Optimism across cultures: In response to the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak

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Blackwell Science, LtdOxford, UKAJSPAsian Journal of Social Psychology1367-22232004 Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd with the Asian Association of Social Psychology and the Japanese Group Dynamics Association 2004
April 2004712534Original ArticleSARS: Optimism across culturesLi-Jun Ji
et al.
Asian Journal of Social Psychology (2004) 7: 25–34
Optimism across cultures: In response
to the severe acute respiratory
syndrome outbreak
Li-Jun Ji
Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada
Zhiyong Zhang
Beijing University, Beijing, People’s Republic of China
Esther Usborne
Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada
Yanjun Guan
Beijing University, Beijing, People’s Republic of China
Based on our early research, we predicted that the Chinese may be more
optimistic and less pessimistic than North Americans in response to negative life
events. A survey was conducted to investigate optimism cross culturally in the
context of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreaks in Canada
and China. Chinese students in Beijing and European Canadians in Toronto
answered questions about their perceptions of SARS. No significant cultural
difference was found on dispositional optimism, as measured by the Revised Life
Orientation Test (LOT-R). Unrealistic optimism was measured in the context of
SARS. Both groups demonstrated unrealistic optimism (i.e. reporting that the self
was less likely than an average person to get infected with SARS). Such optimistic
bias was stronger among Chinese than among Canadians. Compared to the actual
infection rates in Beijing and Toronto, both Chinese and Canadian participants
overestimated their own chances of getting infected, indicating that they were
being pessimistic. Indeed, Chinese were less pessimistic than Canadians. In
addition, even though the Chinese reported more inconvenience brought by SARS
than did Canadians, they also reported more positive changes brought by SARS,
reflecting the Chinese dialectical views of events. Implications for research on
optimism in context are discussed.
Keywords: culture, optimism, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Correspondence: Li-Jun Ji, Department of Psychology, Queen’s University, Kingston K7L 3N6,
Canada. Email: [email protected]
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd with the Asian Association of Social Psychology
and the Japanese Group Dynamics Association 2004
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Li-Jun Ji et al.
Introduction
Dispositional optimism and unrealistic optimism
The concepts of optimism and pessimism have been defined in a number of different ways.
Scheier and Carver (1985) defined optimism and pessimism as generalized positive and
negative outcome expectancies, while Dember et al. (1989) defined these concepts as a
positive and negative outlook on life. Both of these definitions imply that optimism and
pessimism are relatively stable traits that are consistent across time and situations. This type
of dispositional optimism is often measured using the Life Orientation Test (LOT; Scheier &
Carver, 1985). Both the original and the revised forms of the LOT ask people the extent to
which they agree with general, context-independent questions, such as: ‘I am always
optimistic about my future’ and ‘I hardly ever expect things to go my way’. Dispositional
optimism has been related to psychological and physical adjustment (Scheier & Carver,
1985), with numerous studies showing that optimists are psychologically better adjusted than
pessimists (Scheier & Carver, 1992). Furthermore, it has been shown that optimistic people
adjust more favorably to important life transitions than do persons who are more pessimistic
in outlook (Aspinwall & Taylor, 1992).
Research has also found that people sometimes tend to be unrealistically optimistic.
Unrealistic optimism, or optimistic bias, is defined as a tendency for people to believe that
they are more likely to experience positive events, and less likely to experience negative
events, than similar others (Weinstein, 1980). The opposite tendency - believing that positive
events are less likely to happen to self than to others, and that negative events are more likely
to happen to self than to others - is called unrealistic pessimism, or pessimistic bias.
Unrealistic optimism appears to be prevalent among North Americans. Taylor and Brown
(1994) estimated that at least 121 different studies have demonstrated the unrealistic optimism
phenomenon. For example, Weinstein (1980) found that American college students believed
that they were more likely than their peers to experience positive events, such as liking a
postgraduation job, getting a good salary, and owning a home. Conversely, most people are
found to believe that they are less likely than their peers to experience negative events, such
as having a drinking problem, getting divorced a few years after getting married, and being
fired from a job.
