of the relationships of which the individual is part and thus an affirmation of the self as an active, mutually validating, and validated cultural agent. We elaborate how this suspension of the self in a network of relationships renders the need for positive self-regard necessarily weak and functionally disconnected for many social and psychological processes of the Japanese person. Moreover, we suggest that affirmation of the self as an interdependent agent is achieved not by seeking positive self-regard but rather by maintaining a chronic self-critical view.

What is Self-Esteem?

The definition of self-esteem is a source of perennial controversy within the field of social psychology, and as one analyzes the relationship between culture and positive self-regard, the definition assumes particular importance. For the most part “good” self-esteem and “positive” self-esteem are completely conflated. Good self-esteem is taken to mean positive self-esteem even though it is possible to imagine other meanings of “good” than positive.

Most often self-esteem appears to refer to the positivity of the person’s global evaluation of the self. James (1890) referred to that certain “average tone of self-feeling that each of us carries about with him, and which is independent of the objective reasons we may have for satisfaction or discontent” (p. 306). Rosenberg (1979) defined self-esteem as a self-reflexive attitude that results from conceiving the self as an object of evaluation. J. D. Brown (1998) defines self-esteem as feelings of affection for oneself and he describes high self-esteem as a general fondness or love for oneself.

J. D. Brown argues that there is a basic human need to feel good about ourselves, and suggests that although people across time and cultures may approach this need differently, it is universal. He quotes Becker who writes “The fundamental datum for our science is a fact that at first seems banal, or irrelevant: it is the fact that—as far as we can tell—all organisms like to ‘feel good’ about themselves... Thus in the most brief and direct manner, we have a law of human development” (1968, p. 328). Self-esteem defined in this way is meant to refer to the way people generally feel about themselves most of the time across most situations. Yet in many empirical studies self-esteem refers to the more momentary emotional states or self-feelings that arise from particular outcomes —receiving a high score on a test of ability or a low score on a measure of social sensitivity. Such self-feelings were labeled feelings of self-worth by James (1890) and are often considered to be a type of state self-esteem as opposed to more global, trait self-esteem. Here again positive and good are not differentiated.

Self-esteem theorists are also divided about the source of one’s global attitude toward the self. Many approaches assume that people survey their feelings about their various attributes and characteristics and arrive at a summary evaluation or judgment. Coopersmith (1967), for example, describes a process in which “...the individual examines his performance, capacities, and attributes according to his personal standards and values and arrives at a decision of his own worthiness” (p. 7). According to this perspective, positive self-evaluations or positive self-appraisals arise from thinking, viewing, judging, and deciding and then global self-esteem is constructed from specific evaluations of self-worth in a bottom-up process (Marsh, 1989; 1990). Similarly, Seligman (1995) maintains that self-esteem is an epiphenomenon that reflects how well one is doing in life.

All of these definitions of self-esteem and most measures of self-esteem imply a particular model of the self—one in which the self is comprised of aspects or attributes that can be categorized as positive or negative. Given another model of the self – one which gives priority to social relations and social connectedness, a model we have argued is the case for Japanese, many of the commonly employed definitions of self-esteem, especially those which assume that specific evaluations of the self are monitored, added, and weighted to arrive at an overall view, and that it is a positive reading or feeling that indexes the good or preferred state, may be inadequate. Theories that assume that it is positive self-feelings that function as indicators of the adequacy and integrity of the self may be too narrow or specific in their scope to accurately characterize people from certain cultures.

If we do not commit to a model of self-esteem which assumes that good equals positive or that the self is comprised of attributes or abilities or pretensions, but adhere instead to the notion that self-esteem indexes only a general feeling or regard for the self, it may be possible to define self-esteem so that it is relevant to various models of self. For example, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski (1991) in their terror management theory claim that self-esteem arises from doing what is required by the cultural contexts within which one engages. This is yet another route to self-affirmation and one in which positive feelings about the self or self-affection as typically defined may not be necessary. Specifically they write:

“Self-esteem is made possible by the development of cultural worldviews, which provide a stable and meaningful conception of the universe, social roles and specific prescriptions for behaviors that are deemed valuable, and the promise of safety and immortality to those who satisfy these prescriptions. Self-esteem is therefore a cultural contrivance consisting of two components: a meaningful conception of the universe combined with the perception that one is meeting the standards for value within that culturally contrived reality” (Solomon et. al., 1991, pp. 24-25).

