You are on page 1of 9

bs_bs_banner

Asian Journal of Social Psychology

Asian Journal of Social Psychology (2015)

DOI: 10.1111/ajsp.12120

Imagining a good life in Malaysia and China: Cultural beliefs
among Mainland Chinese, Malaysian Chinese, and Malay
University students
Gregory Bonn1 and Tam Cai Lian2
1

Nagoya University, Nagoya, Japan, and 2Monash University Malaysia, Bandar Sunway, Malaysia

This study investigates beliefs about a good life among Malays, Malaysian Chinese and Mainland Chinese
university students as a follow up to earlier findings. Three hundred and sixteen participants – 95 Mainland
Chinese, 123 Malaysian Chinese and 98 Malay were asked to evaluate 30 descriptors of a good or worthwhile
life that are commonly cited across cultural groups. Results show significant between-group differences for seven
of the 30 criteria. Consistent with earlier findings, differences among Asian groups emerged along a theoretical
dimension related to practical concerns on one side as compared to moral and spiritual concerns on the other. In
this study, consistent with previous findings, Mainland Chinese tended to prefer more practical criteria, while
Malays were similar to South Asian groups in their preference for more spiritual criteria. Malaysian Chinese
participants’ preferences, in general, fell between those of Mainland Chinese and Malays. Also consistent with
previous findings, all three groups in this study rated close interpersonal relationships as central to determining
whether life is worthwhile.
Key words: China, cultural beliefs, cultural differences, cultural mixing, good life, Malaysia, values.

Introduction
This study is part of a research program that was aimed at
understanding how culture influences an individual’s
understanding of what is desirable or good in life. Broadly
speaking, we have been attempting to address the question
of how individuals create meaning in day-to-day life. In
other words: how does the individual interpret or understand their experiences in relation to some broader context?
For humans, meaning is largely contextual and takes the
form of internalized stories, scripts, schemas or narratives
about the world and how it operates. Whether such stories
are based on direct personal experience or on information
gathered from interacting with others (e.g. cultural
schemas; Nishida, 1999), their content forms the basis for
how individuals interpret, understand and react to their
surroundings. Essentially, a personal meaning system is a
composite created from the many narrative forms that each
Correspondence: Gregory Bonn, Japan Society for the Promotion
of Science, International Research Fellow, Nagoya Univeristy,
Graduate School of Education and Human Development, Nagoya,
Aichi, Japan. Email: gbbonn@hotmail.com
Author’s Note
Gregory Bonn is an Internationnal Research Fellow of the Japan
Society for the Promotion of Science.
This research was supported by a Fundamental Research Grant
(FRGS) from the Ministry of Education Malaysia and a Grant in
Aid from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.
Received 8 August 2014; revision 11 August 2015; accepted 15
September 2015.

individual is immersed in throughout their life (Bonn &
Tafarodi, 2013a, b). Personal meaning systems allow the
individual to incorporate many types of cultural information (i.e. scripts, schemas, narratives, etc.) into how they
understand their, relatively speaking, limited amount of
direct experience. By internalizing cultural narratives and
scripts (e.g. Habermas & Bluck, 2000; Quinn, 2003) the
individual is able to frame their life in terms of what their
culture deems to be desirable or good: this provides each
person with a framework for contextualizing and assessing
their experiences, as well as a milieu within which they can
imagine and plan for potential future scenarios. Each
person, thus, uses a set of standards learned from their
surroundings to create order and meaning out of their experiences (McAdams, 2001). Although most people are
unaware of the internal processes involved, cultural
schemas (narratives, stories, scripts, etc.) wield a strong
influence on how each individual expects their life to progress (e.g. Gilbert, 2007; Wilson & Gilbert, 2005) as well
as how they conceive of desirable and undesirable outcomes for their life (Habermas & Bluck, 2000).

Cultural identity
From childhood, each individual is immersed in a multitude
of stories, scripts and situations that collectively comprise a
cultural context (Schwartz, 2006; Tafarodi et al., 2012).
Inevitably, the nature of an individual’s internal representations, or how they make sense of their life, is shaped by
that context (Bonn & Tafarodi, 2013a, b; Quinn, 2003). The

© 2015 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd, Asian Association of Social Psychology and Beijing Normal University

