China science

Chinese tradition of humility and self-effacement disguises people’s true emotions, research suggests

People from East Asia may appear more modest, but study by psychologists indicates they are just as likely to be proud and self-confident as other cultures

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2016, 4:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:53pm

Chinese and other people from East Asia may appear to Westerners to show more humility, but analysis of their brain waves suggest they can be as proud or arrogant as other cultures, according to a study by scientists in China and the UK.

Previous research has suggested that people in eastern and western cultures present differing images of themselves through their behaviour.

East Asian people typically give more negative descriptions of themselves while westerners can have a more inflated view of their own abilities.

Confucius returns to mainland, statue by statue

East Asians are also more likely to place greater importance on group or collective values while westerners emphasis individual attributes and freedoms, according to this thinking.

But researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of Southampton in Britain say these forms of behaviour could merely disguise people’s true feelings.

The scientists recruited more than 40 volunteers, half from China and the rest from the United States, Canada and Britain.

The participants were shown either positive or negative words such as foolish and honest and were asked which could be applied to them.

Aggression is not part of national character

At the same time, the researchers measured the volunteers neural electric signals in an area of the brain above both ears processing the information.

The results showed that regardless of what culture the volunteers came from their brain waves were similar and they reacted the same way when presented with negative and positive adjectives to describe themselves.

People taking part in the tests also endorsed more positive traits as self-descriptive and more negative traits as not applicable to themselves, regardless of their cultural background, wrote the researchers, led by Dr Wu Lili at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Psychology in Beijing.

“Moreover, all participants responded faster to positive self-descriptive traits and to negative non-self-descriptive traits, indicating that the self-enhancement motive is equally potent across cultures,” they said.

The scientists did notice one difference among the Chinese volunteers and Westerners in an area of the brain called N170 used to direct awareness to immediate events.

Negative words elicited a higher level of brain activity in N170 among Chinese volunteers, they found.

It suggested negative words could more effectively grab the attention of Chinese people than Westerners.

Previous researchers have debated whether there is a difference in perceptions of self-esteem among different cultures.

The traditional Chinese wedding ceremony is bowing out

Some researchers have argued that Asian people have less self-esteem because they live in a more traditionally collective culture, while others have argued that forms of humble behaviour are just a cultural norm and people from the region can be just as self-obsessed as some of their counterparts in the West.

The latest research was published in the latest issue of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience published by Oxford University.