How Many Generations Until Immigrants Think Like the Rest of Us?

I have long been fascinated by the “deep culture” differences that distinguish humanity’s numerous ethnic and cultural groups. That peoples from different continents and climes have different rules of etiquette, eat different foods, follow different schedules, and worship different gods is well known. But in many ways these differences barely scratch the surface of humanity’s diversity; they are cosmetic veneers, outside expressions of much deeper distinctions. The most interesting cultural differences are found at the unconscious, cognitive level. They shape the way people perceive the world around them, what attitudes and biases they hold, and even what emotions they feel. Pin pointing these “deep culture” differences, identifying which are learned through social interaction and which are received through genetic inheritance, and discerning the way these differences affect demographic, economic, and political realities across the globe are tasks I approach with gusto.

I am quite sure that any reader who shares these interests will find this paper to be one of the most interesting studies they have come across in a long while.
The paper is an old (originally published in 1999) but fascinating one. [1] Written by a team put together by social psychologist Steven Heine, the paper summarizes and investigates dozens of studies on the differences between North American and Japanese social cognition. Nowadays all psychologists  recognize that North Americans have a unique psychological profile quite distinct from the rest of humanity. [2] In 1999 this was a much more radical proposition.  To show how thoroughly  researched  emotions and biases often attributed to “human nature” could be distinctly American affairs, Dr. Heines and company chose a perfect target: self esteem. 

Buzzword of the decade, vital to little league soccer games and business gurus alike, high self esteem is often depicted as a cornerstone for a successful life and basic psychological need we all share. This is more or less true–for Americans. The same cannot be said for the Japanese. Dr. Heine and his team present mountains of evidence to show just how small a part self esteem plays in Japanese culture and how little a high sense of self esteem matters to their happiness, productivity, or any other metric of well being.

Those interested in this topic really should read the entire paper (or at least pp. 769-779). If you have never heard of concepts like ganbaru or hansei then the essay has quite a bit to teach you. This post, however, will not summarize all of their findings. What I will focus on here are is just a subset of the paper’s larger case: a set of particularly intriguing longitudinal studies designed to track levels of self esteem (as measured by the Rosenberg scale) among Japanese immigrants to Canada.   

They begin by noting that “within North American psychological literature, it has become a truism that a typical self view is a positive self view.” This is certainty true for Americans and Canadians, “where the skewness is so pronounced that… most North Americans  who are classified as having ‘low self esteem’  by means of median splits, a common classification scheme, actually have moderate scores in an absolute sense.[3]

Figure 1: Self Esteem scores among European Canadians.

Steven Heine, et. al. “Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?” Psychological Review (1999), Vol. 106, No. 4.  p. 776

The Japanese respondent’s reported self esteem had a very different distribution:

Figure 2: Distribution of Self Esteem Scores Among Never-Been-Abroad-Japanese.

Steven Heine, et. al. “Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?” Psychological Review (1999), Vol. 106, No. 4.  p. 772

The base-line differences between Japanese and North Americans are by themselves  quite interesting. But the data becomes all the  more fascinating when the same methods are applied to Japanese immigrants and their descendents in North America:

 Heine and Lehman (1999) classified over 4,000 Canadian and Japanese students on a continuum with respect to exposure to North American culture. In an increasing order of exposure these were: (a) Japanese who had never been outside Japan (b) Japanese who had spent time in a Western country; (c) recent Asian immigrants (from a number of Asian countries); (d) Asians who immigrated to Canada several years ago; (e) second generation Asian-descent Canadians; (f) Third generation Asian-descent Canadians; (g) European descent Canadians.  This classification resulted in a remarkably clear relation between exposure to North American culture and self esteem. [4]

Here are their results presented in graph form:

Figure 3: “Self Esteem and Exposure to North American Culture.”

Steven Heine, et. al. “Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?” Psychological Review (1999), Vol. 106, No. 4.  p. 776

The authors continue:

Three recent longitudinal acculturation studies provide additional evidence that engagement in North American culture fosters the development of positive self views. In the first study, self-esteem scores of visiting Japanese exchange students were compared with scores collected 7 months later. The average self-esteem scores of the visiting Japanese students increased significantly by 1.8 points over this time. A complementary longitudinal study was conducted with Canadian English teachers who went to go live in Japan. exhibited a significant decrease in self esteem f 1.0 points over this time. A third longitudinal study measured self esteem in a second group of Japanese students before they left Japan and then again 7 months after their arrival in Canada. In this study Japanese exhibited a nonsignificant increase of self esteem of 0.3 points…. however, a significant correlation (r=.32) emerged between the student’s self esteem change and their acculturation attitudes. Those students who had assimilated and integrated the most into Canadian life exhibited greater self esteem increases. [5]

There are a few conclusions we can glean from all this.

