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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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Can People who lack Self-Regulation Skills still have Satisfying and Well-functioning Relationships?

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A healthy and stable relationship requires both partners to interact on a frequent and regular basis. Different interests need to be discussed, activities need to be planned and coordinated, different tasks need to be done in a joint effort – and if children come into the equation things do not get more relaxed. Recent literature suggests that interactions that require high levels of social coordination impair cognitive functioning (Finkel et al., 2006). And even though we might show more of our “true self” to our partner than to other people, self-presentation also plays a role in intimate relationships. This is important, because there is evidence that self-presentation is a cognitively costly process (Vohs, Baumeister, & Cariocco, 2005). Furthermore one can assume that with time, people in a close relationship get to know the other person better, which means that we are able to understand the wishes and interests of the partner much better. But this also gives us the responsibility to consider those wishes and we might feel forced to reconsider often. In other words we are forced to self-regulate.

The term self-regulation relates to the many (cognitive) processes that manage drives and emotions. Most important, self-regulation keeps us from acting on our first impulses and helps us concentrate. When we interact with each other, we hardly ever say directly what we think – and for a good reason: We are bound by the rules of our culture and sub-culture to interact in a way that respects the feelings and personal space of those we are interacting with. The most important tool for promoting effective interactions is self-regulation.

Since self-regulation is such an important skill in todays society, it is related to many positive outcomes, such as success in school and university, social economic status, health and also relationship satisfaction. Absence of self-regulation is often related to problems in interpersonal interaction, addiction and mental diseases. Recent studies on the quality of self-regulation indicate that it is both, a trait and an ability. People with high self-regulation ability can control their impulses much easier than people with low self-regulation ability. However it is also the case that self-regulation can be trained: Repeated acts of self-regulation enlarge the total pool of energy we have (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). Current scientific knowledge proclaims that all the energy of a person is drawn from a single source (Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996). One single act of self-regulation can have an effect on our behavior on a very different task, because we lack the energy that is necessary to control our impulses; this state is called ego-depletion. It can be restored by rest and by positive affect.

On the bright side, a healthy relationship has many positive results (especially for men). If we are in a happy relationship, we receive positive affect from the other, we can talk about ourselves and things that touch us emotionally and reflect together on our emotions, fears and plans for the future. A healthy relationship is regarded as one of the best buffers against stress (Kumashiro & Sedikides, 2005). A fulfilling relationship certainly is on the top of the wish list of many people in the (western) world, however this wish often stays a wish, as can be seen in the raising numbers of divorces. It might be that living in a close and healthy relationship is the “normal thing” for most people, the relationship set-point. Thus the lack of a healthy relationship might be the source of stress. This is true for the absence of a relationship and for a relationship that is characterized by destructive interaction patterns.

Any relationship, and intimate relationships especially, involve a wide array of processes, that demand that we regulate ourselves, but also replenish our resources. It is most parsimonious to assume that within any intimate relationship many different processes interaction with each other, forming a dynamical system. Thus predictions about which behavior will lead to what result are very difficult to make. However, research has shown that the ability to exercise self-regulation is important for several aspects of a relationship. For example Finkel and Campbell (2001) found that self-regulation can help to react in a positive and constructive way to negative comments by the partner. This can help to prevent lapsing into a vicious circle of destructive interaction patterns. In another study Finkel and Campbell (2001) found that persons, that had the ability for self-regulation, were much more forgiving about negative behavior of their partners, compared to individuals that had been ego-depleted beforehand. It has also been found that suppressing criticism can be negative, because suppressing thoughts that are potentially threatening to the relationship requires energy. In other words: The daily struggle not to mention the dirty dishes standing around might be quite ego-depleting. This will probably lead us to snap at our partner quite harshly for some little thing. Big fights often start with little things. A healthy relationship allows both partners to articulate their problems and issues in a positive constructive way, before they become a real problem. “Talking it out” might therefore be an effective strategy to preserve our energy resources. Another problem in heterosexual intimate relationships is that interaction with the opposite sex might require more self-regulation than interaction with someone of the same sex (Metzmacher, Nauts & Rommerswinkel, 2008). Possible explanations for this fact are enhanced self-presentation goals or different interaction styles. Men and women are, for example, inclined to talk about different topics (Bischoping, 1993), men interrupt their interaction partners more often than women do (Anderson & Leaper, 1998), and there are differences in nonverbal behavior between the sexes (Bente, Donaghy & Suwelack, 1998).

However, most evidence for the connection between self-regulatory abilities and relationship-satisfaction found so far is correlative. Studies that have experimentally manipulated self-regulation have (for understandable reasons) focussed on a specific aspect of the relationship, such as forgiveness. Since our understanding of the dynamics involved in intimate relationships is still quite rudimentary, I believe that we cannot, at this point, generalize those results to the broad term of relationship satisfaction.

At this point it is wise to come back to the original questions: Can people who lack self-regulation skills have a satisfying and well-functioning relationship? There are definitely some kind of (hypothetical) relationships that would not require self-regulation of both partners and therefore could be called well-functioning, if the other partner is happy with his or her role. In asymmetrical relationships, in which (often) the man is the patriarch and has the power to do what he pleases, he could act upon his impulses without self-regulating, if culture (or something else for that matter) does not restrict him. Another possibility would be a relationship in which both partners are totally free to do whatever they want, some kind of “flower-power free love” relationship. However I believe that after a short time clashes of interest would arise. Thus this kind of relationship might work for a short period of time, but not for an extended period. I conclude that it is possible for people to have a satisfying and well-functioning relationship without self-regulation, but in my view this extends to only one partner. In most cases of “normal” relationships, even those asymmetrical, I believe that self-regulation is a necessary skill to build effective interactions pattern that benefit both partners.

References

Anderson, K.J. & Leaper, C. (1998). Meta-Analyses of Gender Effects on
Conversational Interruption: Who, What, Where, When and How? Sex Roles,
39, 225-252.
Baumeister, R.F. & Heatherton, T.F. (1996). Self-Regulation Failure: An Overview.
Psychological Inquiry, 7, 1-15.
Bente, G., Donaghy, W.C. & Suwelack, D. (1998). Sex Differences in Body
Movement and Visual Attention: an Integrated analyses of Movement and
Gaze in Mixed-sex Dyads. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 22, 31-58.
Bischoping, K. (1993). Gender Differences in Conversation Topics, 1922-1990. Sex
Roles, 28, 1-18.
Finkel, E. J. & Campell, W. K., 2001. Self-Control and Accommodation in Close Relationships: An Interdependence Analysis, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 263-277.
Finkel, E.J., Campbell, W.K., Brunell, A.B., Dalton, A.N., Scarbeck, S.J. & Charttrand,
T.L. (2006). High-Maintenance Interaction: Inefficient Social Coordination
Impairs Self-Regulation. Journal of Personality and social Psychology, 91,
456-475.
Kumashiro, M. & Sedikides, C., 2005. Taking on Board Liability-Focused Information. Psychological Science, 16, 732-739.
Metzmacher, M., Nauts, S. & Rommerswinkel, V., 2008. The Effect of Mixed-Sex Interaction on Executive Functioning, unpublished manuscript.
Muraven, M. & Baumeister, R. F., 2000. Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle? Psychological Bulletin , 126, 247-259 .
Vohs, K.D., Baumeister, R.F., & Ciarocco, N.J. (2005). Self-Regulation and Self-
Presentation: Regulatory Resource Depletion Impairs Impression
Management and Effortful Self-Presentation Depletes Regulatory Resources.
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 632-657.