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American psyches under the microscope

Wearing a milk mustache, Dennis Rodman gazes out from a screen into an audience of educated middle-class women, many of whom are munching sandwiches or fruit. "Here is Dennis Rodman advertising milk," Hazel Markus, the narrator of the lunchtime slide show at Tresidder Union, says. "In case you didn't know it, Dennis Rodman is not the boy nextdoor. He's different, he's separate, he's special." The muffled sound of people chewing and chortling at the same time fills the room.

Markus, the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, lifts the image of basketball's bad boy from the screen and replaces it with one of an anonymous but distinctively appointed young woman. In this magazine ad for clothing, the bold type overlaying the picture orders viewers to "chart your own course." Next, Markus displays an ad that commands them to "individualize," and then another that asserts "The Internet isn't for everybody." baby.jpeg
The baby in this American advertisement says, "My dreams are all my own," but requires a particular set of cultural institutions to maintain dreams that are "all his own," cultural psychologist Hazel Markus said.

"But you are not everybody," Markus exclaims, reading between the lines.

By the time the professor gets to a magazine ad showing a four-wheel drive vehicle careening around a curve, the audience needs no help interpreting. As soon as they see the words "Ditch the Joneses" superimposed on the vehicle image, they break out in a riotous roar. The message is clear, Markus says: To be a good, moral and healthy person in the United States today, you've got to "ditch the Joneses."

Welcome to a lecture on "our culture, our selves" by the social scientist who is most responsible for creating the field of cultural psychology. Markus, who came to Stanford in 1994 from the University of Michigan, sports a thick mop of red hair that can stop the eye almost as quickly as the polished advertisements she displays. But it is her ideas ­ and the clever experiments she has devised to test them ­ that have made her among the most cited psychologists in the world.

"For many years, psychologists thought anthropologists studied culture and they, the psychologists, studied the mind," psychologist Laura Carstensen told the audience in introducing Markus on this occasion, a lecture sponsored by the Institute for Research on Women and Gender as part of its winter lunchtime series. Then Markus came along, Carstensen said, and perhaps permanently "blurred the boundaries." She has done this by developing evidence and theories that posit that the mind and culture are locked into a steamy dance, making each other up as they prance across time.

Americans are likely to have more trouble accepting this than people from many other places. American culture is heavily invested in individualism. From the time they are a few months old, Markus says, American middle-class children are learning how to become separate individuals in small moments of "self-building." To become a competent, autonomous adult in the United States, as elsewhere, requires a "broad net of social customs and institutions." In America, those range from the constant use by people around us of the pronoun "I," which unlike self-references in some other languages, requires no particular context to be correctly employed, to "routine practices like telling guests to 'help themselves' and providing newborns with their own rooms."

Take for example, Markus says, her own behavior when her daughter was but a few months old. "Do you want to play with the red ball or the blue ball?" she recalls asking. Since then, she has discovered, Japanese mothers don't ask such questions.

In America, child-rearing and schooling practices relate to the culture's foundational documents in millions of little ways, just as Japan's culture owes much to the writings of Confucius and Mencius, she says. The American documents stress the "natural rights" of man, especially the right to freedom. "We have a complex system of courts to protect these natural rights," she says, but Thomas Jefferson also made clear why a baby would be asked to choose a favorite color when he wrote, "without the possibility of choice and the exercise of choice, a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing."

Markus' favorite ad for summing up the current American way is that of a smiling baby ­ "The Gap" baby ­ who says, according to the words that the advertisers have put into his mouth: "They say I have my grandfather's eyes. And that I have my dad's laugh. But my dreams are my own."

"We can't know what the baby's parents are like or what his experiences will be as he grows up," Markus tells her audience at Tresidder. But you can bet that if the baby continues to participate in the ways of the American middle class, he will, by the time he is in college (the age of most of Markus' study subjects), "experience his dreams as all his own." If he is plucked out of the United States to grow up in Mexico or Japan, she says, "he may well have dreams for himself, but they are unlikely to be experienced as all his own, and they are unlikely to function in the same ways as a guide for his behavior."

The stress Markus places on "middle-class" ways is based on research she has done on differences among Americans. Advertising themes in mainstream magazines most reflect the self-conceptions held by Americans who are either youthful college students at selective universities such as Stanford or older Americans with college degrees. Those with a high school degree or less education, she says, are less likely to describe themselves as unique individuals.

"This is the American official story of how to be an adult," she says, or what she calls the primary American "selfway." "Selfways reflect community ideas about being a person" ­ how to behave, think and feel and know something in everyday life situations. "There are selfways associated with being a man or a woman, with being black, white or Latino, with religion, with profession, with where you live," she says. "The Stanford way of being is different from the Harvard way of being and from the University of Michigan way of being."

