Who's afraid of the boss: cultural differences in social hierarchies modulate self-face recognition in Chinese and Americans.
ABSTRACT Human adults typically respond faster to their own face than to the faces of others. However, in Chinese participants, this self-face advantage is lost in the presence of one's supervisor, and they respond faster to their supervisor's face than to their own. While this "boss effect" suggests a strong modulation of self-processing in the presence of influential social superiors, the current study examined whether this effect was true across cultures. Given the wealth of literature on cultural differences between collectivist, interdependent versus individualistic, independent self-construals, we hypothesized that the boss effect might be weaker in independent than interdependent cultures. Twenty European American college students were asked to identify orientations of their own face or their supervisors' face. We found that European Americans, unlike Chinese participants, did not show a "boss effect" and maintained the self-face advantage even in the presence of their supervisor's face. Interestingly, however, their self-face advantage decreased as their ratings of their boss's perceived social status increased, suggesting that self-processing in Americans is influenced more by one's social status than by one's hierarchical position as a social superior. In addition, when their boss's face was presented with a labmate's face, American participants responded faster to the boss's face, indicating that the boss may represent general social dominance rather than a direct negative threat to oneself, in more independent cultures. Altogether, these results demonstrate a strong cultural modulation of self-processing in social contexts and suggest that the very concept of social positions, such as a boss, may hold markedly different meanings to the self across Western and East Asian cultures.
- SourceAvailable from: Joan Y Chiao[show abstract] [hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: Individualism and collectivism refer to cultural values that influence how people construe themselves and their relation to the world. Individualists perceive themselves as stable entities, autonomous from other people and their environment, while collectivists view themselves as dynamic entities, continually defined by their social context and relationships. Despite rich understanding of how individualism and collectivism influence social cognition at a behavioral level, little is known about how these cultural values modulate neural representations underlying social cognition. Using cross-cultural functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we examined whether the cultural values of individualism and collectivism modulate neural activity within medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC) during processing of general and contextual self judgments. Here, we show that neural activity within the anterior rostral portion of the MPFC during processing of general and contextual self judgments positively predicts how individualistic or collectivistic a person is across cultures. These results reveal two kinds of neural representations of self (eg, a general self and a contextual self) within MPFC and demonstrate how cultural values of individualism and collectivism shape these neural representations.Human Brain Mapping 01/2009; 30(9):2813-20. · 6.88 Impact Factor
- [show abstract] [hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: The self has been addressed extensively by philosophers and psychologists from different cultures. Recent cognitive neuroscience studies have uncovered neural substrates underlying the processing of different aspects of the self. As social psychologists have shown evidence for differences in self-construal styles between Western and East Asian cultures, recent transcultural neuroimaging research sought to find potential neural mechanisms mediating cultural specific self-related processing. The findings of transcultural neuroimaging research help to understand the culture-dependent nature of the self and its underlying neural substrates. This also sheds light on how to conceptualize the self in psychological and philosophical terms.Progress in brain research 01/2009; 178:203-12. · 4.19 Impact Factor
- [show abstract] [hide abstract]
ABSTRACT: Research in cultural psychology suggests that person is a social and collective construction made possible through an individual's participation in the practices and meanings of a given cultural context. This perspective can make a contribution to some contemporary controversies in personality. In the current article, it is argued that although most conceptions of personality in academic psychology are rooted in a model of the person as independent, in many Asian cultures, personality is constructed on the basis of an alternative model of the person as interdependent. In these cultures, then, personality is experienced and understood as behavior that is characteristic of the person in relationship with others in particular social contexts. Some initial evidence is reviewed and questions for future research are suggested.Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 01/1998; 29(1):63-87. · 1.42 Impact Factor
Who’s Afraid of the Boss: Cultural Differences in Social
Hierarchies Modulate Self-Face Recognition in Chinese
Sook-Lei Liew1,2*, Yina Ma3, Shihui Han3*, Lisa Aziz-Zadeh1,2
1The Brain and Creativity Institute, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, United States of America, 2Division of Occupational Science and
Occupational Therapy, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, United States of America, 3Department of Psychology, Peking University, Beijing, People’s
Republic of China
Human adults typically respond faster to their own face than to the faces of others. However, in Chinese participants, this
self-face advantage is lost in the presence of one’s supervisor, and they respond faster to their supervisor’s face than to their
own. While this ‘‘boss effect’’ suggests a strong modulation of self-processing in the presence of influential social superiors,
the current study examined whether this effect was true across cultures. Given the wealth of literature on cultural
differences between collectivist, interdependent versus individualistic, independent self-construals, we hypothesized that
the boss effect might be weaker in independent than interdependent cultures. Twenty European American college students
were asked to identify orientations of their own face or their supervisors’ face. We found that European Americans, unlike
Chinese participants, did not show a ‘‘boss effect’’ and maintained the self-face advantage even in the presence of their
supervisor’s face. Interestingly, however, their self-face advantage decreased as their ratings of their boss’s perceived social
status increased, suggesting that self-processing in Americans is influenced more by one’s social status than by one’s
hierarchical position as a social superior. In addition, when their boss’s face was presented with a labmate’s face, American
participants responded faster to the boss’s face, indicating that the boss may represent general social dominance rather
than a direct negative threat to oneself, in more independent cultures. Altogether, these results demonstrate a strong
cultural modulation of self-processing in social contexts and suggest that the very concept of social positions, such as a
boss, may hold markedly different meanings to the self across Western and East Asian cultures.
