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Do verbs and adjectives play different roles in different cultures? A cross-linguistic analysis of person representation

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Five studies are reported testing the hypothesis that Westerners (Italians) rely more on trait adjectives and that East Asians (Japanese) rely more on behavior-descriptive verbs in person description and memory. In Studies 1 (N = 80) and 2 (N = 128), Italians used more adjectives and fewer verbs than Japanese to describe individuals and groups. Likewise, Studies 3 (N = 161) and 4 (N = 84) revealed that Italians committed more memory errors indicative of behavior-to-trait inferences, whereas Japanese showed an opposite tendency (Study 3) or no difference (Study 4). Study 5 (N = 64) revealed that in both languages, adjectives were perceived to provide more information about the actor and that verbs were perceived to provide more information about the situation. Yet, Japanese participants found adjectives less predictive of future behavior but facilitative of the process of imagining a concrete situation. These results are interpreted as providing evidence for systematic cultural differences in the elaboration of social information.
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Do Verbs and Adjectives Play Different Roles in Different Cultures?
A Cross-Linguistic Analysis of Person Representation
Anne Maass
University of Padova
Minoru Karasawa
Kobe University
Federica Politi
University of Padova
Sayaka Suga
Kobe University
Five studies are reported testing the hypothesis that Westerners (Italians) rely more on trait adjectives and
that East Asians (Japanese) rely more on behavior-descriptive verbs in person description and memory.
In Studies 1 (N 80) and 2 (N 128), Italians used more adjectives and fewer verbs than Japanese to
describe individuals and groups. Likewise, Studies 3 (N 161) and 4 (N 84) revealed that Italians
committed more memory errors indicative of behavior-to-trait inferences, whereas Japanese showed an
opposite tendency (Study 3) or no difference (Study 4). Study 5 (N 64) revealed that in both languages,
adjectives were perceived to provide more information about the actor and that verbs were perceived to
provide more information about the situation. Yet, Japanese participants found adjectives less predictive
of future behavior but facilitative of the process of imagining a concrete situation. These results are
interpreted as providing evidence for systematic cultural differences in the elaboration of social
information.
Keywords: inferences, language abstraction, person perception, culture, cognition
Searching for a stable and enduring characteristic in the actor of
an observed behavior has long been regarded by many social
psychologists as a fundamental tendency in person perception, at
least in the Western world (e.g., Gilbert, 1998). Identifying dispo-
sitions of an actor likely helps the perceiver to predict future
behavior of the actor and to prepare or adjust for potential inter-
actions (e.g., Asch, 1952; Heider, 1958). A well-established ex-
ample of such dispositionism is the phenomenon called the “fun-
damental attribution error” (Ross, 1977) or, more broadly, the
“correspondence bias” (Gilbert & Malone, 1995). In Western
cultures, and possibly in many other cultures as well, perceivers
interpret behaviors as driven more by the internal dispositions than
by situational pressures. Along the same line, research on sponta-
neous trait inferences has provided convincing evidence that per-
ceivers mentally transform behavioral information into trait repre-
sentation, generally without being aware of these transformations
(e.g., Uleman, 1987; Uleman, Hon, Roman, & Moskowitz, 1996;
Uleman, Newman, & Winter, 1986). A great deal of research has
demonstrated that behavioral information such as “walked the
elderly person with groceries across the street” is instantly and
unintentionally encoded in terms of traits such as “helpful.”
The quest for dispositions is often reflected in lexical choices. In
the Western world, the preferred way of thinking and talking about
others is through adjectives. Although trait adjectives are compar-
atively rare in any Western language, they constitute the favorite
linguistic choice when making general statements about individu-
als or groups. For example, people asked to freely describe others
are likely to spontaneously use an overwhelming amount of trait
adjectives but to rarely refer to the target’s typical behaviors
(Maass, Montalcini, & Biciotti, 1998). Also, when they read a
behavioral description (e.g., “Marco helps”), they tend to errone-
ously remember to have seen a trait adjective (“Marco is helpful”),
whereas the opposite kind of memory confusion occurs infre-
quently (Maass, Cadinu, Boni, & Borini, 2005; Maass, Cadinu,
Taroni, & Masserini, 2006; Maass, Colombo, Colombo, & Sher-
man, 2001). Together, the psychological literature conducted in
Western cultures provides overwhelming evidence for the central
role of trait adjectives in person perception and memory.
Initially, few researchers expressed doubts about the universal-
ity of the reliance on trait information. More recently, however,
cultural constraints in cognition of causality and, more generally,
in cognitive styles and in lay theories have become increasingly
Editor’s Note. This manuscript was accepted during the prior editorial
term, for which Patricia G. Devine was editor.
Anne Maass and Federica Politi, Department of Psychology, University
of Padova; Minoru Karasawa, Faculty of Letters, Kobe University; and
Sayaka Suga, Graudate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Kobe
University.
Federica Politi is now at Syngenta Seeds S.p.A., Casalmorano, Italy.
We are grateful to the following people for their assistance in collecting
and analyzing the data: Daisaku Horikawa, Mizue Kibe, Hidetaka Kuni-
yasu, Masami Sato, Hirotaka Matsuura, Tamara Rakic, Yoshio Yoshimoto,
and Katsuhiro Ueda.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Anne
Maass, Universita` degli Studi di Padova, Dipartimento di Psicologia dello
Sviluppo e della Socializzazione, Via Venezia 8 0 35131 Padova, Italy, or
to Minoru Karasawa, Faculty of Letters, Kobe University, 1-1 Rokkodai-
cho, Nada-ku, Kobe 657-8501, Japan. E-mail: anne.maass@unipd.it or
karasawa@kobe-u.ac.jp
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Copyright 2006 by the American Psychological Association
2006, Vol. 90, No. 5, 734 –750 0022-3514/06/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.90.5.734
734
evident (cf. Knowles, Morris, Chiu, & Hong, 2001; Miller, 1984;
Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001). In a highly influential
article, Nisbett et al. (2001) have argued that even very basic
cognitive processes, including attention and memory, vary greatly
across cultures. Important to our argument is the finding that,
compared with Westerners, individuals raised in East Asian cul-
tures such as China, Japan, and Korea tend to pay greater attention
to context information and to perceive actors as more embedded in
the physical and social environment. For example, in animated
scenes, both Japanese and Americans were found to focus on the
main actor, or figure. However, Japanese, much more than Amer-
icans, tended to also process information about the background
(Masuda & Nisbett, 2001). East Asians not only are more likely to
make spontaneous references to the context and to show better
memory for background information, but they also perceive a
stronger link between figure and ground, resulting, among others,
in greater field dependence (Ji, Peng, & Nisbett, 2000). Overall,
these and other findings support the idea of a more holistic view
and of greater context sensitivity in East Asians compared with
Westerners.
In line with this general attention to context, Asians also appear
less likely to fall prey to the fundamental attribution error or
correspondence bias. For example, Miller (1984) found that Amer-
icans explained the behavior of others mainly in terms of traits,
whereas Indians referred to roles, obligations, and environmental
factors. Along the same line, Morris and colleagues (Morris,
Nisbett, & Peng, 1995; Morris & Peng, 1994) observed that
Americans explained events mainly in terms of the protagonist’s
dispositions, whereas Chinese provided situational explanations
for the same events (for comparable differences in attributions, see
Cha & Nam, 1985; I. Choi & Nisbett, 1998; Lee, Hallahan, &
Herzog, 1996; Miyamoto & Kitayama, 2002; Norenzayan, Choi, &
Nisbett, 2002). A similar pattern has been observed in Chinese
American bicultural individuals who made more external attribu-
tions when primed by Chinese symbols but more internal attribu-
tions when primed by American symbols, although this was true
only for those who considered the two identities compatible
(Benet-Martı´nez, Leu, Lee, & Morris, 2002). Notably, the greater
ability of East Asians to avoid the correspondence bias and to take
situational influences into account appears to occur in an automatic
fashion (Knowles et al., 2001). Together, these and related find-
ings illustrate cultural differences in attributional styles, with
North Americans making stronger corresponding inferences, ex-
plaining events more in dispositional terms and being less aware of
situational pressures than East Asians and other cultures charac-
terized by holistic cognition
1
(for a recent overview, see Lehman,
Chiu, & Schaller, 2004). Many authors now argue that such
attributional differences reflect profound underlying differences in
implicit personality theories (dispositional vs. situation-based lay
theories; e.g., Church et al., 2003).
The Role of Language
If East Asians do, indeed, pay greater attention to the physical
and social context and to relations between actors, whereas West-
erners focus mainly on the actor and his or her dispositions, then
one would predict corresponding differences in lexical choices. In
approaching this issue, we adopt Semin and Fiedler’s (1988)
linguistic category model (LCM) and their notion of “linguistic
abstraction” as a conceptual framework. According to the LCM,
adjectives are the linguistic category of the highest level of ab-
stractness when used as a predicate of a description in that they are
most informative about the actor’s dispositions but least informa-
tive about the situation. Indeed, adjectives are decontextualized
and require no specification of the object. For instance, a statement
such as Nausicaa is helpful” provides the maximum information
about the sentence subject, as it generalizes across time and space
but provides the least information about the specific situation or
the potential beneficiaries of Nausicaa’s actions. In contrast, a
statement such as “Nausicaa helps her friends” is somewhat less
telling about Nausicaa’s personality but more informative about
the social context in which it is displayed. Indeed, a phrase such as
“Nausicaa helps” would, in most circumstances, be considered
incomplete without a specification of the sentence object (or of
other qualifiers). Thus, in contrast to adjectives, verb phrases
generally provide greater information about the context and/or the
relationship between subject and object (i.e., “less abstract” or
“more concrete” in the LCM terms).
Following this reasoning, one may suspect that East Asians will
make greater use of verbs when describing others, reflecting their
greater sensitivity to the physical and social embeddedness of the
actor, whereas Westerners will prefer traits that match their focus
on the enduring properties of the individual. This idea is also
consistent with cross-cultural studies on language development,
suggesting that small children in East Asian countries are earlier
and more frequently exposed to verbs, whereas more abstract
language forms (nouns, in particular) prevail in the early language
development of children raised in Western cultures (S. Choi &
Gopnik, 1995; Tardif, Gelman, & Xu, 1999; Tardif, Shatz, &
Naigles, 1997, but see Fernald & Morikawa, 1993). For instance,
S. Choi and Gopnik (1995) demonstrated that Korean-speaking
children show a verb spurt at a much earlier stage than do English-
speaking children and that this is linked to corresponding speech
patterns of their caregivers (see also Gopnik, Choi, & Baumberger,
1996). Likewise, a cross-national comparison by Tardif et al.
