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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

Travel Grant Report by Matthias S. Gobel

18.03.2019, by Tina Keil in grant report

Brunel University London, UK; Research visit to the Kokoro Research Center in Japan

Matthias S. Gobel (back row, 3rd from left) and Colleagues
Matthias S. Gobel (back row, 3rd from left) and Colleagues

The Importance of Social Capital for Attaining Social Status – A Japan-UK Comparison

Supported by the European Association of Social Psychology Postgraduate Travel Grant, I visited Professor Yukiko Uchida at the Kokoro Research Center, Kyoto University, Japan, between November 24th and December 27th, 2017. During my stay in Kyoto, I collected data for an ongoing cross-cultural research project that investigates the influence of culture-specific beliefs on the formation of social hierarchy and its impact on human thought and behaviour. I was able to finish data collection for one study and have since obtained further funding from the Kokoro Research Center to return to Kyoto University to conduct further research in Spring 2019.

Comparing participants from Western and East Asian cultures, psychologists have documented the important impact of socially shared, cultural values and beliefs on how people think about themselves and the people around them. For example, individuals from Western cultures, such as the U.K., tend to emphasise their uniqueness and view themselves as independent from others, whereas individuals from East Asian cultures, such as Japan, view themselves as interdependent and connected to the people around them. As a result, Japanese change the way they think about themselves as function of their group membership and the social expectations of the people around them. Because social relationships carry such an important role, research has shown that cultural practices emphasise adjustment to others in Japan. Thus, a picture emerges suggesting that social ties and expectations of others are much more important in Japan than in the U.K.

Given the abundance of the empirical evidence of cultural differences in human psychology, it is surprising that little attention has been paid to their implications for the organisation of social hierarchies. I have started to systematically study the importance of social capital for the attainment of high social status amongst Japanese and British participants. Results showed that in the UK more than in Japan, participants experienced higher social status in situations where their social standing was based on individual traits, abilities and their personal achievements. In stark contrast, I found that in Japan more than in the UK, participants experienced higher social status in situations where they perceived their social standing to be determined through a specific social role or the actions of other people. These findings were consistent across both students and working adults. In other words, it seems that Japanese participants were reluctant to acknowledge their personal contribution to acquiring high status, and instead they attributed it to their social surroundings. These findings are important, as a better understanding of the bases of social hierarchy in the Japanese and British culture will be of interest to a variety of audiences, including political and economic stakeholders, and provide important guidance about how to adequately coordinate interactions between superiors and subordinates within and across cultures. Thus, I hope to submit the manuscript reporting these findings to a peer-reviewed scientific journal (e.g., EJSP) in the near future.

Of course, my visit to Prof. Uchida’s lab and the Kokoro Research Center did not stop there. During my visit, I was able to collaborate on ongoing research projects carried out by other lab members. For example, together with PhD candidate Atsuki Ito, I worked on a manuscript investigating the role of nonverbal behaviour in signalling leadership amongst Japanese university club students. We found that the more the Japanese club culture focused on tasks (rather than relationships), the more likely were leaders (but not members) of those clubs to suppress their nonverbal assertiveness. Naïve observers judged individuals who restrained from emitting nonverbal assertiveness as being more suitable and worthy club leaders. Thus, our findings demonstrate the cultural fit between contextual effects at the collective level (i.e., cultural orientation of a group) and the signaling and perceiving of social ranks at the individual level (i.e., suppression of nonverbal assertiveness). This project has now been published, and we are working on the follow-up.

I was also able to finalise another collaborative research project, which I initiated during my first visit to the Prof. Uchida’s lab and the Kokoro Research Center in 2015. Together with then JSPS postdoctoral scholar Eunsoo Choi (now at Seoul National University), we investigated cultural differences in the other-orientation of Japanese and American high-status actors in companies. Across two samples, we found that other-orientation (e.g., empathic concern and perspective taking) was stronger amongst higher ranking individuals in East Asia than in the Western world, and this finding was explained by their stronger endorsement of paternalistic leadership ideals. This manuscript is currently under review for publication.

In sum, my EASP-supported travel to the Kokoro Research Center resulted in a series of research manuscript and ongoing data collection that we will aim to submit to a leading journal in social psychology such as EJSP. Thus, my EASP-sponsored visit of Professor Uchida was only one step in furthering our long-lasting bilateral collaboration. In fact, PhD candidate Atsuki Ito will visit the UK later in 2019, and I hosted Assistant Professor Masataka Nakayama during his attendance of the EPS conference in January. In conclusion, the unique nature of this collaboration, combining my expertise in the research of social hierarchies and Professor Uchida’s expertise in cross-cultural psychology, continues to make this the ideal opportunity to further develop these scientific questions.

I would like to thank Professor Uchida for hosting me at the Kokoro Research Center, and I would like to thank the European Association of Social Psychology for their generous support of my research visit to Kyoto University. The research findings and skills acquired during my stay will continue to have a lasting impact on my academic career.

Research papers which resulted from my EASP-sponsored visit:

  1. Ito, A., Gobel, MS., Uchida, Y. (2018). Leaders in Interdependent Contexts Suppress Nonverbal Assertiveness: A Multilevel Analysis of Japanese University Club Leaders’ and Members’ Rank Signaling. Frontiers in Psychology, 9:723, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00723
  2. Choi, E., Gobel, MS., Choi, I., & Uchida, Y. (under review). The benevolent ideal of paternalistic leadership: Higher social rank is associated with greater other-orientation in collectivistic cultures.
  3. Ito, A., Gobel, MS., Kim, HS., Uchida, Y. (in preparation). Cultural differences in leaders’ displaying dominance and caring.