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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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