Effects of Collectivistic and Individualistic Cultures on Imagination Inflation in Eastern and Western Cultures

By Iulia O. Basu-Zharku
2011, Vol. 3 No. 02 | pg. 1/5 |


Previous research suggests that influences our autobiographical memories. This study sought to determine if the collectivism/individualism dimension of culture influences the process of imagination inflation. Forty college students were given an Life Events Inventory (LEI) with individualistic and collectivistic events, and had to rate their confidence that each event happened or not in their childhood. Afterwards, they were asked to imagine a set of predetermined individualistic and collectivistic events and a week later they rated their confidence on a new LEI. Participants showed imagination inflation for the probed events. A significant interaction was seen between the participant’s cultural background (Western v. Eastern) and the type of event (individualistic v. collectivistic). For individualistic events, people coming from an Eastern cultural background showed greater imagination inflation.

What do we remember from the vast quantity of events happening to us, involving us, and relevant to our life-story? For example, the fact that you went on a trip with your classmates in the 5th grade and the details of the trip might be relevant to your life-story if many of your current friends were still some of the children that back then were your classmates. People’s memories for their experiences are not a veridical recording of such experiences, however (e.g., Schacter, 2001), and can be influenced by many factors. An important and influential theory focusing on the emergence and content of autobiographical memory is the social cultural developmental theory (Nelson & Fivush, 2004), which emphasizes the role of society and culture in shaping people’s memories of their autobiographical past.

In essence, autobiographical memory is about defining the self in time and in relation to others, so that individuals gain a sense of who they are by relating to others within a culture and creating a shared past. This theory views autobiographical memory as a function of various socio-cultural factors that interact with basic memory systems, such as the acquisition of , talk with parents, the style of parental talk, and psychological understanding. Autobiographical memory emerges gradually and is influenced by cognitive developments and social interactions, thus becoming a social-cultural-cognitive system.

One area that has received attention from researchers is the influence of cultural differences in collectivism/individualism on autobiographical memory. This introduction presents the definitions for collectivism and individualism and some of the studies that illustrate the particularities of collectivistic societies and individuals, as well as those of individualistic societies and individuals. The influence of the socio-cultural background on people’s autobiographical memory is then depicted in studies that show the influence of the linguistic and cultural environment on children’s autobiographical memories in Western (e.g., American) and Eastern (e.g., Chinese) cultural backgrounds.

Some studies look at the conversational style between mother-children dyads of different ethnicities, and others are more specifically focused on autobiographical remembering and look at the content and characteristics of the children’s and adult’s autobiographical memories. Studies focusing on bicultural individuals will be examined to show that these individuals integrate the norms of both cultures and apply them accordingly. Finally, the phenomenon of imagination inflation is discussed and evidence towards it is brought through studies that show its effect on past events and future expectations, for both children and adults. Moreover, it is noted that imagination can also create false memories, particularly if the events imagined are highly plausible or if the participants are children.

Open up to imagination

"Open up to imagination" by Ryan Hickox SA-2

Differences Between Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultures

One important dimension of culture is the extent of individualism or collectivism exhibited (Desai, 2007). Collectivism puts an emphasis on distinguishing between in-groups and out-groups, engaging in cooperative tasks, and focusing on what people have in common. Conversely, individualism is characterized by engagement in competitive tasks, by public situations, and by an emphasis on what makes the individual distinct. In general, in societies in which agreeing on social norms is important and jobs are interdependent, collectivism is preponderant, whereas in complex, stratified societies, where affluence, independence, and differences are emphasized, individualism is preponderant.