2

stories that an individual observes and hears every day, the
themes and story lines that play out constantly around
them, provide substance, shape and context to how a person
interprets their experiences as well as to how they imagine
their future (Gilbert, 2007). Cultural context provides, in
the form of stories, scripts and schemas, the building blocks
for how an individual learns to understand and interpret
their own life. Research demonstrating that thoughts and
plans for the future are largely shaped by memories of the
past (Schacter & Addis, 2007), as well as cultural differences in many areas of cognition (e.g. Henrich, Heine &
Norenzayan, 2010), illustrate some effects of this process.
Simply by being continuously exposed to certain patterns of behaviour and thought, the individual naturally
incorporates them into his own way of understanding and
acting within the world. An Indian, for example, who is
brought up in a region where religious beliefs and spiritual
practices play an important role in everyday life
(Jahanbegloo, 2008) would, as a matter of course, have
different ideas about what is important from someone
immersed in the largely secular environment of Mainland
China (Gunde, 2002). Similarly, someone growing up in
religious and socially conservative rural Mississippi would
be expected to have quite different beliefs about what is
good or desirable, from a person brought up in relatively
free-wheeling and liberal San Francisco (Harrington &
Gelfand, 2014).
Underlying the current study is an understanding that
culture provides many layers of context out of which each
individual must create their own particular set of priorities.
Stories, scripts, schemas and narratives surround each individual from birth: there are the broader societal narratives
played out in the media, in public places and society at large
(e.g. Arnett, 2002); and there are many more private or
localized scripts, stories and vignettes played out between
parents, children and siblings, as well as within the various
neighbourhoods, classrooms, workplaces, cafeterias and
other contexts in which every person spends their time (e.g.
Quinn, 2003). Every person, especially in a multicultural
society like Malaysia, exists within many different, mutually embedded, cultural contexts simultaneously; each
having varying degrees of influence, depending on the situation. Developing a unified personal identity (e.g. Erikson,
1968) involves the integration of elements taken from these
many, potentially conflicting, stories, scripts and narratives
into a coherent, personally meaningful whole.
Essentially, what is argued here is that as a person learns
to function within a cultural context they unconsciously
absorb many layers of information about their environment.
The stories, scripts, schemas and narratives that each individual internalizes throughout their development allow
them to make sense of their environment and to understand
what is normal and desirable within their given context. In
this study, although we don’t specifically ask people to

Gregory Bonn and Tam Cai Lian

create a narrative about what is desirable, it is a theoretical
premise that each person has an internalized narrative about
how they would like their life to unfold, or what would
constitute a good life. This internal narrative has necessarily been shaped by the many stories, scripts and schemas
that make up their cultural context.
Cultural conceptions of a good life
The foregoing theoretical concepts served as the basis for a
series of studies investigating concepts of a good or worthwhile life in various cultural contexts (Bonn & Tafarodi,
2013a, b; Tafarodi et al., 2012). These studies used several
techniques to assess the individual’s conception of what a
desirable life story would look like. The first study asked
participants from India, China, Canada and Japan to imagine
themselves in the future, towards the end of their lives, and to
describe in their own words how they would determine
whether their life had been worthwhile or good (Tafarodi
et al., 2012). Framing the task in terms of looking back upon
a life already lived was used specifically to prime participants to think about a complete life story. Essentially, participants were asked to imagine their life story in retrospect
and report the aspects of the story most central to determining whether that story was ‘good’. Starting with about 2400
open-ended responses from four countries, the authors used
thematic analysis to extract a set of 30 categories, or themes,
by which 96% of the responses could be reliably classified
(Table 1 in Results lists these categories along with their
average ratings from the current sample of respondents).
Comparing response categories from each of the national
samples, two important findings were indicated. First, in
contrast to oft-assumed East–West differences (e.g. Markus
& Kitayama, 2003), there were not clear-cut differences
between Canadians and Asians. In contrast, some of the
largest differences were seen amongst the three Asian cultures, with Canadians, depending on the criteria, being more
similar to one Asian group or another. For example, ‘making
the world a better place’ was cited highly by both Canadians
and Indians, but not by Japanese or Chinese. Similarly,
Chinese and Canadians were more likely to cite finances as
being central to a good life than Japanese or Indians. Also in
contrast to a binary, East–West, view of the nature of culture,
all groups, including Canadians were likely to place criteria
related to intimate relationships, such as having a happy
family, close friends and a good marriage at the top of their
lists. Thus, as far as understanding cultural conceptions of a
good life, these findings pointed to an underlying structure
fundamentally different from that suggested by straightforward East–West contrasts.
In a follow-up study, Bonn and Tafarodi (2013a) used
multidimensional scaling to search for an underlying logic
or dimensionality to these cultural differences and similarities. Again, in contrast to widely discussed East–West dif-

© 2015 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd, Asian Association of Social Psychology and Beijing Normal University

Imagining a worthwhile life in Malaysia and China

Table 1 Criteria for a good life (see Tafarodi et al.,
2012) ordered by average importance to respondents
from all ethnic groups combined (importance ratings
represent Z-scores normalized within subject)
Criterion