First off, it seems very clear that self esteem is a fairly elastic trait. It can vary widely over the course of one’s life and varies by even greater amounts from one generation to another. This has wider implications than is initially apparent: cultural psychologists have found that one of the greatest differences between peoples East and West is an interdependent vs. independent “sense of self.”   Heine and company make a fairly strong case in the paper that the need for high self esteem is a product of a strong independent sense of self. This suggests that changing self esteem scores may simply be a sign post for a much larger psychological shift. [6]

This will probably not surprise anyone who has lived in or worked with Asian American immigrant communities. Anybody who thinks that the attitudes and opinions of a 3rd generation Chinese-, Japanese-, Cambodian-, or Vietnamese-American is a good proxy for said person’s ancestors’ has never met someone actually born in one of these countries. All who have seen firsthand the way miscommunication and cultural conflict can tear apart Asian-American families can testify that the generational gap between the attitudes of immigrants and their children or grandchildren is real. Though many 3rd generation Asian-Americans are fiercely loyal to their cultural heritage, it is often much easier for them to understand the world view and attitudes of their peers than that of their own parents and grand parents. The conflict this causes is often painful and severe.

However, even those actually born abroad are not representative of their original homeland–as Figure 3 suggests, the most dramatic difference in self esteem (and presumably independence) is not between one generation and another, but between those who have never visited North America at all and those who have lived here for a long time!

This is fairly strong evidence that most variation in self esteem–and possibly differences in independence and interdependence self esteem reflects–are not deeply rooted in history, socioeconomics, or genetics. As with violent crime rates among immigrant populations, acculturation is probably the most important factor at play. This should provide some comfort to those who worry about America’s capacity to assimilate what is now the largest source of newly arriving immigrants


[1] Steven Heine, Darin Lehman, Hazel Rose Markus, and Shinobu Kitayama.  “Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?” Psychological Review (1999), Vol. 106, No. 4.  pp. 766-794.

[2] Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. “The Weirdest People in the World?Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2010), vol 33. pp. 66-135.

[3] Steven Heine, et. al. “Is There a Universal Need For Positive Self Regard?” pp. 775-776

[4] ibid.,  p. 776.

[5] ibid.

[6] This also accords with several other studies conducted by social psychologists concluding that subtle cultural symbols can unconsciously “prime” Asian Americans to think with Western or Asian attitudes about the self . See Richard Nisbettt, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Easterners Think Differently… and Why (New York: Free Press, 2003). pp. 67-68; 118-119.

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Good post! Regarding contrasts between Western and Asian mentalities: I’m starting to read writings about social space, time, and action orientations, and I’ve come across the following lately: Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (1991) offers a fascinating discussion (pp. 152–158) between an Asian/Buddhist and a Westerner about their contrasting spatial orientations — with the Buddhist seeming more attuned to network perspectives. Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox (2008) — contains a discussion between an Asian and an American about their contrasting approaches to time. Comparing the two discussions is more than I can do at this point; but it might be illuminating for somebody to do, if it hasn’t already been done. Nisbett’s book is on my list.

Thank you for both of the references! I highly recommend the Nisbett book – I reviewed the book and its major findings/ideas in this post:

"West and East and How We Think"
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 2 April 2013.

As Nisbett's book reports, there certainly is evidence that Eastern conceptions of causality and control differ from those found in the West. Whether these cause a different perception of space and time, are caused by these different perceptions of space and time, or whether all three spring from a different source is a question I cannot now answer–but it would make a great research project.

That’s a helpful informative summary of Nisbett’s book. Many thanks.

I particularly liked the summary paragraph that read as follows:
“When dozens of studies of this sort are placed side by side a composite picture of the Eastern and Western mind can be drawn. Asians perceive the world as a complex, constantly changing, and interrelated whole and that is not subject to their personal control; Westerners perceive a world that can be analyzed, categorized, and divided into discrete objects whose attributes can be known and whose future can be predicted. Asians have difficulty understanding an object apart from its context; Westerners often never see the context at all. Asians see themselves as part of one larger whole. They accept hierarchy, value fitting in, and are quicker to notice the feelings of others. Westerners strive to make themselves look good and look unique. Westerners demand social equality; Easterners aim for social harmony. Asians shy away from disagreement and contradiction. Westerners revel in it. When controversy emerges Asians look for a "Middle Way" that satisfies both parties; Westerners are less willing to compromise "the truth."”

Is that your summary or his? I’d like to know in case I ever quote it.

Lots of grist for my interest in spatial orientations. Some for action/agency orientations. Not much for time orientations.

There may be some relation to the nature (persistence, importance) of the tribal/clan/family formations that characterize these different societies. I know you’ve written about this, but I won’t get around to those posts probably for a while.


I am glad you found the post useful.

The summary is my own. Generally speaking, I strive to clearly identify which words are not mine by placing them in a different color and adding a complete foot note that provides the source from which the quoted words came so that others may easily find the original source (esp. important in this day, where urls change with such frequency!).