In particular, individualism is mostly seen in the cultures of Western Europe and North America, whereas collectivism is mostly seen in the cultures of Asia, Africa, and parts of Europe and (Triandis, 1993; Nelson & Fuvish, 2004). The emphasis on one or another starts in the family, even with the very structure of the family: a large, multigenerational one emphasizes collectivism, whereas a smaller, nuclear family emphasizes individualism (Triandis, 1993). Studies examining differences in collectivistic and individualistic cultures often use either Asian Americans or people from Asian cultures, such as Vietnamese or Filipino and compare them to Caucasians or Americans (Skillman, 2000; Desai, 2007). These studies on families and intergenerational show how individualistic societies value self-reliance, independence, autonomy, personal achievement (Skillman, 2000), and a definition of self apart from the group and personal goals (Desai, 2007).

Collectivistic societies value family cohesion, cooperation, solidarity, and conformity (Skillman, 2000), and thus people is these societies tend to make more references to others, emphasize group goals, and follow the expectations and regulations of the group (Desai, 2007).

Such cultural differences mean that people in different cultures have fundamentally different construals of the self and others. For more collectivistic societies, interdependent construals are the norm: The self is a part of a community, defined relative to others, concerned with belongingness, dependency, empathy, reciprocity and focused on small, selective in-groups at the expense of out-groups. The interdependent self exercises control to the interior, so that cognition and representation involve attentiveness to others, and personal attributes and actions are situationally bound. Autonomy becomes secondary, whereas relationships with others are emphasized, being ends in themselves.

Thus, it is crucial to be aware of other people’s desires, needs, and goals and to work towards them to help the other, even read their minds (Mark & Kitayama, 1991). For more individualistic societies, independent construals are the norm: The distinctiveness of people, the uniqueness of a person, autonomy, and independence are emphasized. This requires construing oneself as an individual and speaking one’s mind. Social responsiveness is determined by the need to assert and express the self, and thus the independent self exercises control to the exterior. The consequence is that larger, more inclusive but superficial in-groups are the norm, as opposed to the small, selective in-groups of the interdependent self construals (Mark & Kitayama, 1991).

Socio-Cultural Influences on Memory

According to the socio-cultural developmental theory, socio-cultural influences can be seen both in the formation and content of autobiographical memories (Nelson & Fivush, 2004). Research has examined this in several ways. One line of research has looked at cultural differences in autobiographical memory by comparing Caucasian Americans with various Asian ethnicities (e.g., Korean, Chinese, and Japanese). An analysis of conversations about reminiscing about one’s experiencess in Caucasian mother-child dyads and Korean mother-child dyads (the children’s age ranged between 3-4 years of age) revealed that Caucasian dyads talked on average as much as three times more than the Koreans dyads (Mullen & Soonhyung, 1995).

In addition, Caucasian mothers talked more during their turns and were more likely to portray the child as the protagonist in the talk, and to emphasize the child’s and others’ feelings and thoughts, whereas Korean mothers focused on norms, social roles, and emphasized behavioral expectations. This suggests that children’s linguistic experiences are related to the development of autobiographical memories, and that the latter are culturally modeled (Mullen & Soonhyung, 1995).

Another study that suggests the influence of the socio-linguistic environment on autobiographical memory at the early stages of childhood looked at conversations about children’s past experiences between American mother-child dyads and Chinese mother-child dyads (the children were 3 years old). The analysis of these conversations revealed that American mother-child dyads had an elaborative, independently oriented conversational style in which the focus was on the child’s predilections and opinions, whereas Chinese mother-child dyads had a low-elaborative, interdependently oriented conversational style in which the mother repeated factual questions and emphasized moral rules and behavioral expectations (Wang et al., 2000).

These results show that parent-child talk focuses on what types of events are considered memorable, on what aspects of those events are more important, on how to organize events in a temporal fashion, and on how to make inferences about people and causality. All these differ according to the values of a specific culture (Mullen & Soonhyung, 1995; Wang et al., 2000). Child talk appears to be more valued in Western societies, where children are encouraged to talk more about their experiences and talk more about themselves (Mullen & Soonhyung, 1995).

