Yale Study Highlights Cultural Similarities and Differences about Whether People can Change

Is it likely that a 10-year-old bully will change into a kindly pacifist, or that a struggling fifth-grade student will become the next Einstein?

Young children from both the United States and Japan are highly optimistic about these sorts of changes taking place over the course of a person’s development, according to a recent Yale study in Cognitive Development.

“Young children are truly optimistic about the future,” said the lead author, Kristi Lockhart, a lecturer in psychology at Yale. “Young children not only believe undesirable characteristics will transform into positive ones with maturation, they also believe that the positive characteristics a child possesses will remain stable over development.”

Adults in Japan and the U.S. also thought positive traits would be maintained over a child’s period of development, but they were less optimistic about transforming undesirable traits into desirable ones. Adults in the U.S. were particularly cynical about the likelihood of dramatic changes occurring—believing that you essentially are what you are.

Although both cultures showed a similar developmental pattern, overall the Japanese were more optimistic than the Americans about the possibility of changing negative traits to positive attributes.  The Japanese also were more likely to credit these changes to a conscious effort to do better. According to Lockhart,  “cultures that value the individual, like the United States, are more likely to attribute a person’s behavior to ‘They were born that way,’ while interdependent cultures, such as Japan, are more likely to consider effort and other situational factors as determinants of behavior.”

Lockhart said the study highlights differences in self-esteem between age groups and motivational differences between Japan and the U.S. “Someone who believes people can change is less likely to give up in the face of failure and succumb to feelings of helplessness,” she said. “Also, if you believe change is possible, you are more likely to encourage or support change in others.”

The study participants consisted of 5-to 6-year-olds, 8-to 10-year-olds, and college students who were told eight stories in which the main character, aged 10, wanted to change or maintain a trait. They were asked to predict what would be the most likely outcome for that character’s trait at age 21. The participants were also asked about the origins of trait differences: “Is the child the smartest in the class because she tries hard, because someone taught her to be really smart, or because she was born that way?”

With increasing age, participants in the study were more likely to attribute trait differences to fixed, inherent factors rather than effort and to view traits as relatively stable.  But even adults had some optimism.

 “Being able to imagine the future, all human cultures may need to believe that development is a positive trajectory towards becoming better,” Lockhart said.

Co-authors included Nobuko Nakashima and Kayoko Inagaki of Japan and Frank Keil of Yale.

Cognitive Development 23: pp 155-179 (February 2008)

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