Optimism and culture
Optimism and pessimism have been investigated across cultures. With regards to dispositional
optimism, North Americans have been found to be more optimistic than Asians (Zane et al.,
1991; Chang, 1996). However, when dispositional optimism and pessimism were measured
as separate and independent constructs on the Extended Life Orientation Test (ELOT; Chang,
Maydeu-Olivares, & D’Zurilla, 1997), Asian Americans were found to be more pessimistic,
but not less optimistic, than European Americans (Chang, 1996). With regards to unrealistic
optimism, Heine and Lehman (1995) found that Canadians showed significantly more
unrealistic optimism than did Japanese participants. Japanese, as compared with Canadians,
were consistently more pessimistic in their predictions for positive and negative life events.
Using similar methodology, Chang et al., 2001) found that Japanese participants showed
an optimistic bias for negative events and a pessimistic bias for positive events, whereas
European Americans showed an optimistic bias for negative events, but not for positive events.
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd with the Asian Association of Social Psychology
and the Japanese Group Dynamics Association 2004
SARS: Optimism across cultures
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The inconsistent findings in the field suggest that: (i) cross-cultural differences in
optimism and pessimism may exist; and (ii) it may be overly simple to ask the question, ‘Who
is more optimistic, North Americans or East Asians?’ Instead, a consideration of contexts
suggests that an interactive perspective should be taken, and cross-cultural comparisons in
optimism/pessimism should be considered in relation to context. For example, optimism
might manifest itself differently depending on the valence of the life event that is being
encountered.
Culture, reasoning and optimism in context
Recent research has suggested that the cultural environments in which people live affect the
way they perceive the world. For example, East Asians (including Chinese, Japanese and
Koreans) reason holistically. They focus on relationships between objects and relationships
between objects and context. They believe in the relatedness of objects and events. In contrast,
European North Americans reason analytically. They tend to focus their attention on the focal
objects in the environment and ignore the influence of the context. They focus on the attributes
and category memberships of the objects in order to understand and predict the objects’
behavior (Nisbett et al., 2001).
Ji and colleagues (Ji et al., 2001; Ji, in press) investigated how Chinese and North
Americans may reason differently about the developments of events. They found that the
predominant lay theory of change among European North Americans is that things are
generally constant, and when they have to change, they change in a linear way. In contrast,
the predominant lay theory of change shared by Chinese is quite different. Chinese believe
that things are changing all the time, and that they change in a cyclical fashion. They see the
world and its inhabitants as experiencing constant change, and believe that extreme opposite
states can not only coexist but also transform into each other. Such a cyclical theory of change
may allow Chinese individuals to predict more change when life is moving in a positive
direction, or when life seems to be getting worse. Thus, Chinese people may remain hopeful
when suffering hardship and remain watchful when experiencing good fortune, while the
predominant linear theory of change may lead European North Americans to predict that
things will simply continue as they are. We therefore predicted that Chinese people would be
more optimistic than North Americans when faced with a negative situation and more
pessimistic than North Americans in a positive situation.
Present study: SARS and optimism
Previous cross-cultural research has relied on hypothetical events or scenarios (Heine &
Lehman, 1995; Chang et al., 2001), which may not have had any direct relevance to the
participants involved. In the current study, however, a naturally occurring, real-life, negative
event was studied. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) started in Southern China in
late 2002. Within a few months, SARS had spread to other countries and areas, resulting in
many infections and deaths. Among the most infected areas were Toronto and Beijing. SARS
provided an opportunity for us to examine cross-cultural differences in optimism in instances
where individuals are faced with a naturally occurring negative life event.
The present study examined the reactions of Chinese participants in Beijing and
European-Canadian participants in Toronto to the SARS crisis. We predicted that: (i) in
response to these circumstances, Chinese would exhibit lower levels of pessimism and higher
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd with the Asian Association of Social Psychology
and the Japanese Group Dynamics Association 2004
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Li-Jun Ji et al.
levels of optimism (and perhaps even unrealistic optimism) than European Canadians.