Citation: Liew S-L, Ma Y, Han S, Aziz-Zadeh L (2011) Who’s Afraid of the Boss: Cultural Differences in Social Hierarchies Modulate Self-Face Recognition in Chinese
and Americans. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16901. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016901
Editor: Matjaz Perc, University of Maribor, Slovenia
Received November 24, 2010; Accepted January 5, 2011; Published February 16, 2011
Copyright: ? 2011 Liew et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted
use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: This work is supported by National Basic Research Program of China (973 Program 2010CB833903), National Natural Science Foundation of China
(Project 30630025, 30828012, 30910103901), the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of China, the National Science Foundation Graduate
Research Fellowship, the National Science Foundation East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes, the University of Southern California Provost’s PhD Fellowship, the
Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, and the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the School of
Dentistry, USC. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
* E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org (S-LL); email@example.com (SH)
‘‘At home, a young man should be dutiful towards his
parents; going outside, he should be respectful towards his
-Confucius (Chinese philosopher, 551–479 BC)
‘‘Your real boss is the one who walks under your hat.’’
-Napoleon Hill (American author, 1833–1970)
Cultural differences play a key role, not only in how people
understand themselves, but also in how they relate to others. This
is exemplified in the quotations above, with the former Chinese
quote emphasizing the importance of respecting one’s elders both
at home and in public while the latter American one affirms one’s
independence and autonomy above all else. Several decades of
both behavioral and neuroimaging research suggest that self-
concept is largely determined by one’s culture, with notable
differences between East Asian and Western cultures [1–6]. In
particular, people from Western countries tend to be more
individualistic and have what is known as an independent self-construal
. In these cases, the self is thought of as an isolated unit that
strives to be unique, autonomous, and assertive, functioning in
parallel with, but not dependent upon, others. In contrast, those
from more collectivist cultures, such as East Asians, tend to
demonstrate an interdependent self-construal, in which the self is
conceptualized in terms of its relationship to others, which blurs
the distinction between self and other and allows the self to be
easily modulated by dynamic social contexts, such as the presence
of one’s supervisor .
There are a significant number of findings that attribute
differences in both cognitive processes and affective states to these
noted cultural differences in self-construals [1–8]. For instance,
individuals with independent self-construals tend to be more
assertive and use competitive conflict tactics in group work
settings, while individuals with interdependent self-construals are
more likely to shy away from conflict and use cooperative tactics
. In addition, the interdependent self-construal was positively
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org1 February 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 | e16901
correlated with ease of embarrassment while the independent self-
construal was negatively correlated; Asian Americans were more
easily embarrassed than European Americans . Neuroimaging
studies have also shown that while Americans activate neural
regions associated with self-processing (e.g., the medial prefrontal
cortex) only when thinking about oneself, Chinese participants
activate these self-processing regions both when thinking about
oneself and one’s close family members, like one’s mother .
