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Posts Tagged ‘Self-Enhancement

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.


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.

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.

Written by Martin Metzmacher

October 7, 2008 at 4:02 pm