Specifically, we predicted that Chinese would see more positive outcomes brought by SARS
than Canadians, and that they might be more unrealistically optimistic than Canadians when
asked about their chance of getting infected. (ii) However, we did not expect such crosscultural difference on the Revised Life Orientation Test (LOT-R; Scheier et al., 1994), because
LOT-R measures general dispositional optimism, which is assumed to be relatively stable
across context.
Methods
Participants
One hundred and four Chinese students from Beijing and 35 European Canadians from
Toronto participated in the survey.1 Chinese participants were volunteers recruited on the
campus of Beijing University. Canadian participants were recruited by phone or by email,
and were paid five dollars for their participation.
Materials and procedure
The survey mainly consisted of three parts. Items in the first part were designed to measure
participants’ unrealistic optimism. Participants were asked to estimate the probability that an
average person of their age and gender might get infected with SARS, and the probability
that they themselves might get infected. They were also asked to make a direct comparison,
on a scale from 1 (much less likely than the average person) to 5 (much more likely than the
average person), indicating their own chance of being infected in comparison to an average
person of their gender and age. In addition, participants were asked to report what they had
done to protect themselves from getting infected.
In the second section, participants were asked to indicate either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the
following questions: ‘Has SARS brought any inconveniences to your daily life?’ and ‘Do you
see any positive changes in your life as a result of the SARS situation?’ Participants were
then asked to explain their answers.
In the third section, participants were then required to complete the LOT-R (Scheier et al.,
1994) in order to assess their levels of dispositional optimism. The LOT-R has six test items,
three of which are worded in a positive direction, such as: ‘In uncertain times, I usually expect
the best’, and three of which are worded in a negative direction, such as: ‘If something can
go wrong for me, it will’. Participants were asked to indicate their agreement with the items
using a five-point scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).
In the end, participants were asked to indicate their age, ethnicity, place of birth and, for
the Canadian participants, the number of years they have lived in Canada.
The study was conducted in the spring (May and June), at which time the Chinese media
had made SARS public, and university students in Beijing were asked to stay on campus
while some universities were quarantined altogether. Paper/pencil questionnaires were
distributed in student dorms for volunteers to complete. In Canada, Toronto was a heavily
affected area. The study was conducted while Toronto was considered an infected area by the
World Health Organization. Twenty participants answered the survey on the phone, and 15
participants completed the survey via email.2
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd with the Asian Association of Social Psychology
and the Japanese Group Dynamics Association 2004
SARS: Optimism across cultures
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Results
Unrealistic optimism
When asked how likely it was that they would become infected with SARS as relative to the
average person, the Chinese participants (M = 1.93, SD = 0.88) gave significantly lower
ratings than the European-Canadian participants (M = 2.38, SD = 1.01, F1,136 = 6.18,
p = 0.01), thereby exhibiting higher levels of unrealistic optimism. It is worth noting, however,
that both Chinese and Canadian participants exhibited unrealistic optimism, reporting that it
was less likely for them than for the average person to get infected. Specifically, both Chinese
participants (M = 1.93, t(103) = - 12.31, p < 0.001) and Canadian participants (M = 2.38,
t(33) = - 3.57, p < 0.001) gave ratings that were significantly below the half-way point (3)
on the scale, ‘equally likely as an average person’. These results are illustrated in Table 1.
When asked to provide a percentage indicating their perceived chances of contracting
SARS, the Chinese provided average estimates of 3.46% and 1.79%, for the average person
and the self, respectively, while Canadians provided estimates of 13.94% and 10.28%. A
repeated measurement ANOVA test revealed a significant main effect of self versus others,
F1,130 = 10.01, p < 0.01. In addition, there was a significant main effect of culture,
F1,130 = 18.34, p < 0.001. That is, Chinese participants consistently reported much lower
probabilities than Canadians in terms of the chances for others and for oneself to get infected.
The interaction effect was not significant, F1,130 = 1.16, n.s.