Similarly, an EEG study showed that images of one’s own face,
compared to familiar faces, elicited greater fronto-central activity,
related to self-processing, in British participants but less fronto-
central activity in Chinese , demonstrating the blurred
distinction between self and other in Chinese individuals. In
addition, when looking across cultures, neural activity in the
mPFC was predictive of how individualistic or collectivist
participants were . These results suggest that interdependent
individuals are much more affected by social contexts than
independent individuals, and that interdependent self-construals
encompass other individuals while independent self-construals
largely include only the self.
Cultural differences in self-construals also affect relationships in
work environments, where individuals must navigate complex
social hierarchies. In line with the idea of independent self-
construals, Americans are generally encouraged to be socially
dominant, competitive, and assertive, while East Asians tend to
value subordinance, cooperation, and harmony [10–12]. Weisz
et al. (1984) elaborate on these differences as desiring primary
control (e.g., social dominance, as found typically in Americans)
versus secondary control (e.g., social subordination, as found
typically in East Asians), and note that these cultural differences
affect a myriad of social activities including work, child-rearing,
and religious involvement. A recent neuroimaging study provided
support for these findings by demonstrating that Americans show
neural activity in reward-related brain regions in response to
signals of dominance, while Japanese participants show neural
activity in these same reward-related brain regions in response to
signals of subordination . In addition, self-construal appears to
play a role in mediating social interactions. One study found that
the higher self-esteem an individual has, the more strongly he or
she demonstrates positive self-protective behaviors in response to
negative feedback from others . However, this was true only in
American participants and in Chinese participants who demon-
strated a more independent self-construal. Chinese participants
who were more interdependent did not demonstrate self-protective
behaviors in relation to negative feedback, suggesting that one’s
self-construal affects how one interprets and reacts to social
The self-construal has been studied in a number of ways, with a
wealth of literature suggesting that one’s own face is even
processed differently from faces of others [15–19]. Behavioral
studies show faster reaction times (RTs) to one’s own face
compared to another’s face during either explicit face–recognition
tasks requiring judgments of face identity [15,16] or implicit face
recognition tasks requiring determination of whether a face is
oriented to the right or left . Notably, these effects are most
significant on left-hand responses, leading researchers to suggest
that this is reflective of self-processing, which is thought to occur in
the right hemisphere [15,16,18,20]. Ma and Han (2010) 
suggest that this self-face RT advantage may be due to implicit
positive associations with the self. In a series of 4 experiments, they
demonstrated that self-concept threat priming (i.e., deciding
whether negative trait words describe oneself) weakens one’s
implicit positive associations with oneself and decreases the self-
face RT advantage, an effect that is seen in left-hand (but not
right-hand) responses . These interesting results suggest that
threats to one’s self-concept, which weaken one’s implicit positive
association with oneself, may reduce any advantages in self-
A recently discovered phenomenon, known as the ‘‘boss effect,’’
supports these findings. Ma and Han (2009) found that Chinese
graduate students demonstrated a typical self-face advantage (i.e.,
faster RT to one’s own face than another’s face) when their faces
were presented in a block with a familiar faculty member’s face
. However, when their faces were presented with their boss’s
face, participants lost the self-face advantage and demonstrated
significantly faster RTs to their boss’s face, which the authors
termed the ‘‘boss effect’’ . Notably, participants did not
demonstrate significant RT differences when shown blocks with
faces of their boss and a labmate, suggesting that the boss effect
was specific to the social threat incurred when one’s own face was
paired with the presence of one’s boss.
The current study assessed whether the ‘‘boss effect’’ on self-face
recognition is culturally universal or specific to cultures dominated
by interdependent self-construals. We hypothesized that this boss
effect might be modulated by cultural influences on participants’
self-construals. In support of this, Ma and Han (2010) found that
while similar effects of self-concept threat are observed in both
Chinese and American participants, they occurred to a much
lesser extent in Americans as compared to Chinese . In
addition, Sui et al. (2009) found that event related potentials
recorded from British participants showed larger amplitudes to
self-face than to a friend’s face whereas a reverse pattern was
observed in Chinese participants , suggesting greater social
salience of self-face in people with independent-self construals
compared to those with interdependent self-construals. Thus, here
we surmised that more independent selves would be less affected
by social contexts and hierarchies, and therefore less susceptible to
any social threat induced by seeing one’s boss. We anticipated that
American participants would demonstrate a self-face advantage in
all contexts, whether paired with their boss (high social threat) or
another faculty member (low social threat). However, we
anticipated that it would still possible to see a faster RT time to
the boss when the boss was paired with others (not including the
self, such as a labmate), due to his or her general social dominance
over the labmate. This would demonstrate that the boss evokes a
faster RT in general social situations, despite not directly
impacting the individual’s self-processing. The current study
replicated the study from Ma and Han (2009) with European
American participants to test these hypotheses. We report data
from both the current study and the previous study  for cross-
This study was approved by the University of Southern
California Institutional Review Board and by the local ethics
committee in Beijing, China and was performed in accordance
with the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki.
