Behavioural Science Blog

The Science of Human Behaviour

Self-Enhancement: A Universal Process with Culture-Specific Content?

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The individual is the smallest entity, that can arise from any group-division. The word individual actually means “that which is un/(in)-dividable”. Thus the meaning of the individual is closely connected to the group, because the individual only gets meaning in the context of the group. In the same way that the individual gains meaning from the group, the self gains meaning from the culture. As the experiences of our daily life shape your thought and realities, it makes sense to assume that the mental representation of our-selves are shaped by those experiences. Because the self is related to the group, the “independent self” is also an expression of a social mode of interaction. Although the content of the term seems non-social, the implicit context of the term is social.

For a long time the constructs of social psychology have been assumed to be universal. Especially the highly appreciated concept of self-esteem was seen as a basic cognitive process that extends to all humanity. However in the recent past this view has changed. In the same way that Newton’s mechanic does not make sense in a quantum universe, some constructs of (European) social psychology make no sense in an intercultural, globalized world. And so we find ourselves in the middle of a fierce empirical battle between two opposing views: Universalism and Panculturalism. The one side, Universalism claims that self-enhancement is a basic cognitive process that is shared by all humans. The Panculturalists claim that self-enhancement is a cultural process that is functional in some contexts (cultures), but not in others. This one example can be seen as a battle within a much greater war, namely: Does the structure of the mind, as we know it today, also apply to different (non-European) cultures or do we need an own way of psychology for every kind of culture there is? Those that still cling to the Cartesian system of science will be afraid psychology will lose it’s status as “real science” when it cannot provide universal laws. How 20th century is that…

The concept of self has gone through a transformation phase in the last years. Whereas before it was defined as an independent entity that stresses the role of the subject, later definitions of the self also allow a definition in more interdependent terms, which better represent the way people in the eastern world experience being an individual. However the role of the self is still not defined conclusively. Recent studies have shown that independent / interdependent are not the two extremes of one dimension, but that individuals incorporate both constructs within themselves. The meaning of the term enhancement is even more unclear: Usually if you want to enhance something you want to make something better. However as the object of the enhancement, “the self”, is not clearly defined, the process also remains somewhat undefined. I believe the main point where the two views differ from each other depends on the definition of the self. Whereas the Universalists resolve the unclearness by moving to a more abstract level, saying that the self defined by the culture can be enhanced in ways specific and natural to that culture, the Panculturalists implicitly still hold on to the independent, western view of the self. For them enhancement = good = more self-esteem.

If you take the meta-perspective on the discussion at hand, one could wonder if there can ever be an answer to the problem at hand, because both groups argue on a different level of abstraction. Whereas Panculturalists seem to discuss the content of self enhancement, the Universalists discuss the more basic aspects of the process itself. I believe that both views are right in some regard. There definitely is a universal human wish to be a good and appropriate person and there are cognitive processes to make sure that we behave accordingly. However what is considered good and appropriate differs between cultures, thus the deducted goals and ultimately the behaviour might be very different. When we look at self-enhancement on an abstract level, we see its the universal components. If we look at the content of the process, we see the cultural boundaries of the process. In order to really see the big picture and the underlying processes we will need multicultural psychologist. They will be able to distinguish between universal process and culture-specific content much better than most researchers today, because they will live in a multicultural environment and their sense of self will be different from that of a person who grew up with one dominant perspective.

Through the evolution of human societies from early hunter groups to cyber-communities there has been one constant: The need for social acceptance and support. Notwithstanding the differences between the two positions, Panculturalists and Universalists have highlighted the diversity in which humans choose to live together and the diversity of self-concepts and related processes that are used to adhere to the standards of the group. Being able to perceive oneself as an object of social interaction and reflect on that interaction is a key prerequisite for the development of elaborated and fine tuned rules that guide our social interactions: culture. It remains to be seen how new cultures and new ways of social interaction brought about by digital communication technology and globalization will influence the self-concept of generations to come. Maybe the discussion about the nature of the self and the related cognitive processes can never end as long as human culture and interaction styles evolve, because our self-concepts will also keep on evolving.

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Written by Martin Glanert

October 7, 2008 at 4:02 pm

One Response

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  1. […] a comment » Some time ago I gave my thoughts about the battle of panculturalists vs. universalists with regard to self-enhancement. This is take II, which goes much more in depth and explores the story by examining the two key […]


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