Modesty's value differs East to West

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am


Being modest can boost your self- esteem if you hail from East Asia. But for people in Western societies, not so much. That, at least, is what professor Cai Huajian of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and an international research team have found.

'When Chinese behave in a modest way, they view themselves higher or feel better deep inside their hearts,' he said in an interview with the Sunday China Morning Post.

This is because of the collectivist nature of East Asian cultures, especially China.

Self-denigration for the purpose of self-enhancement may appear contradictory in Western societies. But in a new study, Cai, a psychologist, and co-researchers argue it makes sense when put into the context of a culture that places a premium on fitting in with others. This collective modesty has baffled Western scholars such as professor Steven Heine, director of the Institute for Asian Studies at Florida International University.

'[The scholars] think that Easterners lack the need for high self- esteem because they need to be modest,' Cai said.

Cai, along with seven other academics from China, Britain and the United States, aimed to disprove what Heine believes by showing that rather than eliminating the need for it, modesty in fact increases self- esteem in Eastern cultures.

They carried out three separate samplings to measure the self- esteem levels of 396 mainland and American university students. Participants undertook a series of psychological and personality tests to determine their levels of modesty, internal self-esteem (ISE), and external self-esteem (ESE).

The findings were published in the latest issue of the international journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

ISE refers to how people view themselves implicitly or 'deep down'. ESE has to do with how people consciously view themselves, such as when they agree highly with a question like: 'I feel I am a person of worth, at least on an equal basis with others.'

The research team found that to act modestly for Chinese participants decreased ESE while increasing ISE. However, for the Americans, who do not live in a culture that placed the same importance on self-effacement, levels of ISE were not affected by acting modestly.

To measure modesty, participants were asked to respond to statements such as 'bragging about oneself is always socially inappropriate'.

Other questions or statements include: 'My friends will tell you that, when I accomplish something, I'm not shy about tooting my own horn.'

'How much do you like your name?'

'When someone asks me to describe a recent success, I tend to downplay what I've accomplished.'

The 396 university students from China and the US had to respond to these and similar questions and statements by Cai and his research team to gauge their self-worth and levels of modesty.

One measurement of modesty was for participants to place themselves on a 7-point scale (1 meant strongly disagree, 7 strongly agree) in response to statements such as the one about bragging about one's accomplishments.

Another was for the students to respond on a 9-point scale. The higher the score, the higher their 'internal self-esteem'.

Cultural psychologists such as Dr Jochen Gebauer believe that genuinely liking one's full name or initials makes one less prone to depression and anxiety.