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Penn Prof: Self-esteem may vary by culture
Date: 02-23-1999; Publication: University Wire; Author: Nate Schiff

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University Wire (Daily Pennsylvanian) (U-WIRE) PHILADELPHIA -- Instilling high self- esteem in children has long been an important goal of the American educational system.

Penn Psychology Professor Steven Heine, however, has found evidence that the cultural importance of self-esteem varies between America and Japan.

Heine has been testing people from North America and Japan for several years, trying to find out the role of cultural differences on self- esteem. His findings indicate that the concept has much less relevance in Japanese society than in the United States.

"There's more of a dialogue about the importance of self-esteem here in the U.S. than you hear anywhere else in the world," Heine said. "In Japan, self-esteem looks a lot lower and no one seems concerned about this fact."

In the U.S., people with high self-esteem generally have more satisfying relationships, are more productive and feel better about themselves, Heine said. However, Japanese psychologists have had difficulty finding the relationship between high self-esteem and strong psychological health in the Japanese population. Heine, who lived in Japan for several years and speaks Japanese, said the contrast is a reflection of two different cultures.

"Here we put more emphasis on individualism than they do and there they put more emphasis on collectivism than we do," Heine said, noting that the differences between societies are relative and that there is a significant overlap.

To test his theories, Heine has been conducting experiments at Penn and in Kyoto, Japan, designed to measure the role of self-esteem on the behavior of Japanese and American students.

Subjects are placed in a room and asked to complete logic tests that are designated as either easy or hard.

After the student completes the task -- either correctly or incorrectly -- the conductor of the experiment leaves the room and gives the students two more tasks, telling them that they can work on these tasks if they want to.

Of the two new tasks, one is similar to the task the student already performed. The experimenter then watches to see which task the subject chooses.

Heine found that when Japanese students failed the first task, they spent much more time working on the new task to which it was similar. If the Japanese students succeeded at the first task, then they tried the different task to make sure they could do that job as well.

In contrast, American students who failed the first task often moved to the different task, not wanting to do something at which they were not adept. If they succeeded at the first task then they would generally continue with a similar task, knowing that they could succeed.

"In the U.S. case, people are sensitive to their strengths and focus on what's good about themselves," Heine explained regarding the results of his study. "In the Japanese case people are sensitive to weaknesses and areas where they feel they are not good enough."

According to Heine, American psychologists dominate the field of social psychology, leading other countries to "import U.S. precepts." The results of Heine's experiment may prove that these American psychology theories are not valid outside our borders, meaning that the field of social psychology would have to become much more culture-specific.

"You can't use standard Western measures of central health [outside of Western individualist societies] because they have implicit in them all of our cultural assumptions," Heine said.

This knowledge may also help to smooth relations between the two countries by increasing understanding of social behavior.

For instance, Heine recalled being quite surprised and a little annoyed when he won a Japanese speech contest during his stay in the country and the presenter pointed out every speaking error that the winners made instead of giving praise and congratulations.

He realized later, however, that in Japan the teachers don't encourage good work by trying to raise the self-esteem of the students with praise. Instead, they call attention to weaknesses to encourage the student to learn from them.

Nate Schiff, Penn Prof: Self-esteem may vary by culture. , University Wire, 02-23-1999.

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