Twenty healthy European American graduate students in
America (10 females / 10 males, mean age of all partic-
ipants=26.6, SD=3.05) and twenty healthy Chinese graduate
students in China (10 females / 10 males, mean age of all
participants=24.8, SD=1.94) participated in this study. All were
right-handed and had normal or corrected-to-normal vision. In
addition, all had worked with their advisors for more than one
Culture, Social Hierarchy and Self Recognition
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org2 February 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 | e16901
year (13–60 months), and advisors were of the same race as the
student to avoid confounds due to the social influences of race.
Written informed consent was obtained from all participants
before inclusion in the study.
Participants were given a modified Brief Fear of Negative
Evaluation (Brief-FNE) scale  to assess their fear of being
negatively evaluated by both their advisor and another faculty
member who worked for the same department but was not in the
participant’s lab (e.g., I am afraid that Professor XXX will not
approve of me). Participants used a 5-point Likert scale (1=not at
all characteristic, 5=extremely characteristic) in response to each
item, reporting how properly each statement fit them in respect to
1) their advisor and 2) the other faculty member. In addition,
participants were asked to rate each professor’s (advisor, other
faculty member) social status, which was defined as the individual’s
ability to exert influence over other people and institutions, on an
11-point Likert scale (0=not at all dominant, 10=extremely
Stimuli and procedure
Ten digital face images were taken from each participant, his/
her faculty advisor, another faculty member, and one of his/her
labmates prior to the experiment. Half of the faculty advisors and
other faculty members were of the same gender as the participant,
and half were of a different gender as the participant. Participants
knew both the faculty advisor and faculty member for the same
length of time. In addition, an advisor for one participant might be
used as the other faculty member for another participant, so as to
match perceptual features of the stimuli.
Five of the images of each individual were oriented to the left
(varied from 30u to 90u) and the other five were oriented to the
right. Participants were instructed to look directly ahead and
maintain a neutral facial expression. Control images used
scrambled images of the faces, which were created by dividing
face images into 10610 arrays and randomly rearranging them,
using Matlab. These images were presented with a gray bar on
either the left or the right. For an example of all stimuli and the
experimental paradigm, see Figure 1. The participants in this
figure have given written informed consent (as outlined in the
PLoS consent form) to the publication of their photographs. All
images were calibrated in luminance and contrast and subtended a
visual angel of 2.13u62.17u at a viewing distance of 70 cm. Images
were presented for 200 ms each at the center of the screen, with a
varying intertrial interval of 800 to 1200 ms during which a
fixation cross was presented. Participants were instructed to
indicate whether faces were oriented to the left or the right, or
whether the gray bar of scrambled images was on the left or the
right, by pressing two keys using the index and middle fingers.
Task instructions emphasized both speedy and accuracy.
Each block of trials contained 40 face images and 20 scrambled
images. The block design is illustrated in Figure 1. Self-face was
presented in a high-threat context (20 trials each of self-face,
advisor’s face in each block) for two blocks and in a low-threat
context (20 trials each of self-face, other faculty member’s face in
each block) for two blocks. In addition, two blocks used 20 trials of
each a labmate’s face and the advisor’s face in order to discern
whether the advisor’s face generated increased processing speed
when paired with non-self faces. For each stimulus condition,
participants responded with the left hand in one block and the
right hand in the other block. The order of responding hands and
conditions was counterbalanced across participants.
Figure 1. Examples of the stimuli, experimental paradigm, and block design. Participants were shown images of themselves/their labmate,
their boss/faculty member, and scrambled images of faces for 200 ms, separated by a fixation cross that lasted between 800–1200 ms (left diagram).