Importance

Good relations with family
Having a happy family
Good marriage/Romance
Raising children well
Well being
Having successful children
Having close friends
Gaining wisdom
Living a moral life
Financial security
Pleasurable experiences
Fulfilling career
Overcoming challenges
Hobbies
Successful career
Being independent
Meeting potential
Having a positive impact
Education/Skill development
Having many friends
Achieving great things
Harmony with God or nature
Being respected
Religious faith
Being involved in the community
Gaining wealth or possessions
Travelling
Being remembered
Having power or influence
Having high status

0.803
0.800
0.719
0.672
0.386
0.335
0.287
0.287
0.249
0.220
0.215
0.167
0.141
0.121
0.116
0.057
0.035
0.011
−0.068
−0.157
−0.237
−0.238
−0.268
−0.326
−0.427
−0.568
−0.576
−0.624
−0.795
−1.346

ferences, a mapping of preferences among Canadians,
Chinese and South Asians revealed a wider spread in
overall response patterns between South Asian and Chinese
respondents than that seen between European Canadians
and either Asian group. Figure 1 reproduces the results of
this study showing the relative positions of each ethnic
group in relation to the good life criteria, as well as highlighting several clusters of criteria that emerged. Examining
the overall layout of the multidimensional scaling map as
well as the clustering of criteria, the authors proposed that
preferences for a good life could be described by two major
axes: a horizontal axis with spiritual or beneficent criteria
on one side and practical or prudential criteria on the other,
and a vertical axis with internally defined or self-expressive
criteria on one end and external or socially defined criteria
on the other (See Fig. 1).
In terms of these dimensions, South Asians, based on their
average preference position, appeared to place more empha-

3

sis on spiritual and beneficent criteria, such as adhering to
religious beliefs and having a positive impact, than other
groups. Mainland Chinese, by contrast, placed more weight
on practical criteria such as career success and financial
stability. European Canadians fell between the two Asian
groups on the practical/spiritual dimension while placing
more emphasis on internally defined or self-expressive criteria such as meeting one’s potential or overcoming challenges. Also, and notably similar to the previous study,
criteria related to close relationships and social connections,
such as friendship, family and intimate relationships,
appeared near the top of the lists for all groups. Finally, a
third study (Bonn & Tafarodi, 2013b) analyzed life narratives provided by Chinese and South Asian students in order
to investigate whether cultural views of a good life were
reflected in descriptions of day-to-day life. Asked to speak
freely about their lives (i.e. when not prompted to talk about
anything in particular) Chinese students tended to emphasize topics related to practical concerns such as school and
career, whereas South Asians referred more to spiritual-like
concerns such as self-discovery and personal meaning. The
authors concluded that preferences regarding what constitutes a good life cited by South Asians and Chinese in
previous studies predicted, to a degree, the manner in which
individuals from those cultures tended to narrate, or make
sense of their day-to-day experiences.
Cultural traditions in Malaysia
Malaysia, situated at a natural crossroads along trading
routes between China and the Indian subcontinent, has for
centuries been home to a culturally and religiously diverse
population. Malaysia’s current population is approximately
61% Malay, 25% Chinese and 7% Indian (Department of
Statistics, 2011). Although most of Malaysia’s ethnic
Chinese and Indian citizens are descended from multiple
generations of Malaysian ancestors, it is common among
Malaysians to maintain a degree of cultural, religious and
linguistic identification with their ethnic heritage. Thus,
having sizable proportions of its population influenced by
Malay, Chinese and Indian traditions, as well as a long
(pre-1957) history of colonization by England, Holland and
Portugal, Malaysia represents an interesting test case for
observing how cultural attitudes are influenced by context
and tradition; or how cultures exhibit both stability and
change as they intermingle with each other.
Although there is, to some degree, an overarching
Malaysian culture, for example, most citizens speak Bahasa
Melayu (the Malay language) at least as a second or third
language, each ethnic group maintains its own linguistic
and, often, religious identity. Malays are, by legal definition, Muslim and speak Malay. Malaysian Indians are
largely Hindu and speak Tamil. Malaysian Chinese are
mostly Buddhist or Christian and speak some dialect of

© 2015 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd, Asian Association of Social Psychology and Beijing Normal University

4

Gregory Bonn and Tam Cai Lian

Figure 1 Multidimensional scaling
map reproduced from Bonn and
Tafarodi (2013a). Average preference position for each ethnic group
is shown along with the relative
positions of the good life criteria.
Circles highlight conceptual clusters
of criteria. The poles of proposed
underlying dimensions are noted in
the margins. Groups are from left to
right Mainland Chinese (Chin;
female, avg, male), Asian Canadian
(AC; male, avg, female), European
Canadian (EC; male, avg, female),
South Asian (SA; male, avg, female).