It is surprising that the Chinese considered a much lower chance for them and an average
person to get infected than did Canadians, especially given the fact that SARS was more
widely spread in Beijing than in Toronto. It is not clear to what extent this might have to do
with differences in media coverage in the two cities, as well as the government propaganda.3
Indeed, a greater percentage of Chinese participants (94%) than Canadians (74%) reported
that they had taken some measures to protect themselves.
Is it possible that the Chinese estimated a lower chance of getting infected because they
took more precautions than did Canadians? In order to address this question, two coders
independently coded participants’ responses to the open-ended question regarding what
participants had done to protect themselves. The agreement between the two raters was 90%.
Consensus was reached for the remaining items after discussion. The coded data showed that,
on average, Chinese participants reported 2.6 (SD = 1.85) things they had done to protect
themselves, and Canadians had done 1.2 (SD = 1.07) things to protect themselves. The
Table 1 Estimated chance for self and an average person to become infected with
severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)†
Group
Chinese
Canadians
Chance that an
average person
will be infected
(% SD)
Chance that the
self will be
infected (% SD)
Direct comparison: One’s own chance
of becoming infected in comparison
to an average person of same
gender and age (% SD)
3.46 (8.34)
13.94 (22.80)
1.79 (4.02)
10.28 (18.86)
1.93 (0.88)
2.38 (1.01)
†
The following scale was used: 1, much less likely than the average person; 2, less likely than the average
person; 3, equally likely as the average person; 4, more likely than the average person; 5, much more
likely than the average person.
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd with the Asian Association of Social Psychology
and the Japanese Group Dynamics Association 2004
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Li-Jun Ji et al.
difference was significant, t(99) = 5.55, p < 0.001. Furthermore, we included a number of
precautions as a covariate in the repeated measurement ANOVA, with culture as a betweenparticipant factor, and the chances for self and for others to get infected as a within-factor. It
turned out that the effects were similar to what we reported earlier, and the covariate did not
have a significant impact on any of the effects.
Is it possible that Chinese estimated a lower chance of getting infected because they were
quarantined on campus and thus felt safer? The effect of campus quarantine could go either
way. On the one hand, if no one was infected on campus, then everyone quarantined on
campus should have felt safer, as they had been cut off from the outside world where SARS
was spreading. On the other hand, however, if someone on campus was infected with SARS,
being quarantined on campus should have heightened the perceived risk of contracting the
disease. In fact, on the campus of Beijing University where the study was conducted, a few
people were infected and at least one person died of SARS. Thus, it is not very likely that
the lower probabilities reported by Chinese were due to campus quarantine.
A within-cultural analysis seems to suggest that Chinese participants believed that
the chance for others to get infected was nearly twice the chance for oneself to get infected
(3.46/1.79 = 1.93). In contrast, Canadians believed that the chance for others to get infected
was 1.35 times the chance for oneself to get infected. This seems to suggest that Chinese
participants showed stronger unrealistic optimism than did the Canadians, which was
confirmed in the responses to the direct comparison question.
It is important to note that even though both Chinese and Canadians showed unrealistic
optimism by expecting a greater chance for others to get infected than that for self, their
estimates were far above the actual rates of infection. In Beijing, 2521 people were infected
with SARS in total (data published 21 August 2003), out of the total population of 13 819 000.
In Toronto, 248 people were infected in total (data published by Health Canada, 30 June
2003), out of the total population of 5 029 900. Thus, the actual infection rate was about
0.018% in Beijing and 0.005% in Toronto. In regard to the actual rates, the Chinese estimate
of 1.79% could be perceived as pessimistic, and the Canadian estimate of 10.28% could be
perceived as even more pessimistic. This is consistent with our prediction that Chinese would
show less pessimism than Canadians in response to negative life events.
Positive and negative effects of SARS
When asked if SARS had brought any inconveniences to participants’ lives, 86% of Chinese
participants and 38% of European-Canadian participants answered ‘yes’. Thus, the Chinese
were significantly more likely than the Canadians to indicate that they were inconvenienced
by the SARS situation, c2(1, N = 138) = 29.78, p < 0.001.