Blocks consisted of the following three stimuli sets (right diagram): self/boss/scrambled, self/faculty/scrambled, labmate/boss/scrambled, and were
performed with both left and right hands, for a total of 6 blocks. Starting response hand and stimuli sets were counterbalanced across participants.
Culture, Social Hierarchy and Self Recognition
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org3 February 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 | e16901
Both European American and Chinese participants’ subjective
reports indicated comparable perceived social status of their
advisors and the other faculty members (European Americans:
5.9062.29 vs. 6.061.89, t(1,19)=20.276, p=0.79; Chinese:
8.3061.45 vs. 7.8561.57, t(1,19)=1.690, p=0.107). In addition,
the results of the Brief-FNE scale suggested that both European
American and Chinese participants were significantly more afraid
of negative evaluation from their advisors than from the other
faculty members (European Americans: 2.5660.44 vs. 2.2460.39,
t(1,19)=3.482, p=0.0025; Chinese: 3.3860.73 vs. 2.4160.66,
t(1,19)=5.265, p,0.001). However, a 2-factor mixed-effects
analysis of variance (ANOVA) with Culture (Chinese, American)6
Threat (Boss, Faculty Member) demonstrated an interaction effect
between Chinese and American participants’ reports of negative
evaluation fromtheir boss
(F(1,19)=9.536, p=0.004; see Figure 2), with Chinese partici-
pants reporting higher fear of negative evaluation from their bosses
than European American participants.
Response accuracy was high for both European American and
Chinese participants in face orientation judgment tasks (European
Americans: 97.42%62.21%; Chinese: 94.96%62.43%). RTs with
correct responses and within three standard deviations were
analyzed. As used by two of the authors in a previous study ,
RTs were normalized by dividing RTs to self/other faces by RTs
to scrambled images to rule out the influence of difference in
response selection and execution between different blocks.
Response accuracies and normalized RTs were then subjected
to repeated measure ANOVAs with Hand (left vs. right hand),
Face (self vs. other faces), and Threat (high- vs. low-threat) as
independent within-subject variables. Results from Chinese
participants have been reported previously . Thus, here we
first report results from European American participants, followed
by cross-cultural comparisons with results from Chinese partici-
European American RT results
While none of the response accuracies showed significant effects
(p.0.05), ANOVAs of normalized RTs showed a significant effect
of Face (F(1,19)=11.403, p=0.003), with normalized RTs to
one’s own face being faster than RTs to other faces.
There were no significant interaction effects, and the finding of
a Face6Threat interaction in Chinese subjects (F(1,19)=58.469,
p,0.001)  was not found with European Americans
(F(1,19)=1.911, p=0.182), suggesting a comparable RT self-face
advantage when self-face was presented with the boss and faculty
member in Americans.
Normalized RTs to faces of labmates and advisors were also
subjected to an ANOVA with Hand (left vs. right hand) and Face
(labmate vs. advisor) as independent within-subject variables.
While this analysis did not yield significant results in Chinese
participants , it did yield a significant interaction effect
between Hand and Face in European American participants
(F(1,19)=6.618, p=0.018). A post-hoc analysis revealed that
normalized RTs were significantly faster for the advisor’s face on
0.9160.180; t(1,19)=20.32, p=0.38).
To assess whether subjective evaluation of social threat from
others affected these behavioral performances associated with self-
face recognition, we correlated mean ratings from the Brief-FNE
scale related to advisors and the differential RTs (normalized RTs
to self-face minus normalized RTs to advisor’s face). We did not
find any significant correlations between either left, right, or
combined hand responses and these scores (ps.0.05).
We then assessed whether subjective ratings of perceived social
status correlated with differential RTs (normalized RTs to self-face
minus normalized RTs to advisor’s face). We found a significant
positive correlation between boss’s perceived social status and left-
hand responses (r=0.475, p=0.034), as shown in Figure 3. This
effect was not found for right-hand responses (r=0.282,
p=0.228). Additionally, this effect was not found when correlating
the social status of the other faculty member with differential RTs
(normalized RTs to self-face minus normalized RTs to other
faculty member’s face) for either hand (ps.0.05).
