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Universal Self-Enhancement Reloaded: A Battle of Definitions and Paradigms

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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 players in the discussion and there scientific battle in the different journals.

Self-enhancement describes a range of psychological phenomena that incline the individual to pass more favourable judgement on him or herself than should be valid from objective self-assessment, operationalized as the relevant social norms (Krueger, 1998). Sedikides and Gregg (2008) refined that view by proposing four levels of self-enhancement, namely an observed effect, an ongoing process, a personality trait and an underlying motive and four different bipolar dimensions of self-enhancement. Self-advancing and self-protecting refers to the fact that you can self-enhance either by augmenting the positive aspects of your self-concept of diminish the negative parts of your self-concept.

Self-enhancement can also take place publicly or in a more private (cognitive) environment. Crocker and Wolfe (2001) found that the preferred domain of self-enhancement differs for each individual and is usually related to what matters most to the individual. Finally self-enhancement can be either candid, using an immediate opportunity for overt self-enhancement, or tactical, accumulating positive information about the self to enhance the self-image in a more lasting way. Especially the last point has been a focus point in the ongoing debate. As remarked by Heine and Hamamura (2007) this definition of self-enhancement in not the only valid one. In their recent meta-study they found 30 different operationalizations of self-enhancement.

Given the frequent replications of the effects of self-enhancement in many different domains, such as the findings of Taylor and Brown (1988) on the beneficial aspects of self-enhancement on mental health, it seems parsimonious to assume that the phenomenon is universally valid. However this notion was challenged by Heine, Lehman, Markus and Kitayama (1999) in their famous article “Is there a Universal Need for Positive Self-Regard?”. They remark that the concept of self-enhancement comes from a North American (I would rather describe it as European) mindset and that most researchers, participants and paradigms employed in the empirical validation of self-enhancement have come from North America. They propose that the self-critical orientation of (most) Eastern cultures is contrary to the notion of self-enhancement and assume that in more collectively oriented cultures the process of self-enhancement is not ecologically useful. In their reply Sedikides, Gaernter and Toguchi (2003) stress the importance of the SCENT model (Sedikides & Strube, 1997). They highlight the difference between candid and tactical self-enhancement and propose that the “both idiocentrics and allocentrics self-enhance…on personally important as opposed to personally unimportant attributes.” Furthermore they assume those important attributes to depend on the orientation of any specific culture on the dimension of collectivism.

In the following answer by Heine (2005) he focusses in the definition of self-enhancement, which he defines as “the tendencies to dwell on and elaborate positive information about the self relative to information about one’s weakness.” He redefines the more abstract definition of self-enhancement by the panculturalists as “being a good self”. The results presented in this meta study indicate that the western samples significantly more self-enhance than the Eastern samples. He states that the question answered by Sedikides et al. (2003) is not directly related to self-enhancement, but to the attributes that are valued by a specific culture. Furthermore he criticizes the method used by Sedikides and his collogues by stating that the better than average effect is part of the common cognitive effect that people evaluate a randomly chosen (in group) individual better than the average group member. Thus the comparison of an own individual with “most other people” does not validly answer the question of universality of self-enhancement.

In their own meta-review Sedikides, Gaertner and Vevea (2005) show that the question of empirical validation of the attributes used in research of cultural self-enhancement is of utmost importance. They show that most studies that did find a difference between western and eastern self-enhancement used attributes that are not empirically connected to the dimension of collectivism. Therefore the results can not indicate if tactical self-enhancement was present in different domains. More broadly they (Sedikides, Gaertner, Vevea, 2007) propose that: “Unvalidated domains lack the capacity to test the hypothesis, because they are undifferentiated or non-diagnostic.” They also disputed Heine’s (2005) critic on the better-than-average effect. In their view the results of the study cited by Heine cannot fully explain the better-than-average effect, when the individual in question is the self.

A valid point made by Heine, Kitayama and Hamamura (2007) entails the notion that Sedikides and his colleagues effectively propose that the method they employ (better-than-average effect) is the only valid empirical approach (so far) to answer the hypothesis of universality of self-enhancement, because most effects used by them (27 of the 29) have been validated in their view as being diagnostic with regard to the hypothesis, whereas they consider all measures employed by Heine and colleagues irrelevant, as all effects (24 of 24) have not been validated. Given that a multi-method approach is usually more parsimonious this is a strong point against the results of the panculturalists that have focussed on only one method.

In my view the discussion has been very beneficial to the domain of cross-cultural psychology, as both sides, universalists and panculturists, have had to refine their theories and definitions about the influence of culture on self-enhancement. However I believe that the meta study of Sedikides et al. (2007) presents convincing arguments for the perspective of the panculturalists. The moderation effect of the validated vs. unvalidated attributes is methodologically strong. If the universalists want to refuse this argument they will have to show that the attributes used in their studies posses diagnostic value, by validating them. Furthermore the more broader (and less cultural-specific) term of self-enhancement is supported by the finding that both eastern and western participants show a significance correlation between the personal importance of attributes and the effect of self-enhancement.

I believe that there is a general tendency for people to feel good about themselves. Because the self in strongly influenced by the cultural environment I find the argumentation of the panculturalists compelling. In addition, their view fits with my own subjective experiences from working with international students from all over the world in the past 8 years. However to fully convince me of the panculturalists’ perspective they will have to replicate their findings using multiple paradigms.