When asked if SARS had brought any positive changes to participants’ lives, 60% of
Chinese participants and 30% of European-Canadian participants said ‘yes’. Thus, Chinese
participants were significantly more likely than Canadians to indicate that the SARS situation
had brought some positive changes to their lives, c2(1, N = 137) = 8.63, p < 0.01. The result
confirms our prediction that Chinese participants would be more likely to see the potential
for positive things to result from negative life events than Canadian participants.
Participants’ explanations for ‘positive changes’ were quite interesting. Most Canadians
reported nothing positive. For the small number of people who did, their answers tended to
be vague. For example, a few people said, ‘There should be positive changes, but I’m not
sure what they are’. A few people mentioned better hygiene habits, and that such experience
made them appreciate life and health more than before. In contrast, Chinese participants
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd with the Asian Association of Social Psychology
and the Japanese Group Dynamics Association 2004
SARS: Optimism across cultures
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reported a huge variety of positive things associated with their SARS experience, including
decreased pressure for study, more time for exercise and for study, more time for rest, being
able to concentrate on reading, having a new appreciation of life, new appreciation of time
and life, new appreciation for family and friendships (feeling closer to them), better hygiene
habits, cleaner environment, having time to re-examine oneself, and caring more about what’s
happening on campus and in the country.
Dispositional optimism
Participants’ scores on the LOT-R (Scheier et al., 1994) were calculated by adding together
participants’ ratings of positively worded items and then subtracting their ratings of negatively
worded items. In this way, a total dispositional optimism score was calculated for each
participant, with a higher score on the LOT-R indicating a higher degree of dispositional
optimism. There was no difference between Canadian participants (M = 3.61, SD = 0.84) and
Chinese participants (M = 3.50, SD = 0.64) on dispositional optimism, F1,134 < 1.
Discussion
As predicted, we found that in comparison to European Canadians, Chinese participants in
Beijing showed greater unrealistic optimism when estimating their own probability of getting
infected, although they took more measures to protect themselves. In addition, Chinese
participants perceived more positive changes coming out of the SARS outbreak than did
Canadians. The two groups did not differ on dispositional optimism, as measured with the
LOT-R.
The finding that the Chinese showed greater unrealistic optimism than did Canadians is
similar to what we found in previous research (Ji et al., unpubl. data, 2003), in which we
presented participants with positive and negative events, along with optimistic and pessimistic
responses. In response to negative events, Chinese participants endorsed optimistic responses
more and pessimistic responses less than did Canadians.
Seeing both more positive changes and more negative consequences brought about by
SARS, indicates that the Chinese, more than the Canadians, believe that positive factors and
negative factors can coexist. This may sound contradictory, especially to those who think
analytically and logically. However, it is quite common among Chinese dialectical thinkers
to accept and believe in contradiction, to whom change is constant and therefore contradiction
is constant (Peng & Nisbett, 1999).
Although both Chinese and Canadians showed optimistic bias (or unrealistic optimism),
they also saw their chance of getting infected with SARS as being much greater than it
actually was, which can be interpreted as being pessimistic. Why did this happen? There are
a few possibilities. It is possible that people might have difficulty comprehending truly small
probabilities. Thus, they may have an exaggerated idea of their probability of contracting the
illness. Tam et al. (this issue) also found that Chinese high school students in Hong Kong
tended to display social cognitive biases when they estimated the prevalence of SARS. But,
this would not explain why Canadians exaggerated more than did Chinese, because, if
anything, it is the Canadians, not the Chinese, who had more exposure to probabilities in their
daily life (such as weather forecasting and polls). It is also possible that the perceived
probabilities of infection were inflated by the cases people heard of or read about in the news,
due to availability heuristics. It is not clear, however, whether Canadians were exposed more
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd with the Asian Association of Social Psychology
and the Japanese Group Dynamics Association 2004
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Li-Jun Ji et al.
than Chinese to SARS stories at the time the present study was conducted. A third possibility
is that because the presence of SARS was so salient to the participants in this study, they may
have been exhibiting higher levels of defensive pessimism (Carver & Scheier, 1994) in
estimating how likely they were to become ill.