Cross-Cultural RT results
To assess differences between European American and Chinese
participants, a mixed-design ANOVA was assessed with Culture
(European American vs. Chinese) as a between-subjects factor,
Figure 2. Chinese and American ratings of fear of negative evaluation from bosses versus faculty members. Participants ratings of fear
of negative evaluation from the Brief-Fear of Negative Evaluation (B-FNE) questionnaire are presented for the boss (left; Americans in blue, Chinese in
red) and for the other faculty member (right; Americans in blue, Chinese in red).
Culture, Social Hierarchy and Self Recognition
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org4 February 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 | e16901
and Hand (left vs. right hand), Face (self vs. other faces), and
Threat (high- vs. low-threat) as independent within-subject factors.
The four factor ANOVA revealed a marginally significant
p=0.073), as the interaction of Face6Threat was more salient
in Chinese subjects (F(1,19)=58.469, p,0.001) than in American
subjects (F(1,19)=1.911, p=0.182). There was also a significant
interaction effect of Culture6Face (F(1,19)=12.409, p=0.002),
with faster normalized RTs to one’s own face in European
Americans (F(1,19)=11.403, p=0.003) than in Chinese partici-
pants (F(1,19)=0.712; p=0.409).
Given prior findings suggesting that the self-face advantage has
a more significant effect on left-hand responses [15,16,18,20], we
then analyzed data from left-hand responses. Using left-hand
responses only, we found a significant interaction between
Culture6Face6Threat (F(1,19)=7.003, p=0.018). As demon-
strated in Figure 4, while the normalized RTs were significantly
faster to the self in the high-threat condition for European
Americans, normalized RTs were significantly faster to boss in the
high-threat condition for the Chinese participants. This pattern of
self-face advantage persisted in European Americans during the
low-threat condition, while Chinese participants regained self-face
advantage during the low-threat condition.
The current study examined how cultural differences in self-
construal affect one’s implicit self-processing in different social
contexts. We compared normalized RTs of American and Chinese
participants during an implicit face orientation task and discovered
that, while both groups show a self-face RT advantage when self-
face was presented with a faculty member’s face (low-threat
condition), only Chinese participants showed a loss of self-face
advantage, replaced with a boss-face advantage, when self-face was
presented with the boss’s face (high-threat condition). In contrast,
American participants maintained a self-face RT advantage in both
low and high threat conditions, in accordance with our hypothesis
that self-processing in Americans is not influenced by the social
threat of one’s boss. Interestingly, the correlation results show a
modulation of this effect in Americans by their boss’s perceived
social status, so that the self-face advantage decreased as the
subjective feelings of the boss’s social status increased. Overall, these
results demonstrate that culture modulates how self-processing is
affected by the presence of a social threat and that the very concept
of a ‘‘boss’’ may hold vastly different meanings in different cultures
(i.e., negative threat in interdependent cultures versus social
dominance in independent cultures).
Figure 3. Correlation between boss’s perceived social status and normalized RT difference in European Americans (boss-self).
Participants’ ratings of their boss’s social status (x-axis) correlates positively with normalized RT differences (self minus boss; y-axis), R2=0.225,
Figure 4. Bar graphs depicting Culture6Face6Threat normalized RTs (left hand only). American participants demonstrated a self-face
advantage in both high threat (self and boss) and low threat (self and other faculty member) blocks shown on the left (A). Chinese participants
demonstrated a boss-face advantage in the high threat block (self and boss), but a self-face advantage in the low threat block (self and other faculty
member), shown on the right (B).