(1999) showed that Mandarin-speaking children in mainland
China used fewer nouns and more verbs than American children
and that this matched the language pattern of their mothers (for a
similar difference between Mandarin vs. English and Italian-
speaking children see Tardif et al., 1997). Thus, verbs seem to
become central in the language development of Asian children
very early on, whereas children in Western countries are socialized
to use more abstract language forms (such as nouns and, possibly,
adjectives).
If Westerners and East Asians do, indeed, differ in their pref-
erence for adjectives versus verbs, respectively, as suggested
above, then one might also predict a corresponding memory bias in
social information processing, with Westerners inadvertently
transforming verbs into adjective information, suggestive of spon-
taneous trait inferences, whereas East Asians may show an inverse
1
Although the focus of this article is on East Asia, a similar argument
can be made for other cultures, such as Mexico, that are typically charac-
terized as “collectivist” and that have been shown to have implicit trait
theories that are distinctly different from the lay dispositionism generally
found in North America (see Church et al., 2003).
735
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
tendency when memorizing information about others. (The reasons
for this argument and the relevant literature are reviewed later.)
Despite the remarkable advancement in cultural psychology of
social cognition in recent years, only a few studies have examined
the role of language in the formation of people’s understanding of
the social world. This rarity is surprising especially because culture
is often defined as a “system of meaning and practices shared by
members of a community,” and linguistic practices should com-
prise its core (Bruner, 1990; Fiske, Kitayama, Markus, & Nisbett,
1998). To our best knowledge, the present set of studies is among
the first attempts to examine the trait versus behavioral represen-
tations of a person across different cultures in terms of the linguis-
tic abstraction derived from LCM. Our analyses of the abstractness
of predicates are expected to cast a new light on the contrast
between the cognitive orientation toward the actor’s dispositions
(typically expected for Westerners) and the attention to contextual
and background information of the behavior (more likely among
East Asians).
Cognitive Representation and Linguistic Choices:
Overview of the Present Research
In this article we present six studies, including a follow-up
study, each of which compared the use of adjectives and verbs by
Italians and Japanese in social information processing. We pre-
dicted that Italians would be more prone to use adjectives in
linguistically representing a person or a group, whereas Japanese
would be more likely to use verbs.
In the first two studies, we investigated the degree to which
Japanese and Italians spontaneously use adjectives and verbs when
freely describing individuals or groups either in general (Study 1)
or in specific situations (Study 2). In Studies 3 and 4, we extended
this reasoning to memory biases. Here, we investigated the hy-
pothesis that Italians inadvertently transform verb into adjective
representations, whereas Japanese show the opposite tendency,
resulting in inverse memory distortions. The two studies investi-
gated the same hypothesis but with different methodologies.
In addition, we tried to understand why these effects take place.
There are at least three explanations that may be offered for
different linguistic choices of Italians and Japanese. The first, and
least interesting, interpretation would be that the expected differ-
ence does not have any psychological significance but merely
reflects a lexical difference in the number of adjectives and verbs
available in the two languages. We discuss why this account
cannot fully explain our findings in later sections. In particular, we
report two experimental studies (Studies 3 and 4) in which only
adjectives and verbs that were judged to be common in ordinary
language were selected as stimulus words. These carefully chosen
stimulus words were presented to participants in highly controlled
experimental settings. This should minimize the potential influ-
ence of the base rate difference across the two languages.
A second possibility is that communication rules in Italian and
Japanese differ such that the use of adjectives is acceptable in
person description in Italian culture but considered inappropriate
or impolite in Japanese culture. This possibility is discussed in a
follow-up of Study 4.
Still another possibility is that even though the level of dispo-
sitionism does not differ between Italians and Japanese, the like-
lihood of taking situations and contexts into account may be
different. Indeed, this intriguing possibility has been evidenced by
recent studies. For instance, Norenzayan et al. (2002) argued that
dispositional inferences take place rather universally, whereas
attending more to contextual information is a peculiar tendency
among East Asians (see also Knowles et al., 2001). Study 5 is
designed to shed light on the possible reasons underlying different
linguistic choices.
Study 1
The scope of our first study was to investigate the likelihood that
Italians and Japanese would describe individuals or groups in
terms of traits (adjectives) versus behaviors (verbs). Compared
with Japanese, we expected Italians to report more adjectives and
fewer verbs when describing others. To investigate this question,
we adopted a simple free-response format in our first study, asking
Italian and Japanese students to list 10 aspects describing an
individual person (a specific male or female acquaintance) or
social categories (males or females in general).
This procedure was modeled after Bond and Cheung’s (1983)
and Cousins’s (1989) research, using the Twenty Statement Test.
In their research, Bond and Cheung (1983) asked students in the
United States, in Japan, and in Hong Kong to describe themselves
in a free-response format and coded the responses according to a
complex coding scheme. The finding that is most relevant to our
study is that Japanese provided more concrete, readily accessible,
and situationally specific information about themselves. Compared
with the remaining groups, they were more reluctant to use abstract
psychological attributes detached from specific situations. A sub-
sequent study by Cousins (1989) extended this work by asking
American and Japanese participants to describe themselves on two
different versions of the Twenty Statement Test. First, participants
described themselves in a general, de-contextualized way; subse-
quently, they performed the same task, thinking of themselves in
specific contexts (at home, at school, with close friends). In line
with the previous research, Americans described themselves more
in abstract attributes than did Japanese, whereas Japanese referred
more frequently to social roles and behavioral context. Surpris-
ingly, however, this difference reversed when participants thought
about themselves in a specific context (e.g., at school). Thus, both
studies suggest that, at least in a general, de-contextualized frame,
Japanese use less abstract self-descriptions than Americans (for
similar findings, see also Kanagawa, Cross, & Markus, 2001;
Rhee, Uleman, Lee, & Roman, 1995).
The present study differed from Bond and Cheung’s (1983) and
Cousins’s (1989) studies in a number of important ways: First, we
attempted to extend their findings on self-description to person as
well as to group perception. That is, we wanted to investigate the
generality of the phenomenon by extending it beyond the specific
case of the self. The self is a unique concept whose meaning varies
greatly across cultures (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 1991), but
cultural variations in self conceptions are not necessarily telling
about person or group perceptions. We therefore asked participants
in our studies to describe either individual target persons or groups.
Second, the coding scheme used by the above authors was of a
semantic nature, distinguishing, for example, physical attributes,
social roles, agent interests, psychological attributes, and so forth.
In contrast, we were interested in the grammatical rather than the
semantic features of the responses and hence investigated the
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MAASS, KARASAWA, POLITI, AND SUGA
relative frequency of verbs and adjectives in the description of
others. In addition to dividing responses into verbs and adjectives,
we also analyzed the responses in a more detailed way on the basis
of Semin and Fiedler’s (1988) LCM, which distinguishes four
levels of abstraction in language. In this model, the most concrete
terms are descriptive action verbs (DAV) such as “A hits B” that
provide an objective description of a specific, observable event.
Interpretive action verbs (IAV) are slightly more abstract, as they
describe larger classes of behaviors, typically with evaluative
connotations (“A hurts B”), although they maintain a clear refer-
ence to a specific behavior in a specific situation. At the third level,
are state verbs (SV) such as “A hates B,” which describe enduring
psychological states that generalize beyond specific situations and
behaviors but refer to a specific object (Person B). Finally, the
most abstract terms are adjectives describing a general disposition
that applies across situations, behaviors, and objects (“A is aggres-
sive”). Notably, interpretive implications vary systematically as
one moves from the concrete to the abstract pole of the continuum.
As the degree of abstraction increases, there is an increase in the
amount of information provided about the protagonist and in the
implicit temporal and cross-situational stability. At the same time,
with increasing abstraction, the situational information contained
in the statement tended to decrease (Semin & Fiedler, 1988).
Moving from the concrete to the abstract pole of the continuum
implies a shift in attention from the situation to the actor. It is
important to note that LCM analyses have been conducted in many
different languages (English, German, French, Italian, Dutch,
Spanish, and Greek), including Japanese (Suga & Karasawa, in
press; Tanabe & Oka, 2001).
Hypotheses
On the basis of the foregoing discussion, we first predicted that,
in comparison with Japanese, Italians would use more adjectives
and fewer verbs to describe target individuals (a specific male or
female friend) or groups (males or females in general).
Second, and closely related to the previous hypothesis, we
expected that in comparison with Japanese, Italians would use
greater abstraction in terms of Semin and Fiedler’s (1988) LCM
when describing individual target persons and groups.
Method
Design. The experiment consisted of a 2 (language: Japanese vs.
Italian) 2 (target: individual vs. group) 2 (participant gender) 2
(target gender) factorial design in which the last factor was repeated within
participants.
Participants. The samples included 20 male and 20 female psychology
students at the University of Padova (Italy), ranging in age from 20 to 27
years, and 20 male and 20 female students at Kobe University (Japan), with
ages between 18 and 23 years. For each sample, half of the participants
were assigned to the individual target and half to the group target condition.
Two identical versions of the questionnaire, one in Italian and the other
in Japanese, were distributed to Japanese and Italian students. The ques-
tionnaire was initially translated from Italian to Japanese, passing through
English, and was then checked for accuracy in a back translation procedure
directly from Japanese into Italian.
Individual target versus group target condition. In the individual tar-
get condition, participants were asked to describe a male and a female
acquaintance. The instructions read: “Think about a male [female] student
you know very well.
2
Please write down the initials of this person: _____.
List 10 aspects which, in your opinion, are descriptive of him [her].” Order
was counterbalanced so that half of the students first described the male
and then the female acquaintance, and the remaining students described the
acquaintances in the reverse order.
In the group target condition, instructions read “Think about men
[women] in general. Please list 10 aspects that, in your opinion, are
descriptive of them.” Again, order of male versus female target group was
counterbalanced.
