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Self-enhancement refers to the process of acquiring, maintaining, or amplifying positive self-regard. Various scholars have provided different opinions about whether self-enhancement varies from one cultural structure to another or is universal in nature. According to Sedikides, Gaertner, and Toguchi (2003), positive self-regard is uniform across all societies. However, to comprehend whether the researchers’ opinion of the universality of self-enhancement is accurate, the concept of independent and interdependent self-traits of individuals in a cultural setting has to be analyzed. So as to prove the pan-cultural nature of self-enhancement, it is vital to find similarities between multiple cultures, especially those with distinct perspectives on the conflict between independent and interdependent personalities, such as the Westerners and East Asians. Heine and Buchtel (2009) argue that self-enhancement differs from one culture to another as given credence by the fact that Westerners require more motivation for self-enhancement than East Asians. This paper discusses the issue at hand with the aim of determining whether self-enhancement is universal or culturally specific.

A key supporting evidence for the universality of self-enhancement is that successful cultures base themselves on individuals with a positive self-regard. However, cultural beliefs differ from one society to another and are the building blocks of a person’s traits and personality. This aspect offers support to the cultural specificity of one’s self-image. It is evident that scholars are conflicted on the issue. An analysis of independent and interdependent self-traits in a cultural setting helps provide the key differences between cultures that play a role in the overall need for self-enhancement.

Culture and Self-Enhancement

Various authors, including Boucher (2010), link self-identity and, therefore, self-regard to culture. According to Matsumoto and Juang (2014), self-concept allows individuals to understand themselves and the world better. The authors define it as a mental perception of one’s self. In most cases, individual’s perception of life is dependent on the cultural setting of their upbringing/residence. For instance, Indian women attribute their success and failure to internal factors as opposed to American women who blame external issues for their success or failure (Matsumoto & Juang, 2014). Also, the degree of responsibility-taking varies from one culture to another as given credence by the difference between the Japanese people and Americans regarding attention seeking and task completion.

The concept of individualism vs. collectivism has been used to justify the variations in self-enhancement in various regions and cultures across the world. Individualism promotes independence while collectivism promotes interdependence. Numerous studies have been conducted across America and Western Europe that investigate the concept of self-enhancement. A majority of the studies indicate that the level of self-enhancement is greater in America and Western Europe as compared to other regions of the world such as East Asia. The different nature of individualism vs. collectivism also links to one’s culture and upbringing. Independent selves perceive themselves as unique and free from societal constraints and, therefore, tend to focus their lives on the actualization of inner-self.

Research indicates that Americans and Western Europeans have an affinity towards feeling good about themselves while Japanese people do not, an aspect attributed to their independent nature. The Americans and West Europeans strive to make themselves differ from others and, therefore, distinctive excellence is crucial for self-enhancement. People in this culture are brought up to excel in life and establish a unique identity for themselves. The need for a unique identity is as a result of the stiff competition that characterizes the culture. The concept of individualism/independence is dominant in the American and the Western Europe cultures.

Interdependent selves are considerate of their environment and are more adjusting to tolerate other people if need be. Various cultures in East Asia perceive this concept as foundational to individual and societal success. People in this culture are typically urged to think of themselves in a manner that emphasizes their commonality with their society. Therefore, they think of their connectedness to the other people rather than on their unique characteristics. They are usually brought up to fit into the system rather than be a distinct entity as in the individualism culture. This culture is more predominant in East Asia in countries, such as Japan. The Japanese self-enhancement level differs from that of the Americans and Western Europeans, a concept attributed to their collectivism/interdependence nature. Cross-cultural differences between the Americans, Western Europeans, and Japanese people have attributed to the difference in self-enhancement in the different cultures.

