Is self-esteem cultural?

Radio National’s “All in the Mind” recently aired a program in which they explored several studies into the differences self-esteem between “Westerners” and “East Asians”.*

Research, by Professor Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia, comparing self-esteem of Americans with that of Japanese, Korean and Chinese, indicates that Westerners have relatively high self-esteem and East Asians have neutral self-esteem. This was interpreted as being connected to the Western individualistic culture and the East Asian more collectivist culture. According to the research, Westerners rate themselves on their own assessment of their capabilities, whereas East Asians place higher importance on how they are perceived by others.

According to Deborah Ko, from the University of Hong Kong, in the West, the self is seen as something that is fixed, whereas in the East, the self is seen to be malleable and something that should be improved upon. Also, modesty is more highly valued- people with high self-esteem are often considered arrogant. Someone who feels superior to their peers isolates themselves from the group. Westerners are perhaps more likely to aspire to be someone with high self-esteem or to be attracted someone like that.

The program got me thinking about a comment Sarah made in class a couple of weeks ago, that Australians, unlike Americans, seemed reluctant to promote themselves (in the context of getting noticed in the digital publishing world). In some ways, Australians seem more like the East Asians in these studies- although for different reasons. We have a reputation for cutting down ‘tall poppies’ and if you sing your own praises you are considered to be ‘up yourself’. It is not a result of living in a collectivist culture, but something that was imported with our many British ancestors but perhaps also relates to our convict origins. There is something deeply anti-authority in Australia and until recently, there was a strong sense of egalitarianism. I say until recently, because I think changes in economic policy- the rise of the user-pays system, and the shift to the right in politics, has put a serious dent in the “fair go for all” mentality.

The flip side of having high self-esteem may be that you feel you don’t need to improve on yourself- how many times have you heard an obnoxious person (usually on reality TV) say “This is who I am and I’m not going to change”? You can also cut yourself off from learning something new if you think you know everything already!

Another interesting finding was that in the West, if your self-esteem is low, you are at risk of depression, whereas in the East the correlation is much lower. Perhaps the prevalence of depression in the West is also linked to the increasing fragmentation of family and community in an increasingly competitive society. Independence is highly valued- sail around the world solo anyone?

I think it’s important to point out that psychological research seem to be interested primarily in the ‘average’ person in any population. The studies seem to focus on the people who fit into the middle of the bell curve rather than those at either end and so it can seem to promote stereotypes. Perhaps looking at the people who don’t fit the mould  would produce even more interesting results.


About Tanya

Tanya, MA Art Curatorship, Melbourne Uni
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4 Responses to Is self-esteem cultural?

  1. nikkialfonso says:

    “…the self is seen as something that is fixed, whereas in the East, the self is seen to be malleable and something that should be improved upon. Also, modesty is more highly valued- people with high self-esteem are often considered arrogant.”

    I tend to agree to this point. Being from the Philippines, people always have this tendency to say ‘pasensya na’ (‘pardon’) when welcoming someone into their homes or serving something they cooked. Even if they’re proud of their homes and their cooking, many ask ‘forgiveness’ that they aren’t good enough. People tend to be a little hesitant to claim excellence.

    • That’s interesting….that reminds me that I heard something similar that Japanese people say when you are welcomed into their homes. It’s funny when we look at these cultural norms- whatever they are, sometimes we don’t even realise we’re doing them because the phrases become so second nature.

  2. Julianne says:

    I think the idea of self-esteem is likely to be linked with culture. I, too, listened to an ‘All in the Mind’ program recently called ‘Crazy Like Us – The Globalisation of the American Psyche’. The program raised similar issues. It examined the Western response to global disasters (i.e. Pakistan Floods) including how we diagnose and treat depression in non-Western countries after such events. Basically, it questions whether the Western idea of depression can actually be applied to other societies. An interesting example given is how drug companies never used to have a market for depression medication in Japan because the Japanese did not recognise and label people as having depression in the same way as Westerners. It wasn’t long before drug companies found a way to introduce this new diagnosis, causing a rise in ‘new cases’ and a new market for their products. It is unfortunate that Western cultures can imprint their own cultural norms onto other cultures who have their own perceptions of the human psyvhe and behaviour. Why do we always assume that we have all the answers??? Interesting stuff.

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