Chinese. Also, relevant to the comparisons in this study,
although Malaysian Chinese share some linguistic and cultural traditions with Mainland Chinese, Malaysian Chinese
culture has not been subject to the influence of communism
which has shaped recent history in the People’s Republic of
China. Thus, Malaysian Chinese culture has, for the greater
part of the past century, proceeded along a different evolutionary path from that of the People’s Republic. Malaysian
Chinese, for example, maintain a much higher degree of
religiosity than citizens of Mainland China: according to
the Malaysian Department of Statistics (2011), over 98% of
Malaysian citizens describe themselves as adhering to some
form of religion while most studies estimate that about
30–40% of Mainland Chinese subscribe to religious beliefs
(e.g. Pew Research Center, 2012).
These differences in religiosity as well as in the types of
media and information that are freely available under differing political systems would likely result in differences
between Malaysian Chinese and Mainland Chinese in how
they conceive of a good life.
Current study
This study used a method similar to Bonn and Tafarodi
(2013a) to compare conceptions of a good life among

Malaysian Chinese, ethnic Malays, and a Mainland
Chinese sample. These comparisons were intended to
provide more insight into how cultural conceptions of a
good life vary across Asian cultures, and more specifically,
to explore how Chinese beliefs and traditions vary across
different cultural milieu. Based on the greater levels of
religiosity in Malaysia compared to the People’s Republic
of China it was hypothesized that ethnic Chinese brought
up in more religion-friendly Malaysia would place more
emphasis on criteria related to moral or spiritual matters
when asked for their beliefs about a good life. Also, given
that Malaysian Chinese still largely self-identify as
‘Chinese’, we expected that, similar to Bonn and Tafarodi’s
(2013a) findings regarding East Asians living in Canada,
that Malaysian Chinese participants would maintain some
more typical ‘Chinese’ priorities, perhaps placing greater
emphasis on practical criteria such as career and education
relative to their Malay counterparts. In other words, we
hypothesized that Malaysian Chinese would fall somewhere in between Malays and Mainland Chinese on the
dimension related to moral/spiritual versus practical/
prudential concerns. In regard to the second major dimension identified in previous studies (i.e. internally vs
externally defined criteria), based on earlier findings we did
not expect to see large differences between the groups in

© 2015 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd, Asian Association of Social Psychology and Beijing Normal University

Imagining a worthwhile life in Malaysia and China

5

this study. A tentative hypothesis was that since Malaysian
Chinese tend to be somewhat more ‘Westernized’ than
either Malays or Mainland Chinese they would tend more
towards valuing internal criteria.

order of importance. Participants then completed a demographic questionnaire and, finally, were debriefed. The
entire procedure took between 20 and 30 minutes for most
participants.

Method

Results

Participants

Ratings of criteria

Responses from a total of 511 university students were
collected. Of these, data from 316 participants are analyzed
here: 121 participants were excluded because they did not
belong to one of the targeted ethnic groups; 74 others were
excluded because of missing or incomplete responses. The
final Malaysian sample included 98 ethnic Malays (38
males, 60 females,) and 123 ethnic Chinese (52 males, 71
females) recruited from two medium-sized private universities in Malaysia. Ninety-five Chinese respondents from a
large public university in the People’s Republic of China
were also included (41 males, 54 females). Mean age was
20.63 for the Chinese sample, 20.42 for the Malay sample
and 21.32 for the Malaysian Chinese sample. The ethnic
Chinese and Malay participants included in this analysis
were all born in Malaysia but they self-identified as being
either Chinese or Malay in ethnicity. Mainland Chinese
were all born in the People’s Republic of China and
reported their ethnicity as Chinese. Participation was voluntary for all participants; no compensation was provided.

Analyses began with a univariate and multivariate exploration of relationships among the ratings. This was followed
by a multidimensional unfolding analysis of the ranking
data, which provided a means of visualizing the overall
structure of response patterns among different ethnic
groups. All ratings reported herein are (in keeping with
Bonn & Tafarodi, 2013a) standardized within-subject. This
was deemed appropriate because, in this conceptual framework, the absolute rating of each criterion is less meaningful than its importance relative to other criteria. More
importantly, standardizing in this way allowed us to control
for cultural and individual differences in scale response
tendencies (e.g. Fischer, 2004; Lee & Jones, 2002) while
preserving the relative magnitude of each individual’s comparative ratings.