Dependent variables. The responses were coded in two ways. The first
measure consisted of the number of adjectives and verbs each person used
to describe the target. In some cases, participants used nouns (e.g., beauty,
sweetness) rather than verbs or adjectives, mostly when describing group
targets. These responses constituted a small proportion of the total material
(39 out of over 1,500 entries) and were approximately equally distributed
across national groups. They were not considered in the analyses, as they
were of no theoretical interest.
The second measure was the level of abstraction of each response, which
was coded by two Italian and two Japanese raters familiar with LCM in
close collaboration between the research teams in order to ensure identical
coding. Disagreements were resolved through discussion. For each respon-
dent, we calculated the number of DAVs, IAVs, SVs, and adjectives. In
other words, the verbs, considered as a single category in the previous
dependent variable, were now subdivided into three subcategories (DAV,
IAV, SV) of different abstraction.
Debriefing. At the end of the experimental session, participants were
informed about the scope of the research and thanked for their
participation.
Results
Verbs versus adjectives. Data were first analyzed by a 2 (lan-
guage: Japanese vs. Italian) 2 (participant gender) 2 (indi-
vidual vs. group target) 2 (target gender) analysis of variance
(ANOVA), in which the last variable was a repeated measure.
Because the number of adjectives and verbs was not independent
of each other, we analyzed verbs and adjectives separately (see
Figure 1a).
As far as the verbs were concerned, the only significant effect
emerging from the same 2 2 2 2 ANOVA was a main effect
for language, F(1, 72) 92.79, p .001, showing that Japanese
(M 3.41) used about eight times as many verbs to describe
others than did Italians (M 0.44).
Turning to the adjectives, again, we found a strong main effect
for language, F(1, 72) 143.29, p .001, showing that Italians
used about twice as many adjectives (M 9.08) than the Japanese
participants (M 4.58), a finding that was not qualified by any
higher order interaction.
Taken together, Italians showed an overwhelming preference for
trait adjectives over verbs; for each verb used, there were more
than 20 adjectives. In contrast, the ratio was much more balanced
for Japanese, who used 1.3 adjectives for each verb. This was true
regardless of whether participants were asked to describe individ-
uals or groups and whether they were describing males or females.
Level of abstraction. We also analyzed the mean number of
DAVs, IAVs, SVs, and adjectives used by Italian and Japanese
participants, this time averaging over male and female targets. A 2
(language) 2 (participant gender) 2 (target) ANOVA was
2
In both Italian and Japanese, the gender of the person is implied by the
noun suffix, so no further qualifier (adjective) is needed in either language.
737
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
performed separately for each level of abstraction, again because
of the partial interdependence of responses.
As can be seen in Figure 1b, Japanese participants used DAVs,
F(1.72) 12.87, p .001, and IAVs, F(1.72) 14.01, p .001,
about four times as often as Italian participants. The largest dif-
ference was found for SVs, which appeared about 12 times as
frequently in Japanese than in Italian descriptions, F(1.72)
71.51, p .001. The only category that was used more frequently
by Italians than by Japanese were the adjectives, as already re-
ported above.
Descriptions of individual targets versus groups did not differ,
except in the case of SVs, which were used more frequently to
describe single individuals (M 0.88) than groups in general
(M 0.43). This may not be surprising considering that psycho-
logical states and feelings are highly subjective and may therefore
be more readily associated with single individuals than with large
aggregates. No other effects reached statistical significance.
Discussion
The findings are largely supportive of our predictions. When
describing others, Italians relied almost exclusively on adjectives,
a word class that underlines the stable and enduring characteristics
of the target. Only about 4% of the descriptions provided by Italian
participants were verbs, suggesting that they had a marked ten-
dency to represent others in a generalized, decontextualized, and
abstract way. Quite different are the responses of Japanese, who
used adjectives and verbs in a balanced way, although they still
showed a predominance of trait adjectives over verbs. Thus, Jap-
anese appear more reluctant than Italians to use abstract trait
adjectives, but they do not generally prefer verbs over trait
adjectives.
Also interesting in this context is our second analysis, which
distinguishes different types of verbs. Japanese used more verbs
than Italians for all verb categories, but this difference was par-
ticularly evident for state verbs that constitute the most abstract
form of verb. Taken together, this suggests that Japanese turn more
frequently to verbs than do Italians, but they tend to privilege those
verbs that are relatively abstract. In a sense, whereas Italians show
a tendency toward abstraction across classes (preferring adjectives
over verbs), Japanese show a tendency toward abstraction within
the verb class. One may speculate that state verbs (which are of
very low frequency in most Indo-European languages) are pre-
ferred by Japanese, as they provide relatively abstract and general
information about the target person (subject) while still being
informative about the relation between sentence subject and object.
In a sense, state verbs, more than any other linguistic category,
satisfy the need for generality while maintaining a reasonable
amount of information about the social (or physical) context.
Although our main hypotheses received fairly strong support,
we decided to submit them to a second test including both a
de-contextualized and specific context condition. Recalling that
Cousins (1989) observed greater abstraction in Americans than in
Japanese, but only when the participants’ task was to provide
general, context-free self-descriptions, we decided to investigate
this rather surprising possibility in the next study.
Study 2
The second study was identical to previous one, with one
exception. Our participants were asked to describe a single indi-
vidual (or a category) in general terms and in two specific situa-
tions: at home and at school or work. However, contrary to
Cousins’s (1989) study, the type of query (general vs. specific)
constituted a between-participants variable. In Cousins’s study,
participants were asked to first provide the general description (on
20 empty lines) and subsequently to describe themselves in a
specific context. This opens the possibility of an experimental
artifact due to order. Thus, by the time participants got to the
second (specific) task, they may simply have “run out” of terms
from their favorite word category (adjectives for English, verbs for
Japanese). Because conversational rules generally discourage rep-
etition, participants may have been forced to retreat to the less
liked word category simply because they had already used all
pertinent words from their favorite word category in the previous,
general self-description.
Our study therefore differed from Cousins’s work in four
important aspects: First, we investigated other- rather than
self-descriptions. Second, we analyzed grammatical rather than
semantic response categories. Third, general versus context-
specific self-descriptions were treated as a between-participants
variable in order to limit the possibility of experimental arti-
facts due to order. Finally, we requested only 8 (rather than 20)
responses per question, assuming that the first responses are
most representative and spontaneous given that they are not
constrained by previous ones.
Figure 1. Study 1 results: (A) Number of verbs and adjectives used by
Italian and Japanese participants. (B) Number of descriptive action verbs
(DAV), interpretive action verbs (IAV), state verbs (SV), and adjectives
(ADJ) used by Italian and Japanese participants.
738
MAASS, KARASAWA, POLITI, AND SUGA
Method
Design. The experiment consisted of a 2 (language: Japanese vs.
Italian) 2 (participant gender) 2 (type of description: general vs.
specific context) factorial design. Just as in Study 1, we also manipulated
two additional variables, namely target (individual vs. category) and gen-
der of target, but because neither of these two control variables influenced
the results, we disregard them.
Participants. A total of 64 Japanese and 64 Italian psychology students
volunteered for this study, half of which were male and half of which were
female.
Procedure. Participants responded to a questionnaire in which they
were asked to describe either males [or females] as a category, or a specific
male [or female] friend they knew very well. They were prompted “to
describe what type of person s/he is or what s/he does,” or, in case of the
category, “. . .what type of persons they are or what they do.” Notably,
participants described the target either in general or in two specific situa-
tions (at home and at school/work). Under each query, eight empty spaces
were provided for the responses. Participants were instructed to proceed
quickly. Because the two specific questions (home and school/work) pro-
duced very similar responses and were reasonably correlated, r(128) .60
for verbs and r(128) .47 for adjectives (both ps .01), we averaged
responses across these two queries. After completing the questionnaire,
participants were informed about the scope of the experiment and thanked
for their participation.
Results
Verbs versus adjectives. A 2 (language) 2 (participant gen-
der) 2 (type of description: general vs. context-specific)
2 (individual vs. group target) 2 (target gender) ANOVA was
performed separately for verbs and adjectives. As in Study 1,
Japanese (M 4.70) used, on average, more verbs than did Italians
(M 2.96), F(1, 96) 23.86, p .001, whereas Italians used
more adjectives (M 4.22) in their descriptions than did Japanese
(M 2.78), F(1, 96) 17.13, p .001 (see Figure 2a). Morevoer,
verbs were more frequently used to describe targets in a specific
context (M 4.67) rather than in general (M 2.98), F(1, 96)
22.59, p .001, whereas adjectives were more likely to be used
for general descriptions (M 4.39) than for context-specific
descriptions (M 2.61) F(1, 96) 26.30, p .001. No other
effects emerged. Notably, the interaction between language and
general versus specific context failed to reach significance in both
cases (Fs 1), suggesting that the culture-specific preference for
adjectives (by Italians) and verbs (by Japanese) occurs regardless
of whether the target is described in general terms or in reference
to a specific situation.
Level of abstraction. Looking separately at the three verb
types (DAV, IAV, and SV), one can see in Figure 2b that Japanese
used about twice as many DAVs, F(1, 96) 28.67, p .001, and
SVs, F(1, 96) 9.07, p .01, than did Italians, but contrary to the
previous study, Japanese did not show such a marked preference
for SVs over other verb categories nor was there any difference
between the nations with respect to IAVs. Also, both DAVs, F(1,
96) 28.04, p .001, and IAV’s, F(1, 96) 10.04, p .01, (but
not SVs) were, on average, used more frequently when describing
specific as opposed to general cases (DAVs: M 2.36 for specific
cases vs. M 0.97 for general; IAV: M 1.52 for specific cases
vs. M 0.95 for general). The interaction between language and
general versus specific cases was significant only for DAVs, F(1,
96) 7.49, p .01, but in the opposite direction from that
expected on the basis of Cousins’s (1989) work. In both languages,
DAVs were more frequent in the description of targets in specific
context than in general, but this tendency was much more pro-
nounced for Japanese (specific: M 3.42; general: M 1.31) than
for Italians (specific: M 1.30; general: M 0.63). Thus, our data
provided absolutely no evidence that Japanese would shift their
language toward greater abstraction when decsribing others in
specific contexts. If anything, they relied more heavily on highly
concrete terms.