Culture, Social Hierarchy and Self Recognition
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org5 February 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 | e16901
Cultural Selves and Social Threats
The results of the questionnaire measurements suggest that both
European American and Chinese participants reported signifi-
cantly greater fear of negative evaluation from their advisor than
from another faculty member, despite giving comparable ratings of
social status to both advisors and faculty members. This suggests a
culturally universal pattern in which advisors, who have direct
influence over our participant pool of graduate students, constitute
a greater social threat than other faculty members, despite equal
social status. However, the ratings were greater overall in Chinese
participants, suggesting that Chinese participants are more likely
to fear negative evaluation from their bosses than American
participants. This is in line with the idea that interdependent self-
construals are more sensitive to fear of negative evaluation from
others than independent self-construals [5,22] and holds implica-
tions for multicultural work environments in which individuals
may be more or less sensitive to different forms of evaluation and
feedback from their supervisors, depending on their cultural self-
In line with this finding, European Americans’ self-face
advantage was not diminished by the presence of their advisors
during the high-threat conditions, as was found in Chinese
participants. Instead, European American participants had faster
RTs to their own face in both low-threat (self and faculty member)
and high-threat (self and advisor) conditions, maintaining the self-
face advantage regardless of social context. Numerous studies on
Western versus East Asian culture have associated East Asian
culture with greater collectivism and attention to context and
Western culture with greater individualism and attention to focal
points [25–29]. Our results correspond with these prior findings,
suggesting that Westerners are less influenced by the presence of
social context (e.g., the other faces in the block) than East Asians
during a self-face recognition task. This may be due to the
robustness of European American’s self-concept, which is
individualistically defined, as compared to the holistic represen-
tation of self found in Chinese participants, which often takes into
account not only the self but also others within one’s social circle
Cultural Variations of the Boss
While European American participants did not show a boss-face
advantage, faster RTs to the boss’s face compared to their own
face were correlated with the boss’s perceived social status and
relative social influence. That is to say, advisors with higher
perceived social status had a stronger effect on participants’ self-
face response than advisors with lower social status. This is in stark
contrast to Chinese participants, all of who showed a loss of self-
face advantage during high-threat blocks, regardless of the boss’s
social status. Interestingly, in Chinese individuals, faster RTs to the
boss’s face compared to their own face were correlated with how
much they feared negative evaluation from their boss. Thus, in
both cultures, faster RTs to the boss’s face compared to self-face
were correlated with a behavioral measure—but these measures
are very different. For Chinese participants, it was fear of negative
evaluation from the boss, while for Americans, it was the boss’s
These findings lead us to suggest that the very concept of the
‘‘boss’’ holds different social meanings in independent versus
interdependent cultures. Namely, the boss may represent a social
threat related to the fear of negative evaluation in more
interdependent cultures, particularly where there are more set,
hierarchical relationships with greater ‘‘power distances’’ between
positions [11,12,22]. In contrast, in cultures with more indepen-
dent self-construals and less distance between the levels of power of
the boss and the employee , the boss may represent varying
degrees of social dominance, which is dependent upon his or her
perceived social status. It appears that one’s cultural conceptual-
izations of oneself mediate this attitude, as Americans tend to focus
on primary control, emphasizing autonomy, the self-made man,
and personal goals above work goals, while the Japanese focus on
secondary control, emphasizing teamwork, the good of the team
above all else, and distinct hierarchical levels . This is also
reinforced by the neuroimaging finding that mesolimbic reward
regions in the caudate nucleus and the medial prefrontal cortex are
active during observation of signals related to social dominance for
Americans and social subordination for Japanese participants,
indicating that cultural differences in social attitudes are personally
In addition, these findings are in accordance with Ma & Han’s
(2010) implicit positive association (IPA) theory of self-face
advantage. In one of their experiments, they demonstrated that
both Americans and Chinese participants showed an elimination
of the self-face advantage after negative threat-to-self-concept
priming, although Americans did not demonstrate as great a
decrease in self-face advantage as Chinese participants, suggesting
that Americans were more robust to threats to self . Here, we
showed that Americans do not demonstrate a loss of self-face
advantage in the presence of the boss, suggesting that the boss does
not constitute a threat to oneself for American participants, while it
does for Chinese participants, who did lose the self-face advantage
in the presence of the boss.
While the boss may not constitute a direct negative threat to
one’s self-concept in American participants, thus not eliminating
one’s self-face advantage, it is notable that American participants
did demonstrated faster responses to their boss when his or her
images were presented with a labmate’s images. This indicates that
there may be an effect of one’s boss in more general social settings,
which are not found in self-related settings. Notably, this reaction
was only found in left-hand blocks, which suggests a lateralization
of the effect to the right hemisphere, which has been associated
with emotional communication [30,31] and social behavior and
social interactions [32,33]. Thus, while one’s social superior may
not necessarily influence American participants’ self-perception, he
or she may affect more general social situations in which social
dominance plays a role. Under this line of reasoning, it follows that
the presence of one’s boss might affect overall social perception,
such as having a faster reaction to someone who is more socially
dominant (boss) than someone who is socially inferior (labmate).