Procedure
Ethics approval for this procedure was obtained from the
Monash University Human Ethics Research Committee
(MUHREC) prior to collecting any data.
Participants completed an online questionnaire in either
English or Mandarin (Chinese). The Chinese version of the
questionnaire was translated from the original English with
standard back-translation procedures implemented to
ensure linguistic equivalency.
As in previous good life studies (e.g. Bonn & Tafarodi,
2013a), after giving their consent, participants were asked
to imagine themselves at 85 years old, and to think about
what would have entailed a satisfactory life. This approach
was taken specifically to prime participants to approach the
task with an idealized life narrative in mind. When rating
the criteria, subjects were theoretically considering the
story of an ideal life and what the key elements of that life
story would be. Thus primed, participants were asked to
read over the list of 30 good life criteria (see Table 1), and
to evaluate how important each criterion would be in determining the worthiness, or value, of their life. Evaluations
consisted of, first, rating each criterion on a scale of 1 (not
important at all) to 9 (of the utmost importance), and then
creating a list of all 30 criteria ranking them from 1 to 30 in

Comparing ratings
Standardized ratings for all 30 criteria averaged across
groups are shown in Table 1 ordered by relative importance. Table 2 shows the top 10 rated criteria and the
average assigned rating for each of the three groups (Malay,
Malaysian Chinese and Mainland Chinese).
In order to check for between group differences in
overall conceptions of a good life we conducted a
MANOVA using ethnic group, gender and their interactions
as predictors. A significant effect was found only for cultural group, Wilks’ lambda = 0.42, F(2, 312) = 13.96,
p < 0.001. To investigate the contribution of individual criteria to this overall group difference an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was performed using a step-down
procedure. This procedure confirmed that seven out of the
30 criteria made significant independent contributions to
the overall group effect. These criteria and their adjusted
means (reported in terms of z-scores) for each group are
shown in Table 3.
Multidimensional scaling
The final analysis utilized multidimensional unfolding
(Borg & Groenen, 2005; Busing, Groenen & Heiser, 2005)
to create a visual representation of underlying patterns
within the data. This procedure analyzes preference
rankings by creating a map, or visual representation, which

© 2015 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd, Asian Association of Social Psychology and Beijing Normal University

6

Gregory Bonn and Tam Cai Lian

Table 2 Top ten rated criteria for each ethnic group with average z-score (normalized within subject) for each item
by ethnicity
Malay
Happy family
Good marriage/Romance
Relationships with family
Raising children well
Having successful children
Harmony with God or nature
Religious faith
Financial security
Well being
Living a moral life

Malaysian Chinese
0.625
0.621
0.580
0.550
0.388
0.387
0.287
0.285
0.234
0.181

Relationships with family
Happy family
Good marriage/Romance
Raising children well
Gaining wisdom
Pleasurable experiences
Having successful children
Having close friends
Living a moral life
Well being

Table 3 MANOVA results showing adjusted marginal
means for items with significant differences (Z-scores
normalized within-subject) by cultural group

Respect
Status
Achievements
Many friends
Close friends
Religious faith
Well being

Malay

Malaysian
Chinese

Mainland
Chinese

−0.83c
−1.30a,b
−0.12a
−0.14a,b
−0.01b
0.32a
0.25b

−0.40b
−1.66b
−0.10a
−0.40b
0.32a
−0.48b
0.25b

0.40a
−0.88a
−0.52b
0.23a
0.63a
−1.03c
0.88a

Superscripts indicate statistically significant between-group differences (Tukey HSD, α = 0.05). Superscript ‘a’ is significantly
greater than ‘b’ which is greater than ‘c’. ‘a,b’ is not significantly
different from a or b (p < 0.05).

summarizes how participant preferences tend to vary. By
using complex algorithms to represent preference patterns
in terms of spatial distance, multidimensional unfolding
creates a ‘best fit’ map of the data where average rankings
for each group are shown in relation to each individual
criteria. On this map, the closer a group’s ‘preference point’
is to a criterion, the higher that criterion was ranked, on
average, by that group. In other words, the relative distances from a group’s preference point to each criterion
indicate that group’s level of preference for that criterion
relative to others: criteria that are closer to a group’s ‘preference point’ are, on average, ranked more highly, while
criteria that are farther from a group’s ‘preference point’
receive lower rankings of importance. Consistent with
Bonn and Tafarodi’s (2013a) previous analyses we used
PREFSCAL (Busing et al., 2005) minimizing stress with a
classical Spearman scaling solution and ordinal transformation. Stress values fell within an acceptable range
(σn = 0.107, σ1 = 0.326).