Discussion
The results of the second study are largely in line with those of
the first, showing that Japanese rely much more on verbs and much
less on adjectives than do Italians when describing other people or
groups. This finding extends previous research on spontaneous
self-concepts of Japanese and Americans, in which a very similar
preference was found when people were asked to describe them-
selves (Bond & Cheung, 1983; Cousins, 1989). However, Cousins
(1989) found a reversal of these preferences when self-descriptions
referred to a specific context, a pattern that was not replicated in
the present study.
Three explanations may be offered for this difference. First, our
study was concerned with other- rather than self-descriptions.
Because knowledge about self is particularly rich and differenti-
ated, people may find it easier to distinguish between the general
and the specific context for self than for others. Second, abstrac-
tion was coded on semantic grounds in Cousins’s (1989) study but
on grammatical grounds in the present study. Finally, and most
Figure 2. Study 2 results: (A) Number of verbs and adjectives used by
Italian and Japanese participants. (B) Number of descriptive action verbs
(DAV), interpretive action verbs (IAV), state verbs (SV), and adjectives
(ADJ) used by Italian and Japanese participants.
739
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
importantly, general descriptions always preceded context-specific
descriptions in Cousins’s study, whereas the two types of queries
were treated as a between-participants variable in the present
study. As argued earlier, the reversal in abstraction observed by
Cousins may reflect an experimental artifact due to order, such that
participants may have exhausted their preferred vocabulary by the
time they got to the later (specific) queries.
Contrary to Cousins’s (1989) findings, our results suggest that
the cultural differences in lexical choices hold for both general
descriptions and such context-specific descriptions as “at home” or
“at work or school.” This does not mean that our participants were
insensitive to the context manipulation. Indeed, they used more
verbs when describing people in a specific context and more
adjectives when describing them in a general way, but this held, to
the same degree, for Japanese and Italian participants.
Together, the findings of the first two studies reveal very dif-
ferent linguistic styles of Japanese and Italians in person descrip-
tion. Regardless of whether they described single individuals or
groups, Japanese relied considerably more on verbs than did Ital-
ians, whereas Italians showed a pronounced preference for adjec-
tives. Compared with Italians, Japanese were considerably more
reluctant to ascribe general, abstract attributes to others, presum-
ably because they pay greater attention to situational constraints on
human behavior (Cousins, 1989; Miller, 1984; Nisbett et al.,
2001).
An interesting question emerging from this observation is
whether people from Eastern and Western cultures also show
memory distortions in line with their linguistic preferences. The
following two studies were developed to test this possibility.
Study 3
In this experiment we intended to investigate the question of
whether the lexical preferences of Italians and Japanese reported in
the previous studies would also lead to corresponding biases in
memory for social information. There is ample evidence that
Westerners tend to transform behavioral information into trait
representations. Particularly compelling is Uleman and colleagues’
extensive research project on spontaneous trait inferences, show-
ing that such transformations require no intention or explicit in-
struction and often occur without awareness (Uleman, 1987; Ule-
man, Hon, Roman, & Moskowitz,1996; Uleman & Moskowitz,
1994; Uleman, Newman, & Winter, 1986; Uleman, Winborne,
Winter, & Shechter, 1986; Winter & Uleman, 1984; Winter,
Uleman, & Cunniff, 1985; see also Carlston & Skowronski, 1994;
Carlston, Skowronski, & Sparks, 1995; Van Overwalle, Drenth, &
Marsman, 1999).
Subsequent research by Maass et al. (2001) has shown that such
spontaneous inferences occur in an asymmetrical fashion. These
authors developed an experimental paradigm that allows direct
comparison of inferences from behaviors to traits with inverse
inferences, that is, from traits to behaviors. Specifically, bidirec-
tional memory confusions (verb–adjective confusions vs.
adjective–verb confusions) were tested within a single paradigm.
Participants received descriptions of a target person, half of which
presented in trait form (adjectives) and half in behavior form
(verbs). A subsequent recognition task was constructed in such a
way that some of the items (traits and behaviors) had actually been
seen, some were entirely new, and some were new but had been
implied by the information given (traits implied by behaviors or
behaviors implied by traits). Results showed that (Western) par-
ticipants frequently misidentified traits as already seen if they had
been implied by a behavior, whereas the opposite type of error was
very rare. Inductive inferences from behaviors to traits were about
four times as frequent as inferences from traits to behaviors.
Assuming that these systematic memory distortions reflect implicit
inferences, we labeled this phenomenon induction deduction
asymmetry (IDA). A subsequent study (Maass et al., 2006) found
very similar, asymmetrical memory distortions in a free-recall
task. This memory bias in Western participants matches the over-
whelming preference for abstract trait descriptors found in our
Italian sample in Studies 1 and 2. If Italians think and communi-
cate about others prevalently in the form of trait adjectives, it is not
surprising that they commit memory errors that mirror this
preference.
At this point, it becomes logical to ask whether Japanese will
show the same pattern or, on the contrary, whether their greater
preference for verbs in person description (Studies 1 and 2) and
their general attention to situational cues (Nisbett et al., 2001) will
lead them to an inverse memory distortion. To our knowledge,
little is known about cultural differences in spontaneous trait
inferences. An important exception is Za´rate, Uleman, and Voils’s
(2001) comparison of Anglo Americans and Latinos (for similar
findings, see also Newman, 1991). In the first study, using a
lexical-decision task, the authors tested the speed with which
Anglo Americans versus Latinos identified traits that were or were
not preceded by behavioral information indicative of the trait. The
reaction of Anglo Americans was greatly facilitated when a trait
was implied by behavioral information, suggesting that these par-
ticipants made spontaneous trait inferences. This tendency was
much weaker for Latinos. A subsequent study confirmed that
Anglo Americans linked behavior-implied traits more strongly to
the actor than did Latinos, although this was true only when a trait
was implied by a series of behavioral descriptions (rather than by
a single piece of information). Together, this research suggests that
Anglo Americans spontaneously transform behavioral into trait
information but that this tendency is less pronounced in cultures
that can be considered more “collectivist.”
An obvious limit of this study is that it focused exclusively on
what we call “inductive” transformation, namely, an inference
from behavioral (verb) into trait (adjective) information, while
ignoring the opposite process. As argued by various authors, the
main difference between European or North American countries
on one side and East Asian countries (which are the main focus of
this article), on the other, may lie more in the differential sensi-
tivity given to situational information than in the differential
willingness to infer dispositions (i.e., I. Choi, Nisbett, & Noren-
zayan, 1999; Norenzayan et al., 2002). It therefore appears impor-
tant to not only investigate spontaneous transformations of
behavior-descriptive verbs into traits but also to focus equally on
the opposite type of bias by which trait information may be
“situationalized.” The main scope of our Studies 3 and 4 was
therefore to investigate spontaneous transformations of verb into
trait information and vice versa within a single and balanced
experimental paradigm.
Again, both Japanese and Italian students participated in Study
3. Adapting the experimental paradigm developed by Maass,
Cadinu, Boni, & Borini (2005), participants in Study 3 were asked
740
MAASS, KARASAWA, POLITI, AND SUGA
to read a fictitious recommendation letter containing eight critical
pieces of information about a job applicant, half of which pre-
sented in the form of behavior-descriptive verbs, the other half in
the form of trait adjectives. Following a distraction task, partici-
pants were then asked to freely recall the information contained in
the letter. If participants falsely reported traits that they had not
read but that had been implied by behavioral information, this was
counted as an inductive inference. On the contrary, the false recall
of behaviors that had been implied by a trait was considered a
deductive inference.
Our main hypothesis predicted that Italian participants would
commit more inductive (behavior-to-trait) than deductive (trait-to-
behavior) memory errors, whereas Japanese would not show this
bias or would show the reverse pattern.
Method
Participants. A total of 80 Italian students (40 men and 40 women)
from the University of Padova and 81 Japanese students (41 men and 40
women) from Kobe University volunteered for this study. The mean age
was 24.5 years in the Italian and 20.8 years in the Japanese sample.
Procedure. The study was introduced as a study in organizational
psychology investigating how people elaborate information about a job
candidate on the basis of a recommendation letter. Participants were invited
to carefully read a recommendation letter that contained eight critical
pieces of information, half presented in the form of trait adjectives, half in
the form of behavior-descriptive verbs. Subsequently, participants engaged
in a distraction task that required approximately 5 min to complete, which
was followed by the free-recall test. At the end of the experiment, partic-
ipants were informed about the real purpose and the exact hypotheses of
the experiment
Pretesting of the stimulus material. The stimulus verbs and adjectives
were pretested extensively. Twenty-four adjective–verb pairs (e.g.,
dominantdemands to be obeyed, pessimistictends to make negative pre-
dictions) were taken from a previous study on inductive versus deductive
inferences conducted in Italy (Maass et al., 2005). Each adjective had been
shown to be uncorrelated with each of the remaining adjectives. Also each
verb (adjective) had been shown to be diagnostic of the corresponding
adjective (verb) but not of any of the other adjectives (verbs; see Maass et
al., 2005, for details on the pretesting procedure). For the present study, the
list of 24 adjectives was also pretested on 38 Japanese and 10 Italian
participants who rated all stimuli for both social desirability and mascu-
linity versus femininity. To be included in the final material, stimuli had to
be considered equally socially desirable and of equal masculinity by
Japanese and Italian participants. On the basis of these criteria, eight
adjective–verb pairs were selected, half of which were typically masculine
(dominant– expects to be obeyed; analytical–relies on logic when examin-
ing situations; athletic– enjoys doing sports; courageous– does not fear
risky tasks) and half of which were gender-neutral ( pessimistic–tends to
make negative predictions; concrete–takes into consideration practical
aspects of the situations; diplomatic– handles delicate issues with tact;
intuitive–is able to know facts before reflecting about them).
