East & Western Cultural Values: Honesty, Dominance & Submission


When an American thinks about whether he is honest, his brain activity looks very different than when he thinks about whether another person is honest, even a close relative. That’s not true for Chinese people. When a Chinese man evaluates whether he is honest, his brain activity looks almost identical to when he is thinking about whether his mother is honest.

That finding — that American and Chinese brains function differently when considering traits of themselves versus traits of others (Neuroimage, Vol. 34, No. 3) — supports behavioral studies that have found that people from collectivist cultures, such as China, think of themselves as deeply connected to other people in their lives, while Americans adhere to a strong sense of individuality.

Different study, but from the same article:

Ambady’s group based the study on historical data showing that East-Asian cultures value submissiveness, while Western cultures value dominance. In fact, they found, they could see this cultural distinction in the way the brain responds to visual input. When Americans viewed dominant silhouettes, but not submissive ones, reward circuitry fired in the brain’s limbic system. The opposite happened among Japanese participants; their reward circuitry fired in response to submissive, but not dominant, silhouettes.

… same article:

Most recently, a study by Park’s group, in press in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience demonstrated that Westerners process human faces more actively than East Asians, consistent with the Western focus on individuality.

… last interesting tidbit:

The researchers sought to find a biological explanation for past research showing that people from collectivist cultures relate more strongly to contextual self-descriptions, such as “When I’m with my mother, I’m honest.” People from already defined individualistic cultures relate more strongly to general self-descriptions such as “I’m honest.”

When Chiao and her colleagues compared participants along ethnic lines, they saw no difference in brain activity. Differences appeared only after they grouped people based on how strongly they valued collectivism or individualism: Regardless of ethnicity, the medial prefrontal cortex was most active when individualists read general self-descriptions and when collectivists read contextual self-descriptions.

via.