Chinese
0.929
0.889
0.860
0.809
0.366
0.335
0.309
0.306
0.263
0.259

Happy family
Well being
Relationships with family
Good marriage/Romance
Having close friends
Raising children well
Pleasurable experiences
Gaining wisdom
Being respected
Living a moral life

0.907
0.854
0.848
0.669
0.629
0.587
0.479
0.433
0.404
0.304

A summary of the unfolding results is shown in Figure 2.
Criteria that appear close together on the map tend to be
preferred by the same people. Criteria toward the centre of
the map were highly ranked by most participants. The
overall pattern of preferences illustrated here is very similar
to that seen in Bonn and Tafarodi (2013a): there is a central
cluster of relationship-oriented criteria that are highly
valued by all groups and the remainder of the criteria spread
out across two major axes which Bonn and Tafarodi tentatively labelled as practical/prudential versus beneficent/
moral and internal/subjective versus external/social. Aside
from some minor shifting of several criteria (most notably,
religion and harmony moved closer to the centre, and travel
shifted towards the internal/subjective pole) the overall
shape and dimensionality of the landscape concur with
Bonn and Tafarodi’s previous (2013a) results. Thus, for
comparative purposes, the approximate locations of EuroCanadian, Asian-Canadian and South Asian groups from
this earlier study are noted (with asterisks) on the map as
well.

Discussion
As predicted, there is evidence in these data of a cultural
orientation among ethnic Chinese Malaysians that maintains some similarities to that of Mainland Chinese, but
which also has shifted towards that of the majority Malay
population. In their ratings of four out of the seven criteria
for which there were significant differences (Religious
faith, Respect, Achievements and Close friends) Malaysian
Chinese ratings fell between Mainland Chinese and Malay
ratings. The other three criteria with significant differences
showed gaps between Malaysian and Mainland Chinese
that were either equal to (Well being) or greater (Status,
Many friends) than those between Malays and Mainland
Chinese. The relative placement of the different groups on
the multidimensional scaling map (Fig. 2) provides a neat

© 2015 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd, Asian Association of Social Psychology and Beijing Normal University

Imagining a worthwhile life in Malaysia and China

7

Internal / Subjecve
Challenges

Travel

Wisdom
MetPotenal

Pleasure

Moral Life
Posive Impact

European
Canadian*
Asian Canadian*

South Asian*

Financial Security

Malaysian Chinese

Good Marriage
Fam relaons
Raise ChildrenWell
Close Friends
Malay
WellBeing
Orientaon to Acvity

Successful Career
Many Friends
Wealth

illustration of these tendencies; one that complements Bonn
and Tafarodi’s (2013a) similar findings regarding East
Asians living in Canada. These results coincide with previously observed tendencies for groups in multicultural
contexts to develop hybrid identities (e.g. Hong, Morris,
Chiu & Benet-Martınez, 2000; Phinney, 1999), or more
generally, a tendency for cultural attitudes to adapt to
context while retaining some heritage elements.
More importantly, taken together with previous findings
(Bonn & Tafarodi, 2013a, b; Tafarodi et al., 2012) these
results provide further evidence for a dimension of variation among Asian cultures – that of practical or worldly
concerns as opposed to moral or spiritual concerns, which
is overlooked in literature that focuses mostly on East–West
comparisons. Scholars from other fields (e.g. Gunde, 2002;
Jahanbegloo, 2008; Nakamura, 1997) have commented on
the differences between South Asian and Chinese religious
and philosophical beliefs. However, the influence of secular
(e.g. Confucianism, Capitalism) compared to religious (e.g.
Muslim, Hindu) belief systems on cultural worldviews is
not well explored in psychology and the behavioural sciences. Especially in the context of current events, it seems
that future research should strive to provide a clearer understanding of how various types of religious and moral beliefs
interface with cultural attitudes and, even more importantly,
how they relate to decision making and behaviour.

Harmony
Religion

Focus of Conc ern

Prudenal / Praccal

Chinese

Happy Family

Beneficent / Moral

Figure 2 Multidimensional scaling
map of cultural groups and their
beliefs about a good life.
Schematic map of multidimensional scaling results: italics represent criteria for a satisfactory or
worthwhile life from Tafarodi et al.
(2012). Bold italics represent preference positions or ideal points of cultural groups relative to the criteria
(*asterisks indicate approximate
group positions from Bonn &
Tafarodi, 2013a). Group members
on average place higher value upon
criteria closer to their position on
the map. Bold items represent theorized dimensions underlying how
cultural beliefs about a satisfactory
or good life vary from Bonn and
Tafarodi (2013a).

