Self Esteem Across Cultures: The Chinese Dialectical Self

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Self-esteem is generally considered to be something vital, a value in itself, in Western societies. In this first of a series on our sense of self, or lack of it, I am going to look at the apparent lack of self-esteem in Chinese compared to North American students.

Self-esteem is generally considered to be something vital, a value in itself, in Western societies. Dr Simon elsewhere on this blog has plenty to say about the potential dangers of uncritically valuing self-esteem. But not every society puts the same value on self-esteem; in fact, not every society has the same sense of self. In this first of a series on our sense of self, or lack of it, I am going to look at the apparent lack of self-esteem in Chinese compared to North American students.

It has been shown repeatedly in psychological studies that East Asians have lower self-esteem when compared to North Americans. More than this, the self-esteem scores do not seem to indicate that the East Asians studied are motivated by increasing their self-esteem. Kim, Peng and Chui in the 2008 study “Explaining Self-esteem Differences between Chinese and North Americans: Dialectical Self (vs. Self-consistency) or Lack of Positive Self-regard” (Self and Identity, 7:113-128) tried to interpret this intriguing difference. Surely it is not the case that East Asians have no need for positive self regard at all?

The researchers started out with the hypothesis that the self-esteem question was linked to deeper differences in the whole concept, or feeling, of a self on either side of the east-west divide. The authors began with the observation that people from East Asian cultures are familiar with the idea that an individual can have more than one self, or side to themselves, both positive and negative. The two sides — the dark and light, good and bad, yin and yang — make up a whole, and the self is incomplete with only one side. In addition to this, according to Confucian philosophy and ancient Chinese wisdom such as the I Ching, or Book of Changes, it is the meeting of these opposites, the pushing forward of one side and the retreat of the other, which leads to change. The change is not permanent, because of course the ‘other side’ is just awaiting its turn. On the other hand, Americans value consistency, so a bad feature might be felt to invalidate the goodness of the self, or create an insurmountable contradiction. Also, change is not so easy to conceptualise or believe in, and it may be feared if it is felt to be permanent. Hence, maybe, we find a sense of ‘progress’ without end, yet a shadow anxiety as we intuit that this is not really the way things work.

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This piece of research involved participants agreeing or disagreeing to statements — using Rosenberg’s Self-Esteem Scale — such as “on the whole, I am satisfied with myself”, or “on the whole, I am not satisfied with myself”. The East Asian participants, true to form, came out as having lower self-esteem in the final calculations, because they agreed that more negatively worded statements applied to them. Americans, on the other hand, tended to vary their responses according to the wording of the question, finding it easy and appropriate to agree with statements that were positively worded, but avoiding agreement with negatively worded items on the self-esteem measure. Moreover, the need for consistency made the order of the questions important — if the first item in the list was positively worded, then Americans tended to stick to the pattern.

To invent an example, if asked about extraverted behaviour, then about introverted behaviour, a North American who had agreed that they often displayed extraverted behaviour would then be extremely unlikely also to agree that they sometimes behave in an introverted way. A Chinese participant would see no contradiction here and would be as likely as not to agree that sometimes they are introverted, too.

It was clearly shown to be the case that agreement with the positively worded statements influenced motivation in both groups. So it is not that self-esteem is somehow irrelevant or unimportant to the East Asian students compared with their American peers, but rather that their sense of self-esteem is not affected by accepting more negative sounding statements. The East Asian respondents with their sense of a dialectical self, made up of the light and dark, positive and negative, changing over time, made full use of positive self-esteem statements to motivate themselves, yet did not appear to restrict or edit themselves into a constant, one dimensional picture of themselves, internally self consistent at any price.

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