We will return to the issue of the definition of self-esteem following our review of the empirical findings bearing on the links between culture and self-esteem.

Although there are differences of opinion with respect to the definition of self-esteem, there is remarkable convergence regarding its importance. For example, James (1890) proclaimed that a direct feeling of regard for one’s existence was basic to humanity. Maslow (1943) viewed the need for self-esteem to be the second highest category within his hierarchy of human needs. The foundation of Rogers’ (1951) phenomenological theory rested upon the notion that humans have a basic need to maintain and enhance the self. Carver and Scheier (1981) placed the superordinate goal of maintaining a positive self-image near the top of their hierarchy of standards for self-regulation. R. Brown (1986) described the need to maintain self-esteem as an “urge so deeply human that we can hardly imagine its absence” (p. 534). Tesser’s (1988) self-evaluation maintenance model has “at its core the assumption that persons behave so as to maintain a positive self-evaluation” (p. 204). So common is this assumption in North American social psychological research that, as Solomon et al. (1991) remind us, “It is difficult to conceive of an area of behavior that has not been linked in some way to a need for self-esteem” (p. 107).

The aforementioned theorists are all Americans (not coincidentally we would add), reflecting their socialization in a culture that, more than any other, celebrates individualism (Hofstede, 1980; Lipset, 1996; Sampson, 1977). It is important to note that self-esteem research, by and large, has been conducted by North American researchers at North American universities with North American participants employing methodologies that were developed in North America. While a perusal of the psychological literature reveals a significant concern with self-esteem among North American researchers (and to a lesser extent European and Australian researchers), such research occupies a conspicuously smaller proportion of journal space in Asia. Self-esteem as a major topic of study simply has not seemed to “catch on” in non-Western cultures, and to our minds this is telling. This strengthens our belief that self-esteem, as it is conventionally researched and understood, may be, in significant ways, a North American phenomenon.

Culture and Self

The enormous body of research on the self-concept in the North American psychological literature reflects North Americans’ deep fascination with the self. The self-concept, however, being forever bound to the historical and cultural context within which it is examined (Sampson, 1977), remains a resistant target of objective study. Gergen (1973) argued that much of social psychological research is an historical undertaking with the processes under investigation best understood as psychological counterparts to cultural norms. Indeed, Baumeister (1987) noted that the self-concept as we know it today is a relatively recent historical construction, emerging in Western Europe roughly around the 16th century. The point here is that the self cannot be treated as though it were an entity existing independent of a social context—its various forms have developed to their present states through peculiar sets of historical and cultural antecedents (Kitayama & Markus, 1999).

It is perhaps most accurate, then, to view the vast amount of self research amassed over the past few decades largely as a reflection of contemporary North American culture. Unfortunately, because the cultural specificity of social psychological theories is rarely highlighted, often the implicit assumption is that these theories reflect pancultural psychological processes. To this end, Hogan (1975) suggested that “much American psychology can be plausibly described as theoretically egocentric” (p. 534). For the most part, the extent to which our theories generalize to other times or to other cultures still remain empirical questions.

Recently, the notion that cultural context shapes the self has enjoyed a resurgence in social psychology. Cultural psychology maintains that culture and the self are inextricably intertwined and mutually constitute each other (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett, 1997; Greenfield, 1997; Markus & Kitayama, 1991b; Shweder, 1990; Triandis, 1989). That is, a set of psychological processes that make up the person, and thus the human agent, is shaped by and configured through socialization such that there is a degree of attunement between the psychological system and the cultural system. This view implies that a set of biological potentials (a neonate) becomes a set of actively organized psychological processes and structures (a person or self) by incorporating or resonating itself with the attendant selfways.