Comparison of East Asia and the West

East Asia reports lower self-enhancement rates as compared to the Western nations. Several scholars have conducted studies to examine the cause of the variations in self-enhancement levels. The Japanese have been reported to have a high self-critical bias. Self-criticism means that the Japanese people view themselves through a critical lens and, therefore, are less positive when evaluating themselves. However, they usually expect that those close to them see them in a more positive manner. This concept means that the Japanese place a lot of value on how those around them evaluate them rather than how they evaluate themselves. A group of Japanese students whose school football team was playing against an opponent posted surprising results. Unlike Americans in a similar position who indicated intergroup bias by the thought that their school was better than their opponents, the Japanese students did not show any intergroup bias. The findings of this experiment led to the conclusion that the notion of “we” are better than “them” is culturally grounded. The Japanese have also demonstrated a modest bias as they appraise their abilities, physical capabilities, and personal attributes less positively. Americans and Europeans have a tendency of taking credit for their successes rather than failures, as they deem success to be more relevant for their self-worth. More often, they denigrate the importance of a task after a failure. These feelings are either absent, reversed, or muted in the Japanese culture. After a failure, the Japanese do not denigrate the importance of a task, but rather place more focus on other unaccomplished tasks.

Reasons for Low Self-Enhancement in Collective Cultures

Researchers have offered varied reasons as to why self-enhancement is low in collective cultures. According to Jenny Kurman (2003), there exist two primary reasons as to why self-enhancement is lower in collective cultures. She states the first reason is the lack of self-enhancement motive that emanates from perceiving others around in a more centrality nature and, secondly, the social constraints imposed on oneself as a result of the requirement of modesty expected by the society. Kurman examined the validity of the two reasons through a series of studies. The findings revealed that the interconnectedness between self-enhancement and self-motivation is positive and it is a consequent indication of well-being. However, Jenny Kurman findings indicated that self-enhancement and wellness have consistent positive results and, therefore, the self-enhancement motive does not justify the low self-enhancement in collective cultures. Although there exist strong bonds, a caring culture, and the desire to maintain the harmony within the groups, the relevance of self-success still exists as a subject to well-being. Her findings also revealed that the differences that exist in self-enhancement are a result of imposed modesty across different cultures and not the centrality of others as perceived. According to Kurman (2003), modesty is an underrepresentation of an individual’s favorable traits and is usually imposed by the society, which means that the society expects a person to downplay self-success in public. Modesty is a reflection of the social pressure placed on an individual to ignore self-success. It is typically paramount to the collective cultures because self-success may promote the establishment of a unique self that distinguishes themselves from the society and, therefore, poses a challenge to the societal goals. Self-success may interfere with the identification of the group’s needs and make the need to relinquish one’s demands for the groups more challenging. Therefore, reduced social attention to self-success suppresses the view of uniqueness and distinction from others and, therefore, redirects attention to the needs of the group. Clearly, restrictions imposed by culture are the primary reason for the low self-enhancement in the collective culture.

Is Self Enhancement Universal or Culture-Specific?

The topic on whether self-enhancement is culture specific or universal is under a lot of controversies. Those in support of the universality of self-enhancement propose that it is pervasive across all cultures while those that argue that it is culture specific posit that it is restrictive to Western cultures only and absent in Eastern cultures. In their prominent article “Is there a Universal Need for Positive Self-Regard?” Heine, Lehman, Markus, and Kitayama (1999) cite that self-enhancement traces its origin to North America and that most scholars, paradigms utilized, and participants are North American. The authors acknowledge the self-critical aspect of the Eastern culture which they argue is the direct opposite of self-enhancement. They propose that self-enhancement is not useful in collectivist cultures, such as in East Asia.

On the other hand, Sedikides, Gaernter, and Toguchi (2003) posit in two empirical studies that self-enhancement is universal. They argue that self-enhancement is universal regardless of self-construal or cultural background. However, Heine (2005) does not agree with Sedikides et al. (2003) and uses meta-analytical findings to support that self-enhancement is culture specific. Heine is of the opinion that pretesting of the construct is not necessary and that a researcher’s interpretation should suffice. However, Sedikides, Gaertner, and Vevea (2005) are of a different opinion and argue that the pre-test of all dimensions of comparison is critical given that researchers tend to have contrast bias. Therefore, a pre-test with the population sample is necessary. Sedikides et al. (2005) further argue that the previous findings by Heine were biased, as the dimensions of comparison were not pre-tested as compared to the research by Sedikides et al. (2003). The article’s authors seem to be in a disagreement over which of their concept is accurate.

