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Manipulations of self construal

Author: Dr Simon Moss

Overview

Some individuals tend to conceptualize themselves as independent or detached from their social environment, called an independent or personal self construal. Other individuals, in contrast, conceptualize themselves as one constituent of a broader collective, called an interdependent or collective self construal. An independent self construal, relative to an interdependent self construal, is associated with a range of behaviors and preferences. Individuals who adopt an independent self construal prefer shapes with angular, rather than rounded, edges& they tend to be more assertive& they are often more impulsive& and they are sometimes less cooperative (for more information, see Self construal theory).

Self construal seems to vary across individuals (e.g., Singelis, 1994) and cultures (Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Nevertheless, self construal can also be manipulated or shaped by the context or environment. For example, anecdotes about family (Trafimow, Triandis, & Goto, 1991), national icons (Briley & Wyer, Jr., 2002), reflections about relationships (Stapel & Koomen, 2001), and collective pronouns (Stapel & Koomen, 2001) have all been shown to prime an interdependent rather than independent self construal.

Experimental manipulations

Anecdotes

The self construal of individuals is not entirely constrained by their cultural milieu. Indeed, the self construal of individuals can vary across time and depends on cues in the immediate environment (e.g., Kuhnen & Hannover, 2000& Stapel & Koomen, 2001& Trafimow, Triandis, & Goto, 1991). To demonstrate, Trafimow et al. (1991) developed a sequence of procedures that can manipulate the self construal of individuals. Specifically, participants are instructed to read an anecdote. In one condition, this account frequently refers to the concept of I-a procedure that is supposed to activate personal cognitions and thus promote an independent self construal. In the other condition, the account frequently refers to the concept of family, which is assumed to activate collective cognitions and foster an interdependent self construal. This method has indeed been validated and applied extensively (e.g., Gardner, Gabriel & Lee, 1999& Gardner, Gabriel & Hochschild, 2002& for a similar manipulation, see Mandel, 2003).

Symbols

When individuals are exposed to photographs of national icons, such as when Americans are exposed to a US flag, they become more inclined to exhibit qualities that reflect an interdependent self construal (e.g., Briley & Wyer, Jr., 2002). For example, after participants are exposed to these symbols, they become more inclined to value equality over hierarchy. This tendency aligns with the preference of interdependent individuals to maintain harmony.

Similarly, although not a study into self construal per se, Alter and Kwan (2009) uncovered some findings that show how symbols could affect self construal. In their study, some European Americans were exposed to symbols that represent East Asians, such as the yin-yang symbol. After exposure to these symbols, these participants, when instructed to reach decisions about shares and weather, for example, demonstrated inclinations that were more typical of East Asian individuals. That is, they predicted more change and variability.

These extracultural judgments might also, potentially, apply to the domain of self construal. That is, after exposed to yin-yang symbols, for example, European Americans might show more collectivist or interdependent inclinations. Nevertheless, this possibility has not been confirmed empirically.

Characteristics of themselves and their collectives

When individuals reflect upon differences between themselves and their friends, they are more inclined to manifest an independent self construal. For example, after this exercise, the self esteem of these individuals becomes dependent on whether they perceive themselves a unique rather than obliging (Hannover, Birkner, & Pohlmann, 2006). In contrast, after individuals reflect upon similarities between themselves and their friends, they are more inclined to manifest an interdependent self construal. After this exercise, their self esteem primarily depends on the extent to which they perceive themselves as obliging, not unique (Hannover, Birkner, & Pohlmann, 2006).

Other reflections about themselves and their collectives can also determine their self construal. For example, an independent self construal seems to prevail after individuals specify some personal facts about themselves, such as their country of origin (Stapel & Koomen, 2001). An interdependent self construal seems to prevail after individuals specify some facts about their work team, such as the number of females (Stapel & Koomen, 2001). For example, after individuals considered facts about their work team, they were more inclined to manifest an assimilation effect: that is, they perceived themselves more favorably after reading about a successful person (Kemmelmeier & Oyserman, 2001& Stapel & Koomen, 2001). This assimilation effect might reflect a sense of connection between themselves and other individuals.

Hamilton and Biehel (2005) developed another manipulation of self construal. This manipulation was also utilized by Zhang and Shrum (2009). In the study conducted by Zhang and Shrum (2009), for example, participants completed a short essay, within a duration of five minutes. To prime an independent self construal, participants wrote about the thoughts evoked by the sentence "Remember, enjoying your life is what it is really all about". To prime an interdependent self construal, participants wrote about the thoughts evoked by the sentence "Remember, enjoying relationships with your family and friends is what it is really all about".

As predicted by Zhang and Shrum (2009), when participants wrote about their relationships with their family and friends, they were more likely to control their impulses. Specifically, they were more likely to express negative attitudes towards alcohol consumption if they previously imagined an interaction with friends. Furthermore, a subset of individuals who had written about their relationships with their family and friends, instead of their personal motivations, reported more interdependent cognitions, as gauged by a scale developed by Hamilton and Biehel (2005). Taken together, these findings validate this manipulation of self construal.

Incidental words

Incidental words--that is, words embedded in other tasks--can also affect the self construal of individuals. For example, references to personal pronouns, such as I or mine, can foster an independent self construal. References to collective pronouns, such as "we" or "us", can foster an interdependent self construal. That is, these words generate effects that are comparable to other manipulations of self construal (see Agrawal & Maheswaran, 2005& Stapel & Koomen, 2001)

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Last Update: 6/28/2016