Another interesting finding is that even though Chinese participants showed greater
unrealistic optimism than did Canadian participants and, indeed, Chinese gave a much lower
absolute estimate for their own chance of becoming infected, they took more precautious
measures than did Canadians. One explanation for this is that SARS was much closer to the
Chinese participants (there were cases on their campus) than it was to Canadians in Toronto
(where SARS was more or less contained in hospitals), although this would not explain why
the Chinese participants thought their own chance of getting infected was so low. Another
more interesting explanation is that even though they did believe it was very unlikely for them
to get infected, they still acted upon it in order to prevent the small chance event from
happening, and such a preventative approach led to greater unrealistic optimism (and less
pessimism) among Chinese participants than among Canadian participants.
The results have supported our predictions based on culturally specific lay theories of
change (Ji, in press). For Chinese cyclical theorists, a negative event may be an antecedent
to a positive outcome. Thus, the Chinese participants saw more positive changes brought
about by the SARS outbreaks than did the Canadians. Such a belief also allowed them to
be hopeful and optimistic about the future, even though they were currently experiencing
something negative. Indeed, Chang and Sivam (this issue) also found that negative outcome
expectancies about SARS could actually motivate Singaporeans to practice preventive healthrelated behaviors. For Canadian linear theorists, a negative event is not expected to lead to
anything positive. Canadian participants did show unrealistic optimism (although not as much
as did the Chinese participants), which could be explained by their motivation for selfenhancement (Heine & Lehman, 1995).
The current finding is consistent with Heine and Lehman (1995) and Chang et al. (2001)
in that all studies have found unrealistic optimism for negative events among North Americans
and among Asians (Japanese and Chinese). However, the results of the present study differ
in that we also found that Chinese participants actually exhibited higher levels of unrealistic
optimism than Canadian participants, although the same methodology was used to measure
the construct of unrealistic optimism. One key difference between the present study and
earlier research is that we took advantage of a real-life negative event, whereas past research
relied solely on hypothetical future events. The real-life event we used is more imminent,
realistic, and immediate than a hypothetical event could be. Strathman et al. (1994) have
shown that Americans tend to be more optimistic for distant future events but more pessimistic
for more immediate future events. This may account for the relatively low levels of unrealistic
optimism exhibited by Canadians in the current study.
The present study suggests that studies of optimism across cultures should take into
consideration specific contextual factors, such as the valence of the events (positive or
negative), and the realistic nature of the events. Most past research has focused on motivation
factors such as self-enhancement or self-improving when predicting and understanding crosscultural differences in optimism. The present research shows that reasoning and cognitive
styles may also affect people’s optimism for the future. From a cognitive perspective, our
data have challenged the view that East Asians are always less optimistic than North
Americans. We believe that the cognitive approach, in addition to the motivational approach,
will help us to see and understand a more complete picture.
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd with the Asian Association of Social Psychology
and the Japanese Group Dynamics Association 2004
SARS: Optimism across cultures
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Acknowledgments
The research was supported by a grant from Social Science and Humanities Research Council
of Canada, and a research initiation grant from Queen’s University to the first author. We
thank Noah Forrin for his assistance in data collection. We thank Anna Ebel-Lam, Jill
Jacobson, Zhengxin Sun, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments and
suggestions.
End notes
1. The sample sizes were unequal because we had difficulty recruiting European-Canadian participants.
The study was conducted in the spring, at which point very few students were in classes at university
in Toronto, and the majority of those who were taking classes at this time at the University of Toronto
Scarborough Campus were of Asian descent. We recognize that this is one limitation of the present
study.
2. Those participants who responded by email were volunteers who had responded to our recruitment
flyers. Those who responded on the phone were people we called by randomly selecting numbers
in the phone book. About 25% of people we called agreed to participate in our study. No significant
difference was found between responses given over the phone and those given by email.
3. The Chinese government did not publicize SARS until late April, even though the first case in Beijing
was found in late February. In contrast, Canadian media reported the first case right away as it
happened in early March. This is just one example of how the Chinese and Canadian governments
and their respective media have responded differently to SARS.
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