Altogether, these findings shed light on the role that a social
superior may play in different cultural settings. While a boss may
constitute a social threat in interdependent cultures, it appears that
a boss represents general social dominance in more independent
cultures, a finding that holds significant consequences for cross-
cultural relationships, both in the workplace and beyond.
While the current study examined cross-cultural behavioral
effects on self-face recognition in social contexts, future studies
may explore the neural mechanisms underlying these observed
effects and how culture modulates the related neural activity. Prior
research suggests that several brain regions may be involved in
these processes, namely in the medial prefrontal (mPFC) [8,9,34],
the right prefrontal cortex , and the right parietal cortices
[19,36]. Cultural neuroscience studies of self-traits [8,34] and self-
face recognition  indicate that the medial prefrontal cortex,
which is involved in self-representation and tends to be more
active in response to oneself than to others during trait judgments,
also represents close and familiar others (e.g., one’s mother) in East
Culture, Social Hierarchy and Self Recognition
PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org6 February 2011 | Volume 6 | Issue 2 | e16901
Asian cultures but not in Western cultures. In addition, this effect
can be modulated by culture-specific priming, with priming
towards more interdependent ideals enhancing the representation
of close others in the mPFC and priming towards more
independent ideals decreasing mPFC activity . Applied to
the current study, it is possible that strong neural representations of
the self in brain areas such as the mPFC in American participants
stand against the influence of social contexts to a greater degree
compared to Chinese participants, thus not demonstrating a boss-
effect on the typical self-face advantage. In addition, the right
parietal region has also been implicated in self-other distinctions,
as shown by repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to the
right parietal cortex disrupting performance in a self-other face
recognition task  and an fMRI study demonstrating right
hemisphere activation in the parietal, frontal and occipital regions
during self-face recognition . These results are consistent with
our findings of a stronger effect on left- than right-hand responses,
and suggest that the right parietal region may also play a role in
the cultural modulation of this effect. Finally, as discussed by Ma
and Han (2010), emotion-related regions, such as the anterior
cingulate and anterior insula, may also affect self-versus-boss
representations . Future neuroimaging research may help to
better understand the neural regions responsible for these
The current study demonstrated the strong effects of culture on
self-processing in the presence of one’s social superior. Not only do
these results reveal the ways in which self-construals are affected by
social threats, with interdependent self-construals more strongly
influenced than independent ones, but they propose that what
constitutes a social threat may differ across cultures. Specifically,
we suggest that the concept of a ‘‘boss’’ may hold vastly different
meanings for individuals from East Asian versus Western cultures,
representing a personal social threat in the former and general
social dominance in the latter. Research on cultural differences has
already noted that cultural tendencies (e.g., collectivist vs.
individualist; high vs. low power distance) have an impact on
leadership behavior [22,37], political communication , career
counseling , work team dynamics , and investments and
economic outcomes , to name a few. Future research may
explore whether and how cultural differences in relation to one’s
social superior present themselves in the workplace and political
arenas, and whether there are ways to effectively mediate these
differences, as one study has suggested that the self demonstrates
cultural plasticity and can be modulated by cultural priming .
These findings are particularly salient as globalization increases,
and along with it, the prevalence of multicultural work, political,
and public environments, particularly between East Asian and
Western partners. Studies of multicultural workplaces indicate
intricate dynamics between in- and out-group members based on
their individualistic/collectivist tendencies [43,44], communica-
tion styles, and interpersonal relationships [23,24,45]. Better
understanding of cross-cultural social relationships and social
hierarchies may elucidate the ways in which individuals hold
different culture-based social understandings and expectations.
These enhanced understandings may in turn help to foster
smoother and more productive global collaborations and ex-
We thank Sarah Jenevein, Erika Schnaps, and Peter Choo for their
assistance in this study and all of the graduate students and professors who
kindly participated in the creation of the stimuli.
Conceived and designed the experiments: YM SH SLL. Performed the
experiments: YM SLL. Analyzed the data: YM SLL SH LAZ. Wrote the
paper: YM SLL SH LAZ.
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