Final stimulus materials. The recommendation letter, supposedly writ-
ten by a previous employer on behalf of a male job applicant applying for
a managerial position, contained eight critical pieces of information about
the candidate. Each participant received half of these in the form of
adjectives (e.g., dominant, athletic, concrete, diplomatic) and half in the
form of verbs (e.g., relies on logic). There were two complementary
versions so that what appeared as an adjective in one version appeared as
a verb in the other. In addition, word order was counterbalanced, resulting
in four different versions. Finally, a standard introduction (“I am writing on
behalf of . . .”) and ending (“I would be happy to provide any additional
information. . .”) was added to the recommendation letter in order to
enhance its credibility. For the same reason, the different pieces of infor-
mation were integrated into a coherent text by the use of transition adverbs
and the like (“at the same time”; “despite this fact”; “moreover”).
Dependent variable: Free recall. Participants were instructed to list all
the information about the candidate they were able to remember. In a key
instruction, they also were instructed to “use, where possible, the exact
same terms that you saw in the letter.” Both correct recall (hits for verbs
and for adjectives) and inferences (including inductive and deductive
inferences) were coded. Responses were considered as hits if the partici-
pant reproduced the verb or adjective correctly or if they used a synonym
of the term contained in the letter (identified as such through the use of a
dictionary of synonyms).
The remaining responses were rated for implicit inferences. Responses
were coded as inductive inferences if participants reported adjectives
(dominant) that had not been presented in the letter but had been implied
by a verb (expects to be obeyed). On the contrary, verbs not seen but
implied by an adjective were considered deductive inferences. In each
country, four raters (blind to the aims and hypotheses of the research)
received a table containing both the responses provided by the participants
(rows) and the information contained in the letter (columns). This was done
separately for adjective responses (which had to be compared with the verb
information contained in the letter) and for verb responses (which had to be
compared to the adjectives contained in the letter). Raters indicated
whether a given response (e.g., “authoritarian”) corresponded to a piece of
information contained in the letter (e.g., “expects to be obeyed”) or whether
there was no correspondence. Responses were coded as inductive or
deductive inferences when at least 3 out of the 4 raters agreed that a given
verb (or adjective) corresponded to an adjective (or verb) contained in the
letter.
Back-translation procedure. The entire questionnaire (letter of recom-
mendation, dependent variable, distraction task, and all the instructions)
was originally developed in Italian, then translated into English, and from
there, translated into Japanese. The Japanese version was then retranslated
into Italian to ensure identical versions in Italian and Japanese.
Results
Inferences. A preliminary analysis including stimulus version
as an independent variable revealed no effect for this variable, so
it was not considered in the final analysis. A 2 (language: Japanese
vs. Italian) 2 (gender of participant) 2 (type of inference:
inductive vs. deductive) ANOVA revealed only one reliable effect,
namely the predicted interaction between language and type of
inference, F(1, 157) 5.37, p .05. As can be seen in Figure 3,
Japanese participants drew more deductive inferences from traits
to behaviors than vice versa, t(80) ⫽⫺2.18, p .05, whereas
Figure 3. Mean number of inductive and deductive inferences by Japa-
nese and Italian participants in free recall in Study 3.
741
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Italian participants showed a nonsignificant trend in the opposite
direction.
Hits. A 2 (language) 2 (gender) 2 (hit for behaviors vs.
traits) ANOVA, with repeated measures for the last variable, was
performed for the number of times behaviors or traits were cor-
rectly reproduced or in which synonyms of actually seen terms
were listed. Overall, Japanese participants (M 1.68) performed
better than Italian participants (M 1.21), F(1, 157) 13.47, p
.001. In addition, a significant interaction between language and
behavior versus trait, F(1, 157) 19.50, p .001, indicated that
Italians showed better memory for traits (M 1.43) than for
behavior (M 0.99), t(79) 2.82, p .001, whereas Japanese
showed better memory for behaviors (M 1.93) than for traits
(M 1.42), t(80) ⫽⫺3.47, p .001.
Discussion
The findings of our third experiment demonstrate asymmetrical
memory biases that are in line with the idea that Westerners
perceive others from a dispositional perspective and therefore
spontaneously record information in trait adjective form, whereas
East Asians pay greater attention to the situational context and
therefore recall information in the form of behavior-descriptive
verbs. Italians frequently recalled adjectives where they had actu-
ally seen verbs, whereas the opposite kind of memory confusion
was practically absent. Japanese, on the contrary, falsely recalled
verbs where they had actually seen traits. This memory bias was
twice as frequent as the opposite kind of memory confusion.
Together, these results provide strong support for our hypothesis
that there are culturally specific memory biases that mimic the
lexical preferences already observed in Studies 1 and 2.
Study 4
The preceding experiment has the advantage that simulates
social information processing in a relatively realistic way. The
stimulus information was embedded in a recommendation letter,
and participants freely recalled the provided information. Thus,
experimental constraints are minimal, but this also implies a num-
ber of limitations. The most important shortcoming of Study 3 is
the fact that behavior-descriptive verbs and trait adjectives were
likely to differ on an unknown number of dimensions. Consider for
instance the verb–adjective pairs “concrete—takes into consider-
ation practical aspects of the situations” or “diplomatic— handles
delicate issues with tact.” Although these stimuli were carefully
pretested, they obviously differ in meaning, phonetics, and length,
as well as on numerous other dimensions. Among other differ-
ences, adjective information tended to be considerably shorter, was
not embedded in contextual information (provided by object, ad-
verbial qualifiers, etc.), and differed both semantically and pho-
netically from the corresponding verb information.
Therefore, it remains unclear whether the mirror asymmetries
obtained in our Italian and Japanese samples can indeed be attrib-
uted to the grammatical form of the stimulus material (verbs vs.
adjectives) or whether other features unknown to, and not con-
trolled by, the experimenters may be responsible for the results.
One way to increase the confidence that the grammatical form is
indeed critical is to select verbs and adjectives that are highly
similar both semantically and phonetically. This can be achieved
by using word pairs that share the same word stem, such as
aggress–aggressive and talk–talkative, and by presenting this in-
formation in minimal sentences (“Shira talks a lot” vs. “Shira is
talkative”; see Maass et al., 2006). Hence, the main aim of Study
4 was to test whether the asymmetrical memory pattern would
emerge even when holding the word stem of verbs and adjectives
constant.
In order to test this possibility, Japanese and Italian participants
were asked to read a list of descriptions of a target person, half of
which presented in the form of behavior-descriptive verbs (e.g.,
“Marco dominates others”) and half of which presented in the form
of trait adjectives (“Marco is dominant”). Adjective–verb pairs
were selected so as to share the same word stem in both Japanese
and Italian. Contrary to the previous study, memory distortions
were assessed through a recognition task that is explained below.
As in Study 3, we predicted that Italians would show more
inductive inferences (falsely recognizing a trait adjective that was
implied by a verb) than deductive inferences (falsely recognizing
a verb that was implied by an adjective), whereas Japanese were
expected to show an inverse bias.
Method
Participants. A total of 40 Italian students (20 men and 20 women)
from the University of Padova and 44 Japanese students (22 men and 22
women) from Kobe University volunteered for this study. The mean age
was 24.9 years in the Italian sample and 20.3 years in the Japanese sample.
Procedure and stimulus material. The experiment was introduced as a
study on person perception. Participants were told that they would read a
list of characteristics and behaviors (both positive and negative in valence)
of a target person (“Marco” in the Italian and “Hideo” in the Japanese
version) that had been provided by friends and relatives. Participants were
also warned that they should not be surprised about any contradictions in
the information provided, considering that these people knew Marco/Hideo
from very different contexts. Participants were allowed to read the list only
once.
The stimulus material consisted of 16 verb–adjective pairs sharing the
same word stem in both languages, Japanese and Italian (e.g., “Marco/
Hideo is dominant”; “Marco/Hideo dominates others”; see Appendix).
Verbs were complemented by minimal (object or adverbial) information
necessary to form an acceptable sentence (e.g., “dominates others”; “thinks
at length”; “obeys others”; “talks to everybody”; “attracts women”). Verbs
and adjectives were admitted to the final stimulus material only if two
Italian or two Japanese raters agreed that they were common (rather than
rare or unusual) words in the respective language. Each participant re-
ceived a list of 16 pieces of information (half in adjective form, half in verb
form) plus 6 filler items (2 of which presented at the beginning and 2 at the
end of the list to reduce primacy and recency effects). As in the previous
study, there were two complementary versions counterbalancing verbs and
adjectives and two different orders of presentation for each version.
After having read the list once, participants engaged in a 10-min filler
task and then completed the recognition test. At the end of the experiment,
participants were fully informed about the purpose of the experiment and
thanked for their participation.
Dependent variables. Participants received the complete list of 16
verbs and 16 adjectives, together with the 6 filler items and 7 new verbs
and 7 new adjectives, again sharing the same word stem (e.g., sociable–to
socialize; persistent–to persist; persuasive–to persuade). The items were
presented in four different random orders, constrained by two criteria: (a)
An adjective and a verb referring to the same concept and sharing the same
word stem were never presented in proximity, and (b) for half of the items,
the adjective preceded the verb; for the other half, it was the verb that
preceded the adjective.
742
MAASS, KARASAWA, POLITI, AND SUGA
Participants were instructed to “tick the exact terms that you believe to
have read in the previous list.” The main dependent variables were the
number of hits and the number of inductive inferences (false recognition of
unseen traits that were implied by a verb) and deductive inferences (false
recognition of unseen verbs that were implied by a trait).
Results
Inferences. A 2 (language: Japanese vs. Italian) 2 (gender of
participant) 2 (type of inference: inductive vs. deductive)
ANOVA revealed a main effect for type of inference, F(1, 80)
5.38, p .01, indicating a greater frequency of inductive (M
1.77) than deductive inferences (M 1.32). Of greater theoretical
relevance is the predicted interaction between language and type of
inference, F(1, 79) 13.08, p .001. As can be seen in Figure 4,
Italians drew significantly more inductive inferences from behav-
iors to traits than vice versa, t(38) 4.71, p .001, whereas
Japanese participants showed a nonsignificant trend in the opposite
direction. The only other effect emerging from the analysis was an
unpredicted interaction between language and gender, F(1, 79)
4.74, p .05, showing that regardless of type of inference,
Japanese men (M 1.68) made more inferences than did Japanese
women (M 1.07), t(42) 2.45, p .05, whereas among the
Italian participants, there was a nonsignificant trend in the opposite
direction, with women (M 1.90) drawing more inferences than
males (M 1.53).