Respect
Achievements
Remembered
Involved in
Community

Power

Status

External / Social

A final point that should not be overlooked is the clear
preference for close human relationships reported by all
groups in this sample. These data closely mirror the findings of previous studies (Bonn & Tafarodi, 2013a, b;
Tafarodi et al., 2012), which investigated cultural views of
a worthwhile life in China, Japan, India and Canada as well
as several groups of bi-culturals: all of these groups, regardless of religious background or continent of origin, centered
their definitions of a worthwhile life around close, lasting
and meaningful connections with other people.
Limitations
There are, of course, a number of limitations to keep in
mind when considering these results. First of all, the participants in this study were urban university students; thus
these samples should not be considered to be representative
of these populations in question. Without a doubt, samples
of broader age groups as well as more varied regions and
socioeconomic groupings would provide somewhat different results. However, due to their higher levels of wealth as
well as access to global information and culture, urban
university student samples from Asian as well as Western
cultures can generally be expected to be more similar to
each other culturally than would be expected of broader
socioeconomic and geographic samples (Arnett, 2002).

© 2015 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd, Asian Association of Social Psychology and Beijing Normal University

8

Gregory Bonn and Tam Cai Lian

Thus it is reasonable to surmise that more broadly representative samples of the groups in question would result in
more pronounced differences.
A second issue can be brought up in relation to the use of
translated items. Although standard back-translation techniques were employed to protect against major differences
in the meaning of survey items, there is always a possibility
of differences in nuance or implication. However, given that
Chinese ethnicity participants filling out the questionnaire
in English (i.e. Malaysian Chinese and Chinese Canadians)
tended to exhibit similar, though less pronounced, preferences to those filling out the Chinese language questionnaire, it is reasonable to surmise that the overall tendencies
seen in these studies are culture-related and not just due to
language inequalities.
A final point should be made regarding the theoretical
interpretation of multidimensional unfolding results. Multidimensional unfolding analyses simply provide a mathematically based mapping, or layout, of rankings (in this
case preference patterns) existing within a data set. Such
maps are useful as a tool for identifying or visualizing
underlying structure, or patterns, within a data set (Borg &
Groenen, 2005). The theoretical interpretation of such relationships, however, is by necessity subjective (Busing et al.,
2005). Thus, although the layout of the criteria and preference patterns displayed in these figures was generated mathematically, the theoretical labels for the different dimensions
can without a doubt be subject to debate. Regardless of how
the differences in question are labelled, however, these data
do point to fundamental contrasts in how various cultural
groups within Asia conceive of a good or worthwhile life.

Conclusion
Overall, these data add to previous findings regarding differences in how various Asian groups conceive of a good or

References
Arnett, J. J. (2002). The psychology of
globalization. American Psychologist, 57,
774–783.
doi:10.1037//0003-066X.57.10
.774.
Bonn, G. & Tafarodi, R. W. (2013a). Visualizing the good life: A cross-cultural analysis.
Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 1839–
1856. doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9412-9.
Bonn, G. & Tafarodi, R. W. (2013b). Chinese
and South Asian conceptions of the good life
and personal narratives. Journal of Happiness Studies, 15, 741–755. doi:10.1007/
s10902-013-9447-6.

worthwhile life. In the context of previous findings (Bonn
& Tafarodi, 2013a, b; Tafarodi et al., 2012), these data
support the idea of variation among Asian cultures along a
dimension which we have labelled ‘practical’ or ‘prudential’ versus ‘moral’ or ‘spiritual’. Also, importantly, we have
again seen a strong tendency within all groups towards
placing the highest priority on close interpersonal relationships when asked what constitutes a good or worthwhile
life. This emphasis on close personal relationships has held
constant across samples from North America, East Asia,
South Asia and South East Asia. Although there do seem to
be cultural differences in the types of relationships most
highly valued in each of these various groups (i.e. romantic
partners vs close friends vs parent–child), it is, we feel,
important to recognize that relatedness, or close connections with other people, seem to be central to people’s idea
of a good life everywhere.
Understanding how conceptions of a desirable life vary
across cultures, ethnicities and religions will be necessary if
we aspire to achieve mutual understanding in the future.
One hopeful sign suggested by this line of research is that
humans everywhere seem to view human connections, such
as family and friendship, as central to a good life. If we can
learn to focus more on such commonalities in the human
condition, while understanding that each culture and each
individual has a unique identity that deserves respect, we
can begin to move away from simplistic dichotomies such
as East–West and move towards an appreciation of the
richness and variety inherent in culture and the human
experience. Human lives and beliefs are incredibly diverse.
But humans everywhere depend upon each other, and they
learn about the world, and what is important, from the
people that surround them. As the world becomes more
interconnected, developing more nuanced and sensitive
ways of understanding the variety inherent in how humans
make sense of their world will be critical to achieving
mutual understanding.