Other researchers have conducted more research in a bid to demystify whether self-enhancement is culture specific or universal. According to Wei-Fang Song (2014), self-enhancement is a universal concept. Song conducted a study in mainland China to determine the relationship between self-enhancement and risk decision-making. According to him, self-enhancement, risk-seeking, and culture have a logical relationship. Song argues that people with a high risk-seeking nature are usually more positive and, therefore, their self-enhancement status is also high. In his findings, the Chinese have a high affinity to risks and, consequently, they have a great positive regard of themselves which translates to self-enhancement. Song argues that the casual relationship which exists between self-enhancement and the affinity to take risks can provide indirect evidence that there is self-enhancement in the East. An analysis of Jenny Kurman’s (2003) findings also suggests that self-enhancement is universal. Kurman identifies that cultural modesty usually suppresses self-success through its cultural imposition on individuals. Therefore, self-success is present in people from the East. However, the society makes sure that it does not get in the way of the group’s success. The author argues that groups impose modesty so as to ensure that individuals put the demands of the group before their personal needs. Therefore, the analysis of Kurman’s (2003) work is an indication that she is of the opinion that self-enhancement is universal and only low in collective culture because of the cultural imposition of modesty as compared to the complete lack of self-enhancement motive. It is evident that the debate on whether self-enhancement is culture specific or universal does not have a conclusive answer. The opinions of different scholars differ and various empirical studies produce contradicting results on the same subject.


In conclusion, there is no consensus on whether self-enhancement is culture specific or universal. Self-enhancement refers to the acquisition and maintenance of a positive self-regard. Research studies conducted over the years have failed to provide conclusive evidence on whether it is culture specific or universal. The concepts of individualism and collectivism justify the variations in self-enhancement between the West and the East cultures. Individualism and independence promote self-enhancement. The individual is a distinct entity who strives to be unique in a world full of competition. In the individualism culture, the individual is taught to be unique while growing up and, therefore, be free from any societal constraints. On the other hand, collectivism promotes interdependence and persons are considerate of others around them and think of their connectedness. The people in this culture are usually brought up to fit into the community. Self-enhancement for the East is lower than in the West.

Scholars attribute the differences to the self-critical and modest nature of the people from the East. These people value the evaluation of other more than how they evaluate themselves. Kurman (2003) argues that the difference in self-enhancement is due to the modest nature imposed on individuals’ due to their culture. Therefore, self-success is usually suppressed to ensure that the group’s needs are the priority. Empirical studies provide contradictory evidence on whether self-enhancement is culture specific or universal. According to Heine (2005), self-enhancement is culture specific. However, Sedikides et al. and Song contradict his finding and produce empirical evidence which indicates that self-enhancement is universal. Therefore, whether self-enhancement is culture specific or universal is an ongoing debate with conflicting answers and evidence.

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Boucher, H. (2010). Understanding Western-East Asian differences and similarities in self-enhancement. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(5), 304-317.

Heine, S. (2005). Where is the evidence for pancultural self-enhancement? A reply to Sedikides, Gaertner, and Toguchi (2003). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(4), 531-538.

Heine, S., Lehman, D., Markus, H., & Kitayama, S. (1999). Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review, 106(4), 766-794.

Kurman, J. (2003). Why is self-enhancement low in certain collectivist cultures? An investigation of two competing explanations. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 34(5), 496-510.

Matsumoto, D. R., & Juang, L. (2014). Culture and psychology (5th ed.). South Melbourne: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Sedikides, C., Gaertner, L., & Vevea, J. (2005). Pancultural self-enhancement reloaded: A meta-analytic reply to Heine (2005). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(4), 539-551.

Song, W. (2014). Self-enhancement is not Restricted to individualistic cultures – the evidence from risk decision making. In Proceedings of the 5th International Asia Conference on Industrial Engineering and Management Innovation (IEMI2014) (pp. 331-335).

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