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Is there a Universal Need for Positive Self-Regard?

Psychol Rev. 1999 Oct;106(4):766-94.
Heine SJ, Lehman DR, Markus HR, Kitayama S.

(read this paper)

This paper has an interesting take on the literature related to Positive Illusions, which is that the situation seems to be significantly different in Japan. Our positive views of our competence and virtuousness are formed by our culture, so are not a fundamental human condition. In fact, the paper goes on to challenge the entire idea of self-esteem and subjective well being (happiness) as the core of mental health. This traditional psychological view of self esteem has been vociferously defended, notably in in Pancultural Self-Enhancement Reloaded, which is from a series of responses between Heine and Sedikides.

It is assumed that people seek positive self-regard; that is, they are motivated to possess, enhance, and maintain positive self-views. The cross-cultural generalizability of such motivations was addressed by examining Japanese culture. Anthropological, sociological, and psychological analyses 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. It is argued 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.

Cultural differences in positive emotional experiences are particularly strong with respect to happiness. Being happy is a basic value for most Americans. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example, proclaims that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right of its citizens. Failing to be happy in America implies that one is somehow failing to realize the cultural mandate. Hence, it is not surprising that Americans report being exceptionally happy. T. W. Smith's (1979) review of national surveys from the 1940's to the 1970's revealed that the percentage of Americans reporting happiness has always been above 80%. Americans think about happiness on a daily basis and rate personal happiness as especially important.

In contrast, Benedict argued that Japanese view the pursuit of happiness as somewhat of an “immoral doctrine” as it interferes with the other more important cultural tasks such as fulfilling one's obligations toward others. […] Heine (1996) noted in a cross-cultural comparison of values that whereas Asian Canadians and European Canadians ranked happiness 1st and 2nd, respectively, in terms of its desirability among 20 traits, Japanese ranged it 18th. Clearly, the data suggest that happiness is not sought after to the same extent in Japan as it is in North America.

This has interesting parallels to discussion of traditional Hawaiian culture in Toxic success.

Our basic premise is that the field's current conceptualization of self-esteem is a prototypic North American psychological construct. That is, North American cultural values, notably independence and individualism, bear an integral relation to self-esteem. Considerable cross-cultural research is consistent with this claim. […] “a feeling of autonomy may be important in achieving subjective well-being”. Feather demonstrated that self-esteem is more typical of people with an independent view of self within western cultures and that self-esteem correlates positively with values such as self-direction, achievement, and personal competence. […] the relation between self-esteem and independence is evident in East Asian cultures as well. […] Regardless of the cultural group, independence bears a clear relation with self-esteem. There appears to be something similar about saying on one hand that one is independent, able to take care of oneself, and has one's own opinions and on the other hand that one feels like a valuable individual, and that this relation exists not just in North American but in Japan as well. This strongly suggests that viewing the self as a unique, self-sufficient agent is akin to viewing the self positively.

Interdependence, on the other hand, was only weakly related to self-esteem across the three cultural groups, and what relation did exist was in the negative direction. Saying that one is interdependent with others, compromises one's individual desires to fit in better with others, seeks external norms for one's behavior, are, for the most part, unrelated to self-esteem, but if anything run counter to self-esteem. And this absence of a positive relation also holds for Japanese, for whom an important cultural value is interdependence. This finding directly challenges universalist conceptions of self-esteem. If self-esteem is truly the universal prize for doing something that is important to oneself, as self-efficacy theories of self-esteem suggest, then it follows that Japanese self-esteem should correlate positively with interdependence (i.e. the view of self which they appear to value most). There is no evidence for this relation, and that Japanese self-esteem, like American self-esteem, correlates positively with independence, runs counter to universalist theories of self-esteem. Indeed, these correlations suggest that the self-esteem construct hinges on an independent view of the self.

This is really the heart of the argument. They say that low self-esteem is a natural consequence of the collectivist interdependent values in Japan, and that high self-esteem is a natural consequence of American rugged individualism. We must either conclude that collectivist eastern cultures are sick cultures or that high self-esteem is a culturally relative aspect of mental health.

The pronounced cultural differences in self-esteem have significant implications for how we think of issues regarding mental health, well-being, adjustment, coping, therapy, and intervention. These have all been developed withing the cultural framework of how North Americans view what is good, healthy, and normal. Indeed, many of the markers of poor mental health in North America (e.g., depression, pessimism, anxiety) are more pronounced in Asian cultures. Our review suggests that what contributes to mental health may vary importantly across cultures, and this cultural variance may well extend beyond self-esteem to other characteristics of psychological well-being that have been identified in the Western literature (e.g. self-acceptance, environmental mastery, positive relations, purpose in life, personal growth, and autonomy.)

Are these sick cultures, or is there some reward for being in these cultures that compensates for the suffering seemingly implied by the prevalence of depression, pessimism and anxiety? It seems that there is gratification being a productive and valued member of a community and also in feeling that you are behaving in a socially appropriate way.

Typically, in the psychological literature, a variety of needs are conceptualized as psychological in nature and are thus considered to produce a subjective drive toward a certain goal state. Yet, it is also possible to suppose that the need to be a good cultural member exists not so much as a psychological desire or demand, but rather that it represents a sociocultural, ecological, and even biological requirement for one to survive and live in a culturally appropriate way. To be a person necessarily involves participation and engagement in a specific sociocultural community (there are no generic cultures), and, as such, it entails a requirement to attain an attunement or coordination of one's way of thinking, feeling, and acting with the community's selfways. Once theoretically broadened in this way, the sociocultural need or requirement to be a good cultural member may well be a common defining characteristic of all cultures

This is a good criticism of psychology that points in the direction of Evolutionary Psychology. It is reasonable to suppose that psychological traits tend to serve some practical purpose.

papers/heine99_universal_positive_regard.txt · Last modified: 2011/03/05 07:30 by ram