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One of the central issues of psychology is identity and the way individuals shape their identities for themselves. People live in different regions all around the globe and are consequently exposed to a distinct type of culture, religion, education, family values and media. These influences instill certain rigid values in people from birth, which configures their self-concept and the way they perceive other individuals in the society they interact with.
In many Western societies, the importance of personal achievement and glory are inculcated in people from early childhood. Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama (1991) observed in a study that the culture in the North America values an identity that is focused on individual motivations, attributes and goals. A sense of self-reliance and independence are considered normal and desirable. Markus and Kitayama (1995) further noticed that most Asians cultures emphasize and identity that is based on conforming to the ideals of the community, religion and family. The importance of collective efforts and association with a group are instilled in Asian cultures. The Japanese and Chinese cultures encourage children to value and cherish collective honors through group work and to be modest about their personal distinctions (Kitayama & Markus, 1992). In other words, Western cultures encourage individuals to strive hard to stand out and develop a distinct image for themselves, whereas Asian cultures expect people to mould their personalities to adjust and blend into norms and practices of the community.
The object of this experiment is to explore how cultures may influence the way one perceives his or her identity. This survey will study whether people from different ethnic backgrounds respond differently to the “Who am I” test. In this study, two groups of people will be given the same questionnaire to answer. One group will consist of white Americans who were born and brought up in the USA. The other group will comprise of international Asian students coming from countries like Japan, Pakistan and India. It is hypothesized that the American group will respond by stating more responses that describe their personal traits than the International group will. It is further hypothesized that the International group will respond predominantly by identifying themselves with their groups such as ethnicity, religion and family, significantly more than Americans will.
The majority of the forty participants (20 white Americans, 20 international Asians) were randomly selected among the Amherst College students. The remainder of the pool of participants extended to the international student community of the Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges. The participants were undergraduate students ranging from freshmen through seniors, and included both men and women.
Twenty questionnaires were handed out to the Asian students at the Five-College International Students Association meeting in the Campus Center. The other twenty questionnaires were distributed among the white Americans in the social dormitories of Amherst College.
The participants were instructed to read the questionnaire carefully and respond with five statements describing their identity. In this manner, a total of two hundred statements were collected from all forty participants. The responses were watchfully divided into two sections. The first section was for “personal identity responses,” such as self-focused words (e.g. smart, funny, attractive, student, good driver). The second section was for “group identity responses,” such as relationship-focused words (e.g. brother, sister, friend, Christian, Japanese).
The independent variable used in this experiment is the cultural identity of the participants while the dependent variable is the response to the question posed. In this way, percentage of “self” responses and percentage of “group” responses for each group of participants was obtained. If the hypothesis is true, then there will be a significantly higher percentage of personal identity responses from white Americans than from International Asians. Correspondingly, there will be a significantly higher percentage of group identity responses from International Asians than from white Americans.
The following results were obtained for the questionnaire consisting of the “Who am I” test.
White Americans International Asians
Personal Identity Response 74% 33%
Group Identity Response 26% 67%
It can be observed from the data and the graphical representation that the participants in the two groups responded very differently to the questionnaire. 74-percent of the responses made by the white Americans were self-oriented compared with only 33-percent of self-focused responses collected from International Asians. On the other hand, 26-percent of the responses from White Americans showed relation to a group, community or religion compared with 67-percent of the group-based responses from International Asians.
The study demonstrates that people from different ethnicity and cultures differ in the manner in which they perceive their self-identity. As predicted by the hypothesis, the international Asians described more features of their personality by referring to their national identity, religion and ethnic background than did white Americans. In contrast, the responses of white Americans were more concentrated on their personal attributes and achievements than were International Asians. The most common group identity response from Americans was the reference to the state they were from and, to a much lesser frequency, their religion. The Americans seemed more inclined to mention their personal qualities such as smartness, friendliness, confidence and social skills. Similar personal identity responses were also received from the international Asians, but, as the results suggest, to a much lesser degree. The results conform to the findings of Markus and Kitayama (1995) that non-Western cultures develop personal orientations very different from those of Americans and Europeans. The notion of the self in different ethnic groups exerts differing influences on the individual’s personality development. The American society appears to be based on the independent self-system, which contrasts with the inter-dependent group oriented cultures of Asia as indicative from the results of this experiment.
Although this study had reliable conclusions, there were some aspects of the experiment that could be improved. The first one is the size of the participants’ pool. A larger number of subjects would greatly enhance the credibility of the conclusions drawn by insuring reliability and reproducibility in the results. Moreover, all the participants were undergraduate students from Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges. International Asians in colleges in the US might be inclined to interact with people from similar backgrounds and become part of international organizations on campus, which can deepen their tendencies of identifying themselves as being part of a group. On the other hand, white Americans might perceive college education as a base to launch their individualistic endeavors and thus might become more inclined towards defining themselves using self-focused words. A more diverse group of participants of a broader cross-section of adult population and interests would have improved the accuracy and validity of the results. It is very possible that adult International Asians who are working as career professional might not be able to find similar International groups to become a part of, and therefore, are likely to give relatively less group-based responses and more self-oriented ones in comparison with undergraduate International Asians. On the other hand, white Americans surveyed from the adult population could be bringing up a family and might be prone to describe themselves as part of the family unit. One would have to carry out these tasks by surveying the much more diverse student body of University of Massachusetts at Amherst and career professionals and general public in the pioneer valley. The results would have also turned out to be more reliable if the international Asians were given the questionnaires in a neutral environment instead of at International Students gathering where everyone is representing his or her own country, religion and ethnic background, and is more likely to be impelled to give descriptions that are group oriented.
People are more likely to describe themselves in terms of their religion and the country they are from when asked the question in a different country. Further work could be carried out by conducting the “Who am I” test with the Asians in their own countries rather than in a foreign nation, and also by using the same survey on Americans in a foreign country. It could be inferred from this experiment that the percentage of group-oriented responses among Asians would decrease when they are surveyed in their respective countries, whereas an increase in group-oriented responses would be observed when Americans are asked the same question in a foreign country. This could be because the sense of belonging to a nation and community are likely to be stronger when exposed to an alien environment. For example, white Americans in a foreign country might be very self-oriented, but likely to define themselves as part of the American community. Similarly, for example, International Asians in their own countries might be very group-oriented, but likely to concentrate on their self-focused role in life and on individual endeavors.
As noticed by Enns (1994), it is important for people to understand that individuals in alien cultures may develop differently from them. The international students and foreigners who come from group-oriented cultures should be aware of the individualistic nature of personalities of Americans. It should not bother foreigners if they associate with Americans who are critically different from them in the sense that they do not care as much about religion or ethnic background, and that they have not developed family value as strong as theirs. Similarly, Americans should also respect people from different nations and cultures who may not seem as ambitious and self-reliant as they are. This mutual understanding is likely to reduce cross-cultural tensions within the same environment.
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