Self-help: maybe it works better in Japan

Culture affects your belief that people can improve themselves. 

The early-twentieth-century French psychologist and hypnotherapist Emile Coué, who believed in positive thinking, instructed his patients to tell themselves: "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better." (No, it wasn't invented for the Pink Panther movies.)

Evidently, young children don't need such a mantra: research by Yale psychologist Kristi Lockhart and colleagues shows that Japanese and American children generally believe that they're steadily improving—becoming smarter, kinder, or better organized. This childhood optimism fades, however. Adults of both countries are more likely than children to believe that people's bad traits endure.

But there's a key difference, says Lockhart. Compared with Americans, Japanese have more confidence that people can alter negative traits.

For the study, reported in Cognitive Development in February, the researchers told subjects eight short stories about characters hoping to change a trait. Children, ages 5–6 and 8–10, and young adults predicted whether the character would be able to change a given trait over time. The youngest children in both cultures were the most likely to believe that extreme positive changes would occur. Adults were less optimistic, with Japanese adults significantly more likely than Americans to predict positive changes.

Lockhart says the findings make sense both developmentally and culturally. Young children "believe deficits will naturally improve" as they grow up. Japanese adults believe in the efficacy of change because it allows them to feel that if they try hard, they will achieve culturally sanctioned traits and therefore fit in with the group. "In Japan, you don't want to be the nail that sticks up," says Lockhart, but in the United States, "we emphasize individualism and inherent talents."

She adds that Americans may be too ready to give up hope of improving.  "I think we need to recognize the kinds of changes that effort can produce."  

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