Hits. We performed a 2 (language) 2 (gender) 2 (correct
recognition of behaviors vs. traits) ANOVA for the number of
times behaviors or traits were correctly identified as already seen.
Overall, behaviors (M 4.69) were recognized with greater fre-
quency than traits (M 4.21), F(1, 80) 5.05, p .05. In
addition, regardless of type of stimulus, Japanese (M 4.97)
showed a much higher level of accuracy than did Italians (M
3.94), F(1,80) 8.92, p .01. Finally, a significant interaction
between language and behavior versus trait, F(1, 80) 16.39, p
.001, showed that Italians showed better memory for behaviors
(M 4.60) than for traits (M 3.25), t(38) 4.53,p .001,
whereas Japanese showed no difference in their recognition of
traits (M 5.16) and behaviors (M 4.77).
Discussion
The results of Study 4 largely confirmed, under more controlled
conditions, the interaction observed in the previous study, although
in this case Italians showed a significant memory distortion, con-
verting verbs into traits, whereas Japanese showed a trend in the
opposite type of distortion, though the difference failed to reach
statistical significance. It is important to note that the methodology
in this study was such that in both languages, verbs and adjectives
shared the same word stem and were semantically and phonetically
similar (e.g., dominantdominates). Moreover, additional informa-
tion contained in the verb phrases (nouns in the role of sentence
objects and adverbial qualifiers) was reduced to a minimum. Thus,
asymmetrical memory patterns in this case, are not easily attrib-
utable to unknown biases in the material. Further, the fact that the
stimulus words that we presented in Studies 3 and 4 were carefully
selected from commonly used verbs and adjectives seems to rule
out the interpretation that the results from Studies 1 through 4 were
due to a potentially low base rate frequency of adjectives in the
Japanese lexicon.
3
Considering the coherence of cross-cultural differences emerg-
ing from conceptually similar studies, the question then arises as to
what exactly triggers the differential pattern observed in both the
person descriptions (Studies 1 and 2) and memory distortions
(Studies 3 and 4). Our main argument is that Italians rely heavily
on dispositional conceptions of people’s behavior, whereas Japa-
nese pay greater attention to the social and physical context in
which the protagonist is embedded. This is closely related to the
fact that Westerners tend to perceive behaviors as reflecting stable
underlying dispositions (i.e., correspondence bias) and to believe
that traits are highly predictive of future behaviors, where in reality
they are not (Kunda & Nisbett, 1986). Although East Asians are
not immune to dispositionism, they are much more sensitive to the
situational constraints affecting people’s behavior (I. Choi & Nis-
bett, 1998; Fiske et al., 1998). Adjectives appear best suited to
provide situationally detached, context-free information, whereas
verbs appear best suited to express the link between the acting
person and his or her immediate environment. According to a
simple utility principle, speakers of each culture may choose those
words (verbs or adjectives) that fit their communicative or cogni-
tive needs best.
However, at least two alternative explanations may be offered
for the observed differences. First, conversational norms may
differ. What is normatively appropriate in one culture may well be
3
Empirical attempts to compare the base rate prevalence of adjectives
and verbs in different languages are surprisingly sparse. Among the rare
examples, Tamamura (1975) reported that the proportion of Japanese
adjectives in three different sources that he examined (i.e., thesauruses,
popular magazines, and language text books, spanning 1,207 to 32,600
words) ranged from 4.6% to 7.9%. In contrast, the proportions were higher
in Chinese (14.6%), English (16.0%), French (16.7%), and German
(15.0%). However, the comparison was not based on entirely comparable
sources across the different language groups. It should also be noted that
the rate of adjectives was very low in any of these languages in the first
place. Another important caveat is that Tamamura’s (1975) survey con-
cerned general vocabularies, whereas the present study is exclusively
focused on the words used to describe characteristics of a person. Further-
more, modern languages that people use in daily contexts appear to be
much more flexible than those appearing in archival data. For instance, the
Japanese language can generate a practically infinite number of adjectives
by adding the suffices of -na and -tekina to nouns, just as English does by
adding -ish and -like. Taken together, we are highly suspicious about the
possibility that our results are entirely accounted for by the difference in
base rate word frequencies between Italians and Japanese.
Figure 4. Mean number of inductive and deductive inferences by Japa-
nese and Italian participants in Study 4.
743
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
considered offensive or impolite in another (e.g., Ide, 2002;
Tanaka, 2000). In order to test this possibility, we conducted a
follow-up study with 38 students from the University of Padova
and 25 from Kyushu University in western Japan as the partici-
pants. They were asked to imagine that they wished to describe an
acquaintance to someone who does not know the person; they then
answered five questions to assess perceived appropriateness of
verbs versus adjectives (“Between a verb and an adjective, which
is considered more appropriate?”; “. . .which is more commonly
used?”; “. . .which is easier to use?”; “. . .which would you hesitate
to use?”; and “. . .which sounds colder?” (Cronbach’s alpha for the
5 items .80). Items were rated on a 7-point scale, with 1
indicating that verbs are considered much more appropriate, 4
indicating that verbs and adjectives are equally appropriate, and 7
indicating that adjectives are much more appropriate. The mean
ratings did not differ between Japanese (M 4.54) and Italians
(M 4.54), t(61) 1. Turning to perceived politeness, averaged
ratings from two questions concerning which word type would be
“considered more polite” and “refined” were compared (
.61).
Again, no significant difference emerged between Japanese (M
4.00) and Italians (M 3.84), t(61) 1. Hence, neither the
interpretation based on normative appropriateness nor that based
on differential politeness rules received empirical support.
A second possibility is that verbs and adjectives may differ
syntactically as well as semantically. For example, Japanese verbs
may be functionally more similar to Italian adjectives. In Study 5,
we attempted to shed light on this interpretation by presenting
specific instances of verbs and adjectives and investigating their
implicit meanings.
Study 5
In this study, we examined whether verbs and adjectives carry
similar or different implicit meaning in the two cultures and
whether they are considered differentially useful for predicting
future behaviors. One limit of cross-cultural studies is that differ-
ent word categories (in our case, verbs and adjectives) may vary on
an unknown number of dimensions not considered by the experi-
menter and extraneous to the concepts under consideration. In the
case of the present series of studies, we cannot exclude the pos-
sibilities that verbs and adjectives differ on semantic grounds, that
they have different syntactic properties, and that they carry differ-
ent implicit information in Japanese and Italian. With reference to
Semin and Fiedler’s (1988) LCM, the basic idea underlying our
research was that adjectives carry more information about the
protagonist and imply a more enduring quality than verbs, whereas
verbs provide more information about the specific situation. Im-
plicit in our argument is the assumption that this should apply
equally to Italian and Japanese. Yet, we cannot exclude that this
basic principle, spelled out by LCM, may apply to different de-
grees in the two languages. For example, it is possible that Japa-
nese verbs are more telling about the protagonist’s features and
describe more enduring qualities than Italian verbs or that Japanese
adjectives fulfill functions that are more similar to verbs. If this
were the case, such distinctions could explain why Japanese rely
more heavily on verbs than Italians when describing people or
when remembering information about others.
There are reasons to believe that verbs and adjectives may
indeed play somewhat different roles in Japanese than in Italian
(i.e., Vallauri, 2000). Notably, word classes such as nouns, verbs,
adjectives, and adverbs are known to be much more flexible in
Japanese than in Indo-European languages. In languages such as
English and Italian, the major grammatical categories have highly
specialized functions, with nouns describing objects or entities;
adjectives describing qualities or properties; and verbs describing
actions, states, or processes. They also behave very distinctly on a
syntactic level. In contrast, these grammatical categories seem to
have much greater overlap and commonalities in Japanese, en-
abling many categories to be converted into other grammatical
classes with relative ease.
As far as verbs are concerned, Japanese verbs tend to have a
greater variety of conjugations, including those that make them
practically equivalent to adjectives in Western languages. For
instance, the suffix -teiru is often added to verbs intended to
describe a person. Indeed, verbal responses from our Japanese
participants in Studies 1 through 3 included numerous cases of this
kind. This suffix indicates that the action or state continues for an
extended period. The implied duration is clearly much longer than
that implied by the English suffix -ing. This example illustrates
that Japanese verbs are more flexible in producing enduring dis-
positional words (Kindaichi, 1976). Further, it is easier in Japanese
to create a verb, by adding the suffix -suru (with an equivalent
meaning of “to do” in English) to a noun or an adverb. Examples
of this kind include shikkari-suru (“show a steady character”) and
hakkiri-suru (“be clear” or “straightforward”), where shikkari and
hakkiri are both adverbs.
4
There are numerous Japanese verbs of
this kind that are derived from trait-like words such as adjectives.
Thus, Japanese verbs may provide more information about the
protagonist’s features and have greater implicit duration as a result
of the availability of suffixes that increase their resemblance to
adjectives. In the selection of the experimental materials for Stud-
ies 3 and 4, we avoided such Japanese verbs such as -teiru (i.e., the
ones that were high in “abstractness” in Semin and Fiedler’s, 1988,
LCM term), but we still cannot rule out the possibility that the
general functional similarity between verbs and adjectives may, at
least in part, account for the different lexical choices and memory
patterns in the two language communities.
Turning to adjectives, again, we find apparent systematic func-
tional differences between the two languages (see Vallauri, 2000).
Adjectives in Indo-European languages are generally interpreted
as a distinct and relatively homogeneous syntactic category (co-
located between nouns and verbs; Croft, 1991). In contrast, Japa-
nese adjectives may be seen as constituting a relatively heteroge-
neous and flexible category in that they are divided into at least
two subclasses. The first subclass, ending with the suffix -i, is
regarded by linguists as consisting of prototypical “adjectives”
(e.g., nagai [long]; kashikoi [smart]), whereas the second subclass,
with suffix -da, are referred to as “nominal adjectives” (e.g.,
shizukada [quiet]; shinsetsuda [kind]), and are interpreted to be
grammatically equivalent to nouns (Uehara, 1998). It is interesting
to note that both of these subclasses have properties that are similar
4
In fact, ending a sentence with shikkari-suru or hakkiri-suru to de
-
scribe a person’s characteristics is highly awkward in natural Japanese.
Instead, a person is usually described as hakkiri-shi-teiru or shikkari-shi-
teiru. Note that here too -teiru, indicating an enduring character, is added
to shi which is a conjugation of suru.