Borg, I. & Groenen, P. J. F. (2005). Modern
multidimensional scaling theory and applications. New York: Springer.
Busing, F. M. T. A., Groenen, P. J. F. & Heiser,
W. J. (2005). Avoiding degeneracy in multidimensional unfolding by penalizing on the
coefficient of variation. Psychometrika,
70, 49–76. doi:10.1007/s11336-001-0908
-1.
Department of Statistics, Malaysia (2011).
Population Distribution and Basic Demographic Statistics. Population and Housing
Census of Malaysia, 2010.
Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and
crisis. New York: Norton.

Fischer, R. (2004). Standardization to account
for cross-cultural response bias: A classification of score adjustment procedures and
review of research in JCCP. Journal of
Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35, 263–282.
doi:10.1177/0022022104264122.
Gilbert, D. (2007). Stumbling on happiness.
London: Harper-Collins.
Gunde, R. (2002). Culture and customs of
China. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
Habermas, T. & Bluck, S. (2000). Getting
a life: The emergence of the life story in
adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 126,
748–769.
doi.apa.org/journals/bul/126/5/
748.pdf.

© 2015 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd, Asian Association of Social Psychology and Beijing Normal University

Imagining a worthwhile life in Malaysia and China

Harrington, J. R. & Gelfand, M. J. (2014).
Tightness–looseness across the 50 United
States. Proceedings of the National
Academy of Science, 111, 7990–7995.
doi:10.1073/pnas.1317937111.
Henrich, J., Heine, S. J. & Norenzayan, A.
(2010). The weirdest people in the world?
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 61–83.
doi:10.1017/S0140525X0999152X.
Hong, Y. Y., Morris, M., Chiu, C. Y. &
Benet-Martınez, V. (2000). Multicultural
minds: A dynamic constructivist approach to
culture and cognition. American Psychologist, 55, 709–720. doi:10.1037//0003066X.55.7.709.
Jahanbegloo, R. (2008). The spirit of India.
New Delhi: Penguin.
Lee, J. W. & Jones, P. S. (2002). Cultural differences in response to a Likert scale.
Research in Nursing and Health, 25, 295–
306. doi:10.1002/nur.10041.
Markus, H. R. & Kitayama, S. (2003). Culture,
self, and the reality of the social. Psychological Inquiry, 14, 277–283. doi:10.1080/
1047840X.2003.9682893.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of
life stories. Review of General Psychology,
5, 100–122. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.5.2
.100.
Nakamura, H. (1997). Ways of thinking
of Eastern peoples: India, China, Tibet,
Japan (revised ed). London: Kegan Paul
International.
Nishida, H. (1999). A cognitive approach to
intercultural communication based on
schema theory. International Journal of
Intercultural Relations, 23, 753–777.
doi:10.1016/s0147-1767(99)00019-x.
Pew Research Center (2012). The global religious landscape: A report on the size and
distribution of the world’s major religious
groups as of 2010. Pew Research Center’s
Forum on Religion and Public Life,
2012.
Phinney, J. S. (1999). An intercultural
approach in psychology: Cultural contact
and identity. Cross-Cultural Psychology
Bulletin, 33, 24–31. doi:0018-716X/00/
0431-0027.

9

Quinn, N. (2003). Cultural selves. Annals of
the New York Academy of Science, 1001,
145–176. doi:10.1196/annals.1279.010.
Schacter, D. L. & Addis, D. R. (2007). The
cognitive neuroscience of constructive
memory: Remembering the past and imagining the future. Philosophical Transcripts
of the Royal Society of London, B, Biological Sciences, 362, 773–786. doi:10.1098/
rstb.2007.2087.
Schwartz, S. H. (2006). A theory of cultural
value orientations: Explication and applications. Comparative Sociology, 5, 137–182.
doi:10.1163/156913306778667357.
Tafarodi, R. W., Bonn, G., Liang, H., Takai, J.,
Moriizumi, S., Belhekar, V., et al. (2012).
What makes for a good life? A four-nation
study. Journal of Happiness Studies, 13,
783–800. doi:10.1007/s10902-011-9290-6.
Wilson, T. D. & Gilbert, D. T. (2005). Affective
forecasting: Knowing what to want. Current
Directions in Psychological Science,
14, 131–134. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214
.2005.00355.x.

© 2015 Wiley Publishing Asia Pty Ltd, Asian Association of Social Psychology and Beijing Normal University