Other research also showing how the socio-linguistic environment in which children grow shapes their autobiographical memories has focused on memory specificity and the amount of detail found in young children’s memory reports. When American children (4 and 6 year old) were interviewed about a story presented to them a day before, they gave more voluminous and elaborate accounts for both their own experiences and for the story than did Korean children (Han, Leichtman & Wang, 1998). In addition, American children were more specific and descriptive about specific past events than both Korean and Chinese children, and the American children referred to emotions more and categorized negative emotions, whereas Asian children tried to emphasize the positive aspect of an event and talked more about other people than American children did.

This suggests that the content of memory differs with the cultural background of the individual (Han et al., 1998). Research involving preschoolers describing autobiographical events shows that American children’s memories are generally focused on specific events, individual experiences, and feelings (Wang, 2004). In addition, American children’s memories tend to be expressive, detailed and lengthy, and they focus on the child as being the protagonist in the narrative and present the child in a positive light. In contrast, Chinese children’s memories were found to be general, skeletal, less emotional, more neutral in their expression, and focused on routine events, on collective activities, on social interactions, on others or relations with others.

These patterns are seen because Western cultures promote autonomy and put an emphasis on the individual’s qualities, and children in these cultures are encouraged to stand out and talk about themselves, whereas Eastern cultures promote cohesiveness and put an emphasis on the group, and children in these cultures are discouraged to talk about themselves and the past and focus more on those around them (Han et al., 1998).

Cultural influences on memory persist into adulthood. In one study, American and Chinese college students were asked to recollect early childhood experiences, and they showed the same biases as American and Chinese preschoolers (Wang, 2001). In the study, the American and Chinese college students were asked to recollect their earliest childhood memories and provided self-descriptions. Results indicated that the American participant’s earliest childhood memories were from around the age of 3.5 years, whereas the Chinese participant’s earliest childhood memories were dating from approximately 4.1 years of age.

In addition, American college students’ memories were discrete, focused on specific events, and the individual’s feelings, whereas Chinese college students’ memories were more general, about routine activities, and focusing on family and in-groups. Americans also stressed personal preferences and autonomy in lengthier narratives than the ones reported by the Chinese.

When considering the influence of culture on autobiographical memory, it is important to realize that people can internalize more than one culture, in equal measure, so as to form a bicultural identity (Devos, 2006). For example, young adults in the United States in a Chinese family might be competitive and expose their achievements in the society at large, but inside their community and/or family, they will be respectful to their elders and try to blend in. Studies have primed bicultural individuals with one cultural identity or another, in order to see how that influences their behavior and cognition (Hong, Ip, Chiu, Morris & Menon, 2001; Wang, 2008). In one such study, Chinese Americans were primed with their Chinese cultural identity, by being given collective, Chinese-related statements. Results showed that the participants became more aware of their duties (e.g. “I ought to understand Chinese history,” “We have to pay taxes”).

However, Chinese Americans primed with their American cultural identity, by being given individualistic, American-related statements, they tended to become slightly more aware of their rights (e.g. “I can vote when I’m 18”) (Hong et al., 2001). Moreover, when Asian Americans were primed with their American self before recalling important autobiographical events, they were more likely to recall personal experiences in which they were the protagonists and they tended to emphasize their own perspective (e.g., “I got the acceptance letter for Cornell. I did not like my high school at the time and most of the people in, so this was very good news for me. […] I was getting out of town”) (Wang, 2008). However, when Asian Americans were primed with their Asian self before recalling important autobiographical events, their recollections were more likely to focus on social interactions, and persons from in-groups (e.g., “The day I got my letter of acceptance to Cornell gave me a sense of relief. […] So it’s not the fact of accomplishing that makes my parents happy […]. It’s the ability to plan”). These results point to an influence of the cultural dimension of collectivism/individualism on the mechanism of retrieval (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; Wang, 2008).

Thus, previous research provides strong evidence that the cultural dimension of collectivism/individualism influences autobiographical memories, starting with their formation in early childhood and continuing its influence into adulthood, when it influences the retrieval of autobiographical memories.

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