744
MAASS, KARASAWA, POLITI, AND SUGA
to verbs. For instance, both types of adjectives conjugate, just as
verbs do, depending on their syntactic roles (e.g., whether they
qualify nouns, collocate with other predicates, or complete the
sentence). Also, these subclasses do not require a copula to be a
predicate, and this is particularly true for the prototypical -i adjec-
tives (e.g., Ichiro-wa sugoi, [Ichiro great], where the adjective
sugoi does not require a copula equivalent to is”). Hence, the
distinction between Japanese adjectives and verbs may not be as
clear-cut as in Western languages (see also Wetzer, 1996).
Together, these examples suggest that the differences between
verbs and adjectives may be less marked in Japanese than in
languages like English or Italian. Although in both languages,
verbs describe actions or states and adjectives describe properties
or qualities, the functional and syntactic differences between the
two classes seem to be less clear-cut in Japanese than they are in
Italian. It is therefore also possible that the implicit meaning of
verbs and adjectives proposed by the LCM (Semin & Fiedler,
1988) is less distinct in Japanese language. If so, the difference
observed in the previous studies may, in part, be due to different
implicit information contained in adjectives and verbs in the two
languages considered.
In order to test this possibility, we conducted a study that closely
followed Semin and Fiedler’s (1988) methodology. That is, com-
parable samples of Italian and Japanese students were asked to rate
a list of adjectives and verbs with respect to their informativeness
about the actor and the situation.
Method
Participants. A total of 32 students (16 women, 16 men) at Padova
University and 32 students (14 women, 18 men) at Kobe University
volunteered to participate in this study.
Procedure and materials. The study was introduced as a cross-cultural
research study in which even small differences in responses would be of
great importance. The stimulus material consisted of the same 16 verb–
adjective pairs used in Study 4, to which we added two new verb–adjective
pairs sharing the same word stem in both Italian and Japanese (amusingto
amuse; interestingto interest). As in our previous studies, two versions of
questionnaires were prepared. Both included 9 stimulus concepts in adjec-
tive form and 9 in verb form, but the two versions were specular so that the
concepts that appeared in adjective form in one version (e.g., productive)
appeared in verb form in the other version (e.g., produce), and vice versa.
Following Semin and Fiedler’s (1988) procedure, we used minimal sen-
tences, identifying each target person only by the initials, followed by
either a verb (e.g., A.U. chats) or an adjective (e.g., I.K. is productive).
Consistent with what we discussed earlier, the Italian version included the
copula e`, equivalent to the English is, along with each adjective, whereas
the Japanese version did not require this. No additional information (e.g.,
adverb, object) was provided, so as to reduce the potentially confounding
effects of grammatical differences between the two languages (e.g., type of
conjugation, word order) and to allow a direct comparison with Semin and
Fiedler’s original study.
Participants were asked to rate each stimulus concerning five questions,
which were for the most part adopted from Semin and Fiedler’s (1988)
original study, although the linguistic formulation was varied slightly so as
to allow identical formulations in Italian and Japanese: (a) “How much
information regarding the protagonist’s characteristics is provided by each
phrase?”; (b) “How enduring do you think is the characteristic of the
protagonist described in each phrase?”; (c) “How much information does
each phrase reveal about the specific and concrete situation the protagonist
is in?”; (d) “Reading the following phrases, to which degree can you
predict the future behavior of this person?”; (e) “Reading this phrase, to
which degree can you imagine the concrete and specific situation in which
the person is in?” All responses were assessed on a 7-point scale (1 very
little;7 very much). Participants received the five queries, one at a time,
with each query followed by the list of 18 stimulus words. The order of
stimulus words was counterbalanced across the participants assigned the
same version of the questionnaire.
Dependent variable. For each of the 18 stimulus concepts (e.g., dom-
inance), we calculated the mean ratings (e.g., mean enduringness) provided
by Japanese or by Italians depending on whether the concept was presented
as a verb or an adjective. In this way, we obtained four means for each
stimulus concept (mean rating of verb by Japanese, mean rating of verb by
Italians, mean rating of adjective by Japanese, mean rating of adjective by
Italians), each representing the average of the ratings of 16 participants.
This was done for each of the five queries (amount of information about
protagonist, enduringness, information about the situation, predictability of
future behaviors, and possibility to imagine concrete situation).
Participants were debriefed at the end of the experiment and thanked for
their participation.
Results
For each of the five ratings, a 2 (language: Japanese vs. Ital-
ian) 2 (word type: verb vs. adjective) repeated measures
ANOVA was conducted. Contrary to most studies, the unit of
analysis in this study was the stimuli (n 18) rather than the
participants. The means are presented in Figures 5 and 6.
In the case of amount of information provided about protagonist,
the only effect emerging was a main effect for word type, with
adjectives providing more information about the protagonist than
verbs, F(1, 17) 79.10, p .001. The interaction with language
was far from significant, F(1, 17) 0.00, ns. Turning to endur-
ingness of quality, we found that adjectives were seen as describ-
ing much more enduring qualities than verbs, F(1, 17) 214.66,
p .001. Again, the interaction with language, F(1, 17) 1.86,
ns, was not significant. Finally, in both languages, verbs were seen
as providing more information about the situation, F(1, 17)
49.99, p .001, and, again, the interaction was far from signifi-
cant, F(1, 17) 0.40, ns. Thus, in line with Semin and Fiedler’s
(1988) work, both Japanese and Italians considered adjectives to
be more telling about the protagonist and more enduring, whereas
they found verbs more informative about the situation. Notably,
Japanese judged verbs as no more informative or enduring than
Italians did.
Figure 5. Mean informativeness about protagonist, enduringness (endur),
and informativeness (inform) about situation (sit) as a function of word
type (verb vs. adjectives [adj]) judged by Japanese and Italian participants
in Study 5.
745
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Judgments varied as a function of language only for the remain-
ing variables, prediction of future behaviors and ease of imagining
the concrete situation. Overall, adjectives were believed to allow a
better prediction of future behaviors than verbs, F(1, 17) 6.76,
p .05, but this effect was modified by an almost significant
interaction with language, F(1, 17) 3.71, p .07. As can be
seen in Figure 6, only Italians found adjectives (M 4.39) more
predictive than verbs (M 3.84), t(17) 3.12, p 01, whereas
Japanese considered adjectives (M 4.02) and verbs (M 3.92)
equally predictive of future behaviors, t(17) 0.60, ns. Further-
more, Japanese and Italians judged verbs as equally predictive of
future behaviors, t(17) 0.60, ns, but Italians thought that adjec-
tives were somewhat more predictive of future behaviors than did
Japanese, t(17) 1.85, p .08.
Turning to ease of imagining the concrete situation, we found
that verbs made it much easier to envisage the concrete situation
than did adjectives, F(1, 17) 20.31, p .001. Although neither
the main effect for language, F(1, 17) 2.42, p .14, nor the
interaction, F(1, 17) 2.19, p .16, reached conventional sta-
tistical significance, examination of Figure 6 suggests that Japa-
nese (M 4.14) reported overall less difficulty than did Italians
(M 3.89) in imagining the concrete situation of the protagonist.
This difference becomes particularly strong (and reliable) for ad-
jectives, for which Japanese (M 3.98) could envisage the con-
crete situation much more easily than could Italians (M 3.60),
t(17) 3.23, p .01.
Discussion
The findings of the last study suggest that in both languages,
adjectives are perceived as more informative of the protagonist’s
features and as describing a more enduring quality, whereas verbs
are considered as providing more information about the situation.
Thus, the implicit meaning of verbs and adjectives was perceived
in a very similar way in Italian and Japanese. Notably, there was
no evidence that Japanese verbs carried more (or adjectives less)
information about the protagonist’s enduring features than the
Italian verbs, suggesting that the findings obtained in Studies 1
through 4 cannot easily be explained by structural differences
between verbs and adjectives in the two languages. Thus, at least
for the stimulus material considered here (and also used in Study
4), verbs are no more trait-like in Japanese than in Italian. This
clearly precludes differential implicit meaning as an explanation
for the fact that verbs and adjectives are used and remembered
differently in the two countries.
The only dimensions on which differences emerged between
Italians and Japanese were the possibility of inferring future be-
haviors and the ease of imagining the concrete information of the
protagonist. Italians found adjectives to be much more predictive
of future behaviors, whereas Japanese found adjectives no more
telling about future behaviors than verbs. By inference, this may
well be the key to understanding the cultural differences observed
in Studies 1 through 4. Westerners may prefer adjectives in person
description (Studies 1 and 2) and make corresponding trait infer-
ences (Studies 3 and 4) because trait adjectives are considered
particularly useful for predicting future behaviors, as already has
been suggested by classical works such as Heider (1958) and Asch
(1952). In contrast, Japanese found adjectives no more useful than
verbs in predicting future behaviors, which may explain why verbs
and adjectives were used in a balanced way (Studies 1 and 4) or
why there was a predominance of verbs over adjectives (Studies 2
and 3). In other words, one possible explanation of our findings is
that both cultures prefer the word form that allows the best pre-
diction of future behaviors.
The fact that Japanese found adjectives relatively less informa-
tive about the protagonist’s future behaviors than did Italians may,
again, reflect their greater attention to situational constraints on
human behavior. Whereas actions are seen as primarily deriving
from people’s dispositions in the Western world, East Asians are
more attuned to the interactive forces of person and situation. This
is also in line with our finding that imagining the concrete situation
of the protagonist came more naturally to Japanese, even when
they were confronted with rather abstract information. Of interest,
both groups found it relatively easy to imagine the concrete situ-
ation when confronted with verbs, but when confronted with
adjective information, only Japanese seemed able to envisage a
concrete situation, whereas Italians encountered great difficulties.
Together, the findings of our last study demonstrates a similarity
between Italian and Japanese in the implicit information that verbs
and adjectives carry concerning the protagonist’s enduring features
and in the information about the situation that they provide, sug-
gesting that these two word forms are structurally very similar
despite the many syntactic differences outlined earlier. What dis-
tinguishes the two languages most clearly is the relative predictive
power of verbs and adjectives. Adjectives were considered much
more predictive of future behaviors by Italians than by Japanese,
presumably because Japanese are more sensitive to situational
constraints, which was also evidenced by their greater ease of
imagining the concrete situation of the protagonist.