People live by the "meanings and practices of multiple sets of cultural contexts," she says, so they develop vastly different self-conceptions and ways of thinking and behaving. "No two people, not even twins, are likely to occupy just the same position in society, so no two selves will be just alike." But they will share some characteristics because "being a person is, in large part, a group project." This also means, she says, that the individuals are "instrumental in maintaining and reproducing the cultural system in which they thrive."

That may sound like common sense to anyone who has felt peer pressure, but the implications are far reaching for Western psychology, where the emphasis has been on discovering universal ways in which a human being develops and maintains an internal, autonomous self. Many people today are grappling with "how to reflect the cultural participation that constructs individuality without trading on stereotypes," Markus says, "and without slipping into a view that Americans are in some way essentially different from the Japanese," for example. "In this work, we take the view of culture as something that people do. It's doing, it's engaging these meanings, participating in these practices and institutions, rather than thinking of culture as something that people have. If you change the cultural system, you can change the self that goes with it. You get a different selfway, you get a different self." golf.jpeg

This Japanese advertisement for golf balls says, "Win the driving contest." In contrast to American ads, which promote individual uniqueness, Hazel Markus said, this one "implies that everyone who uses this ball will have the opportunity to win, and everyone will be satisfied with it."

To demonstrate that cultural selfways exist, Markus likes to display typical advertisements from a culture that contrasts with the United States. She most often uses ads from Japanese magazines because she has studied that country most. Take, for example, an ad for a stomach medicine: Three smiling men dance on a sake bottle. They wear satin banners across their torsos that proclaim they are members in a club for the medicine. Please note, Markus says, "they are not charting their own courses; they look very happy being together."

Americans are exposed to 3,500 images a day and Japanese most likely get a similar dose. This may be a global economy but "the American ads overwhelmingly emphasize freedom, uniqueness and breaking the rules, while the Japanese ads emphasize interdependence, sympathy, belongingness and staying with it," she says.

How are these themes reflected by individuals? Markus gave examples from some of the studies she has undertaken with Professor Shinobu Kitayama of Kyoto University and with Stanford graduate and postdoctoral students.

  • American, Japanese and Chinese college students were shown drawings of rectangles or triangles arranged in an orderly fashion but with one triangle or rectangle either sized slightly different or spaced farther away from the others. "The European American students most liked the [shapes] that stand out or that are distinctive," Markus said. "The Asian students prefer the ones that are in the middle, surrounded by others."
  • When Stanford students are asked to describe themselves, they use adjectives or other abstract descriptors more than do Kyoto students. They say, for example, that they are energetic, happy, stubborn, caring, inventive. More than half of the time, the Japanese students in their self-descriptions refer to others with statements such as "I try to make my parents happy," or "I view things differently from other people." The Stanford European American students make references to others only about 24 percent of the time.
  • When thinking back over the last month, American students find it easier to remember times when they helped someone than when they caused someone trouble. The Japanese students can more easily remember times when they caused someone a problem. American students say they care about their relationships to other people and Japanese students are interested in independence, but their focus is quite different. The Japanese students' responses, Markus says, reflect "an all-the-time awareness of other people and where you fit. It is part of an interdependent selfway." It fits, she noted, with the Japanese version of many fairy tales in which "even the wolf apologizes."
  • After their performance was evaluated on a creativity test, American students who were told they did well tried to solve more of the problems on the test, while those told they did poorly lost interest. Among the Japanese students, those who were told they did poorly were the ones who continued to work. The Japanese interdependent selfway promotes the idea that individuals need to continuously work on self-improvement in order to measure up to a standard, Markus said. Americans, conversely, are motivated by a desire to stand out.

Markus' findings sometimes meet with resistance, and this audience was no exception. "I feel countercultural," one American woman said. Another said she felt the models applied more to men than to women, and a third wanted to know if Americans of all ethnic groups fit into the American paradigm.

The questions gave Markus the opportunity to repeat one of her key points ­ that selves are rooted in cultural worlds, but these worlds overlap and can even conflict.

In the study of advertisements, for example, African American magazines show "a very interesting blend ­ some attention to themes of uniqueness and independence but much more attention to tradition, to family and harmony ­ themes that are not as much in the Anglo-American [magazines.]"

The dominant cultural models for Japan and the United States, she said, apply more to men than to women. "In Japan it is the men who are more pressed to be interdependent. The way to be in these two cultures is the male way to be and the female way is sort of off-line." But American women, particularly the college educated women, also emphasize independence.

One woman suggested to Markus that there was a paradox in the American model of how to be. A thin woman in a Jenny Craig weight-loss ad proclaims, "I did it," but isn't she also saying "Now I'm part of the group"?

Markus agreed, and said that in some of her studies, the American students actually showed less diversity in the terms they used to describe themselves than did the Japanese students.

"If you step back and look at it, there are American ways of being interdependent. You and I can be independent selves," she said to the woman who asked, "only if the rest of you let us do it."


By Kathleen O'Toole

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