References

Crocker, J., & Wolfe, C.T. (2001). Contingencies of self-worth. Psychological Review, 108, 593–623.
Heine, S. J. (2005). Where is the Evidence for Pancultural self-enhancement?: A reply to Sedikides, Gaertner, and Toguchi (2003). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 531–538.
Heine, S. J., Kitayama, S. & Hamamura, T. (2007). Which studies test whether self- enhancement is pancultural? A reply to Sedikides, Gaertner, and Vevea, 2007. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 198-200.
Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766–794.
Krueger, J. (1998) Enhancement Bias in Description of Self and Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 24, No. 5, 505-516
Sedikides, C., Gaertner, L., & Toguchi, Y. (2003). Pancultural Self-Enhancement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 60–79.
Sedikides, C., Gaertner, L., & Vevea, J . L. (2005). Pancultural Self-Enhancement Reloaded: A Meta-Analytic reply to Heine (2005). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89, 539-551.
Sedikides, C., Gaertner, L., & Vevea, J.L. (2007). Evaluating the evidence for pancultural self-enhancement. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 201–203.
Sedikides, C. & Gregg, A. (2008). Self-Enhancement, Food for Thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 102-116.
Taylor, S. & Brown, J. (1988). Illusion and Well-being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 193-210.

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Questions about “The Self”

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In recent times there has been a lot of discussion with regard to social psychology constructs such as self-esteem, self-determination and self-affirmation. Due to rapidly changing societies and new insights into cognitive processes of memory formation some old theories of self-psychology have recently been challenged. For example Heine, Lehman, Markus and Kitayama (1999) postulated that self-esteem, conceptualized as positive self-regard, is not a universal value and should be replaced by the concept of self-enhancement. However, all those theories are closely connected to the concept of self, which in itself still remains unclear. Since there are many different interpretation of the self, many discussions end in despair, each side holding on to their specific conceptualization of the self, which are not interchangeable. But can there be any definition that fits them all? Does “talking about myself” and “exercising control over myself” relate to the same objects?

Terms such as self-esteem suggest that there is stability of that process on the influence of behavior. However people can switch between different roles (selves?) with relative ease. Reinders et al. (2003) showed that in patients with Multiple Personality Disorder, there are specific cerebral blood flow patterns mainly in the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior associative cortices that can produce different senses of self. It is parsimonious to assume that the same process also mediates the different senses of self in healthy persons, however to a lesser extend in the sense that every self is aware of its coexistence within one person. Different selves have been postulated, such as the social self, the future self, the past self, the material self, the spiritual self… But do constructs such as self-esteem relate to all the selves in the same way or do they apply differently to different selves? Are there processes that extend through all the possible selves? Should we specify a specific self when looking at a process such as self-esteem?

People who have grown up in different cultures report that their self-concept differs in relation to the environment, as shown by Markus and Kitayama (1991). Chinese Canadians completed different measures with regard to the self, such as a measurement of independent, interdependent self-construal. When the test was conducted in a European setting (English researcher, English questions) their self-construct was predominantly independent. However if the setting (environment) was different (Chinese researcher, test in Chinese) their self-construct was more interdependent. Ross, Xun and Wilson (2002) replicated those findings and extended the method to other self-related constructs. They conclude that identities of bicultural persons may be stored in separate knowledge structures, which can be activated by the associated language.

At that point let’s take a look at different theories about the self. Descartes thought that the self was some entity that existed outside of the material body. William James defined the self as an object of knowledge consisting of whatever the individual views as belonging to himself (Epstein, 1973). George Mead noticed that the self-concept arises in social interaction as product of the individuals concerns of how others will react. Rogers saw the self as an organized fluid, but conceptual pattern of perceptions of characteristics and relationships of the ‘I’ or the ‘Me’, together with values attached to these concepts. Allport used the term proprium instead of self to stress the aspects of the individual that he or she regards of central importance and which contribute to a sense of inward unity. Furthermore the self has been described as a self-theory (Epstein, 1973),and as a cognitive knowledge structure. Sarbin remarked that behavior is organized around cognitive structures. Recently neurobiological pathways (especially the CMS, cortical midline structures) have been found to play an important role in self-referential processes. Those processes, distinguishing stimuli related to one’s own self from those that are not relevant to one’s self, might be the computing basis for the different kinds of self-concepts that have been observed.

I believe that the concept of self entails different cognitive processes, which should be looked at in the most abstract way still meaningful. Arguing from a philosophical, mechanical perspective I believe that having cognitive processes that assign a self / non-self marker to different knowledge objects should be enough to construct a theory of self. I assume that “the self” is a cognitive object that is constructed on-line, depending on the task and environment at hand. The content of those temporary self-representations is drawn for the knowledge that has been marked by the reflexive process as possessing the self-attribute. Those knowledge objects frequently used for the construction of the self should over time become chronically accessible. Such a definition of self would allow many degrees of freedom and would fit many definitions of the self previously given. Thus I propose that whenever “the self” is involved, it is necessary to specify which cognitive processes are suggested to be involved. I also propose that the environment for which the theory or hypothesis is formulated should be explicitly described. Ultimately it might be better to talk about reflexive processes instead of the self.

References

Epstein, S. (1973). The self-concept revisited. American Psychologist, 28, 404-414.
Heine, S. J., Lehman, D. R., Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106, 766-794.
Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, (98), 224-253.
Reinders, A. A. T. S., Nijenhuis, E. R. S., Paans, A. M. J., Korf, J., Willemsen, A. T. M., & Boer, J. A. (2003). One brain, two selves. NeuroImage, (20), 2119-2125.
Ross, M., Xun, W. Q. E., & Wilson, A. E. (2002). Language and the bicultural self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 1040-1050.

Written by Martin Glanert

September 22, 2008 at 9:54 pm