General Discussion
The aim of this research was to understand whether verbs and
adjectives play different roles in Italian and Japanese languages
when linguistically representing other people. Considering that
East Asians have been found to show greater context sensitivity
than Westerners (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001; Nisbett et al., 2001),
we have argued that verbs may represent a particularly useful
conversational tool in Japanese. Compared with adjectives, verbs
provide greater information about the situation (Semin & Fiedler,
1988) by linking the sentence subject to the object and/or to the
surrounding context. In contrast, considering the general disposi-
tional bias in person perception and attribution among Westerners,
Figure 6. Mean predictability (predict) of future behaviors and imagin-
ability (imag) of concerte situation as a function of word type (verb vs.
adjectives [adj]) judged by Japanese and Italian participants in Study 5.
746
MAASS, KARASAWA, POLITI, AND SUGA
adjectives may be the preferred conversational tool among indi-
viduals from such cultures.
The first two studies investigated this differential preference
simply by asking Japanese and Italian students to freely describe
others. These studies revealed reliable differences between the two
countries, with Italians showing a preference for adjectives and
Japanese for verbs. In the first study, where general descriptions
were elicited, Italians greatly preferred adjectives over verbs (in-
deed, less that 5% of the responses were verbs), whereas Japanese
showed an opposite trend. In Study 2, when asked for either
general or context-specific descriptions, Japanese showed a clear
preference for verbs over adjectives, whereas Italians showed a
trend in the opposite direction. Thus, although not identical, there
were similar crossover interactions in these studies, showing that
adjectives were predominant in Italian, and verbs in Japanese,
person descriptions.
Furthermore, results from Study 1 revealed that the greater
tendency among Japanese to use verbs was mainly accounted for
by the use of state verbs. Unfortunately, Study 2 failed to replicate
this and instead showed that descriptive action verbs were the
modal category. Exporting a linguistic classification scheme such
as LCM to a very distant linguistic system such as Japanese
involves a great deal of difficulty (e.g., Suga & Karasawa, in
press), and thus much more research is needed to establish a valid
standard for cross-linguistic comparisons. However, efforts to es-
tablish such research tools will no doubt make invaluable contri-
butions to this field of research.
Notably, our findings also suggest that this cultural difference in
lexical choice is quite robust, as it holds regardless of participant
gender, regardless of whether targets are described in general or in
specific contexts, and regardless of whether people are describing
individuals or large categories. A limit of our research is that it
focused only on individuals (a specific woman or man) or broad
categories (women or men in general) while ignoring the interme-
diate level, namely, small groups. There is evidence that East
Asians assign considerable essentialism or agency to groups, such
as work teams and organizations (e.g., Menon, Morris, Chiu, &
Hong, 1999). It may therefore be interesting to investigate in future
research whether the preference for verbs over adjectives extends
even to these groups or whether lexical choices may shift toward
the adjective level in such cases.
Considering the distinct lexical preferences of Italians and Jap-
anese in person and group description, Studies 3 and 4 investigated
the hypothesis that these preferences may also be reflected in
corresponding memory distortions. In particular, we expected Ital-
ians to transform behavior-descriptive verbs into trait–adjective
representations, whereas we expected the opposite tendency for
Japanese. Although, again, the result patterns are not identical, the
findings are in line with predictions. In Study 3, which assessed
free recall in an unrestrained memory paradigm, Japanese indeed
showed evidence for deductive memory distortions. That is, they
recalled information in verb form when they had in reality seen
adjectival information, a pattern that was exactly opposite to what
was shown by Italians. In Study 4, which assessed recognition
under somewhat artificial experimental conditions, Italians showed
a strong and reliable tendency to transform verb into adjective
information, whereas Japanese showed a nonsignificant tendency
in the opposite direction. Although the reasons for this slightly
different pattern remain to be explored, the two experiments to-
gether seem to provide support for the idea that Italians and
Japanese show distinct memory distortions that appear to reflect
their preferences for adjectives versus verbs, respectively.
We believe that the present results contribute to the existing
literature on person perception in two important ways. On one
hand, they have revealed cultural constraints on the well-known
phenomenon of spontaneous trait inferences (Carlston & Skow-
ronski, 1994; Maass et al., 2001; Uleman, 1987; Uleman et al.,
1996; Uleman & Moskowitz, 1994; Uleman, Newman, & Winter,
1986; Van Overwalle et al., 1999; Winter & Uleman, 1984). Our
findings suggest that the tendency to make unintentional, sponta-
neous trait inferences may be especially visible in Western cul-
tures. On the other hand, our research shows the critical role that
language plays in culturally bound social cognition. Nisbett et al.
(2001) have argued that different cultures show distinct styles of
thought that emphasize the relative importance of the single agent
(analytic) versus the social context (holistic). Our findings dem-
onstrate that these cognitive styles are reflected in systematic
cultural differences in linguistic preferences.
It seems premature, however, to conclude that Japanese are less
likely to form abstract trait representations from concrete behav-
ioral information. Results from Study 5 indicated that Japanese
participants were as much aware as the Italian participants that
adjectives can be informative about the enduring characteristics of
the actor and that verbs provide information about the situation.
What seems different between the linguistic communities is the
extent (a) to which they consider information about the situational
context and (b) to which they find verbs and adjectives valuable
predictors of future behaviors. Study 5 showed that Japanese were
able to imagine concrete situations based on even abstract adjec-
tives. The latter finding seems to provide an explanation for the
higher likelihood of deductive memory error among Japanese
found in Studies 3 and 4. That is, it is likely that Japanese
participants found concrete situational information embedded in
adjectives and that this information intruded into their memory of
the actually presented trait information. This might have resulted
in the higher rate of deductive misrecall (i.e., from trait to behav-
ior: Study 3) and the mitigation of inductive misrecognition (from
behavior to trait; Study 4). These interpretations are consistent
with the recent trend in the literature admitting potential univer-
sality in dispositionism and emphasizing the possibility of differ-
ence in the degree of paying attention to contextual information
(e.g., Knowles et al., 2001; Norenzayan et al., 2002; see also
Miyamoto & Kitayama, 2002). Arguably, many of these interpre-
tations remain speculative. Identifying the exact mechanisms that
are responsible for these differential preferences for different word
types should be a challenging but highly promising task for future
research. We believe that our research can serve as an important
step toward such endeavors.
A second cultural difference emerging from Study 5 refers to the
perceived capability of verbs and adjectives to allow predictions
about future behaviors. Italians consider adjectives much more
predictive of future behaviors, quite in line with the dispositional
thinking observed in Western cultures according to which actions
are the expression of underlying personal dispositions. Notably,
Japanese find verbs just as useful as adjectives for predicting
future behaviors, presumably reflecting their belief that actions are
the joint function of the characteristics of the acting person and the
social environment.
747
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
Our findings are also consistent with some cross-cultural evi-
dence on language development, showing a prevalence of nouns in
early language acquisition among children raised in Western cul-
tures but a more frequent appearance of verbs in East Asian
cultures (S. Choi & Gopnik, 1995; Tardif et al., 1999; Tardif et al.,
1997, but see Fernald & Morikawa, 1993). Even though our
research, as well as most other studies on person perception in the
adult social cognition literature, investigated the adjective–verb
difference rather than the noun–verb difference examined by those
developmental studies, there seems to be an interesting parallel
showing a preference for words that represent contextual relation-
ships (verbs) among East Asians in contrast to a preference for
words that are targeted toward more stable entities (nouns) and
qualities (adjectives) among Westerners.
In addition, the results from the present study seem to have ruled
out the possibility of other alternative explanations. As we already
discussed, our careful selection of commonly used words for the
experimental stimuli for Studies 3 and 4 minimized the potential
influence of base rate difference of adjectives and verbs in the
Italian and Japanese lexical populations. Further, results from a
follow-up on Study 4 demonstrated that communicative rules (e.g.,
the norm of politeness) were playing a minimal role in the dem-
onstrated effects.
In conclusion, achieving a stable understanding of characteris-
tics of a person may be a universally prevalent goal in social
cognition, but the contents of such understanding can vary depend-
ing on the dominant cognitive style in each cultural community.
Our research suggests that linguistic preferences play a significant
role in providing a link between culture and cognitive styles. An
intriguing implication to be investigated in future research is the
possibility that language use in interpersonal communication con-
tributes to the perseverance of distinct cultural features over time.
In our specific case, the use of verbs versus adjectives in discourse
may promote and maintain the culturally dominant perspectives on
context versus focal object. Further research should reveal such
potential roles of language as part of cultural practices that may
develop and sustain the system of meanings in our social world.
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(Appendix follows)
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Appendix
Stimulus Material (in English Translation) Used in Study 4
Adjective forms Verb forms
aggressive aggress (others)
analytical analyze (all possibilities)
attractive attract (women)
collaborative collaborate (with others)
chatty chat (with everybody)
creative create (artwork)
critical criticize (the ideas of others)
complicated complicate (things)
dominant dominate (others)
fearful fear (many things)
interesting interest (his listeners)
impressionable get (easily) impressed
a
obedient obey (others)
productive produce (artwork)
studious study (a lot)
thoughtful/reflective think/reflect (at length)
a
This verb is a single (reflexive) verb in Italian and Japanese.
Received November 3, 2004
Revision received September 1, 2005
Accepted September 2, 2005
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This study investigated whether self-concepts that arise from participation in interdependent cultural contexts, in this case the self-concepts of Japanese students, will be relatively more sensitive to situational variation than will self-concepts that arise in independent cultural contexts, in this case the self-concepts of U.S. college students. The self-concepts of 128 Japanese and 133 U.S. women were assessed in one of four distinct social situations: in a group, with a faculty member, with a peer, and alone in a research booth. Furthermore, the authors examined the hypothesis that Japanese self-concepts would differ from American self-concepts in valence, reflecting normative and desirable tendencies toward self-criticism. American and Japanese participants differed in the content, number, and range of self-descriptions. As predicted, the situation had a greater influence on the self-descriptions of the Japanese participants than on the Americans’ self-descriptions, and the self-descriptions of the Japanese were more negative.
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