Selfways are defined as communities’ ideas about being a person and the social practices, situations, and institutions of everyday life that represent and foster these ideas (Markus, Mullally, & Kitayama, 1997). Selfways include core cultural ideas and values, including understandings of what a person is and a sense of how to be a “good” or “moral” or “appropriate” person. These ideas about how to be a person are reflected in culturally significant narratives, metaphors, images, proverbs, icons, and symbols, as well as in foundational texts. Moreover, they include practices, habits, and customs which appear as subjectively “natural” ways of acting and interacting with others. They are not just different ways of construing the self—they are more generally different ways of being—different ways of knowing, feeling, and acting. The assumption behind the notion of selfways is that “being a person” depends deeply on participation in particular culture-specific worlds. People do not live generally—selves are shaped through engagement in the understandings and practices of particular worlds and selves thus developed are instrumental in reproducing and maintaining the cultural systems from which they derive.

Culture-specific ways of being should not be confused with individual selves. Selves are individuals’ particular ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are shaped by some admixture of their relevant selfways. Each self is constructed in and through the culture-specific selfways that are associated with one’s various positions in society. So while two North American selves will differ from one another in countless ways as will any two Japanese selves, any particularized sense of self will be grounded in some consensual meanings and customary practices and will necessarily bear some important resemblances to similarly grounded selves. An analysis of the nature of self-regard seems to require expanding the scope of focus to include not just selves but the selfways which anchor, afford, and foster these selves. When individuals’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are consistent with the dominant selfway, they are likely to be repeated, sustained, and eventually habitualized to form a relatively autonomous psychological structure. The emerging psychological system, in turn, is likely to generate responses that resonate with, and thus reconstitute, aspects of the cultural system itself. In this way, each person’s psychological processes and structures are gradually integrated into the larger cultural context. In contrast, behaviors that do not fit well with the selfway will remain cognitively unelaborated. Such behaviors are less likely to be repeated and thus less likely to become part of the person’s habitualized repertoire of behavior. It is through this process of finding resonance with the cultural system that cultures come to shape how individuals think, feel, and perceive themselves and their social worlds, and individuals likewise come to shape their cultures.

To the extent that cultures differ from one another it follows that their associated self-concepts should be similarly disparate, and, likewise, these divergent cultural views of self should lead to differences in psychological processes that involve the self (Markus & Kitayama, 1991b). Much of the cultural psychological literature (see e.g., Choi & Nisbett, 1998; Cousins, 1989; Kashima & Triandis, 1986; Miller & Bersoff, 1992; Morris & Peng, 1994; Sethi, Lepper, & Ross, in press) has focused on differences between cultures with respect to various psychological processes. The extent to which individuals are motivated to possess positive self-views is one such process that could potentially vary between cultures. A difference in the “desire” or “need” for positive self-regard between cultures would be expected to the extent that the cultures differed in characteristics that were associated with tendencies to elaborate, dwell on, and enhance positive self-evaluations. In the following section, we discuss how a conventional understanding of the need for positive self-regard relates to important cultural patterns of North American and Japanese cultures.

The Role of Positive Self-Views within North American and Japanese Cultures

A nuanced understanding of the dynamics of self-functioning requires an equally nuanced understanding of the culture that sustains it (e.g., Fiske et al., 1997; Greenfield, 1997; Miller, 1994; Shweder, 1990). Understanding contemporary North American-style self-esteem requires a comprehensive grasp of a complex knot of core cultural concepts and the practices and institutions that foster and promote these concepts. These concepts, including independence, freedom, choice, ability, individual control, individual responsibility, personal expression, success, and happiness, suffuse both the large and the small moments of everyday social life, and the fundamental nature of people's commitment and involvement with them becomes particularly evident from the perspective of a different cultural framework. Understanding contemporary Japanese-style self-esteem requires a comprehensive grasp of another set of core cultural concepts, some of which are also known and can be experienced in North American contexts but ones that typically are not emphasized or given the same pervasive societal expression as they are in Japan. These concepts include self-criticism, self-discipline, effort, perseverance, the importance of others, shame and apologies, and balance and emotional restraint. Attempting to understand Japanese practices of self-evaluation from the North American perspective, or North American practices of self-evaluation from the Japanese perspective, can evoke puzzlement, disbelief, and pejorative assessments of the other world. To highlight the respective frameworks within which self-evaluations are constructed, in the following pages we briefly sketch some elements of the cultural worlds of Japan and North America (particularly those of European North Americans), giving primary attention to Japan.

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