You are on page 1of 10

Motivation Adoption in Asian (Chinese) People

(A stadium generale for students at SIAS University, China)

Dr. Swati Lee Kurnia

Motivation adoption is a very complex process. A lot of motivation theories have been
established and debated over time. One of the most recent school of thoughts of
motivation is in its relationship to cognition or the thought processes an individual goes
through when placed in situations where motivation comes to play (Ames, 1986; Salancik
and Pfeffer, 1978). The way a person responds to a task and his or her decision to invest
the time and energy necessary to succeed in accomplishing it is dependent upon a
complex blend of present thoughts and previous experiences. Maehr and Braskamp
(1986) have identified three areas in which self-concept plays an important role in
motivation, the three areas are self-consistency, self-confidence, and self-determination.
Martin Seligman (1998) identifies that different responses in motivation is caused by
different self-explanatory style. According to Seligman, the explanatory style of one
individual depends upon his mother’s explanatory style shared in childhood time, his life
experiences, and praises and criticism from parents and teachers. To simplify the
discussion, let us focus on just one particular aspect of motivation; how Asian people;
particularly the Chinese; learn to motivate themselves. The Chinese people spread all
over the world and they consist of many ethnic groups. In China itself, there are at least
56 ethnic groups (Wikipedia). In Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia; there are the
Hokkianese, Cantonese, Khe, and the mixed (peranakan). In America, there are Chinese
people from Hong Kong, and elsewhere, and the ABC’s (American Born Chinese).
Similar groups are found in Canada. However, based on observation, I would argue that
all Chinese in the world more likely share similar values. The fact that in China the ‘one-
child-policy’ is compulsory does not change the way the values are shared to successive
generations. This paper is focused on the similarities of all the ethnic groups.

Dr. Seligman argued that people can learn helplessness or optimism during their process
of growing up. When a person has learned helplessness during childhood, then his
reaction to adversity would be de-motivated. He is more likely to give up in any difficult
circumstances. People learn to be helpless when they learn that nothing they did matters
and their responses did not work to bring them what they wanted. When they are exposed
to these failure experiences consecutively, usually they adopt a negative explanatory style
along the process. They would explain to themselves that the bad things that happen to
them are permanent and these affect their whole life.

Seligman stresses on the importance of learning optimism, as he proves many success

stories underlying optimism adoption. People with learned optimism have a positive
explanatory style for every situation in their life. They are more motivated in bouncing
back when they fall, less depressed, happier, healthier, and perform better. Consequently,
they always prevail over the learned helpless people. The good news is that optimism can
be learned and helplessness can be unlearned. So when you have already learned to be
helpless, it may be possible to unlearn it and learn optimism at the same time.

According to Dr. Seligman, optimism leading to motivation booster can be learned by:

- sharing a positive explanatory style to children in childhood
- positive encouragement from parents (older generation)

There are four dimensions of explanatory styles:

• Permanence
• Pervasiveness: specific vs. universal
• Hope
• Personalization

• Permanence dimension conveys a personal belief of how permanent (or

temporary) bad (good) things happen. When a person believes that adversities are
permanent and forever, he adopts a negative explanatory style. Permanence is about

• Pervasiveness dimension measures how a person explains adversities as

universal or specific incidents. Pervasiveness is about space

• Hope dimension is the most important trait in stabilizing a person’s state

of being. Whether or not we have hope depends on the two previous dimensions of
our explanatory styles. Temporary causes limit helplessness in time (permanence
dimension). Specific causes limit helplessness to the original situation (pervasiveness
dimension). People who make permanent and universal explanations for their troubles
tend to collapse under pressure

• Personalization is about blaming ourselves (or not) when bad things

happen. We can attribute adversities to ourselves or to other people, or to

Seligman offers the best way to motivate and to stay healthy: learned optimism with a
positive explanatory style. A person adopting positive explanatory style would see
adversities as temporary and limited to a certain circumstance only, not affecting his
whole life. When he sees things with a positive explanatory style, he would get more
motivated to perform better and not afraid to try new things.

In addition to educating children to learn optimism, positive encouragement from parents

and older people also plays an important role in creating an environment for children to
learn optimism.

Now, let us scrutinize some values shared by our Chinese parents. Growing up in a
Chinese-Indonesian family (even tough with a bit of Dutch flavor), I am very familiar
with the way older generation (parents, aunties, uncles, grandparents) “encourage” the
youngsters. Words of negative criticism are often used, as they believe that young people
would be more motivated with “terrorization” (sometimes “life and death” threats).
Words they use to “motivate” are like:

- My dear, you are so fat!!! Go on diet and lose weight before you die of a heart
- Don’t eat so much! You will block your arteries to death!
- Why your tummy is so big!? Go sit-up or else no man will want you one day.
- Study hard! Otherwise you will be poor and useless like <insert under-achieving
relative’s name here>
- Why are you so stupid? You are good for nothing!
- Make sure you don’t fail your exams or else you will be a useless person

Now you may imagine that I grew up with a belief that I was fat, ugly, and stupid! Please
do not get me mistaken, I loved my parents and I’m dreadfully sure they loved me as
well. And the fact that now I turn to be OK in my adult years would be attributed much to
the way they taught me and to the valuable lessons I have learned along my life.
However, from very early age, I have made a pledge to myself that when I want to
encourage others, I will not use those shocking words.

To make the picture clearer, here is an old joke, first emerged in Internet. I’m guessing it
was created by a Chinese American, but many of them hold the true Chinese culture.

Signs that you are a Chinese:

- Even if you are totally full, if someone says they are going to throw away the
leftovers on the table, you’ll finish them.
- You unwrap Christmas gifts very carefully, so you can save and reuse the
wrapping (and especially those bows) next year.
- You save grocery bags, tin foil, and tin containers.
- You do not own any real Tupperware — only a cupboard full of used but
carefully rinsed margarine tubs, takeout containers, and jam jars.
- The paper napkins are marked with McDonald’s or Burger Kings, which you
save/steal every time you get take out or go to McDonald’s.
- You bring oranges (or other food products) with you as a gift when you visit
people’s homes.
- You live with your parents and you are 30 years old (and they prefer it that way).
Or if you are married and 30 years old, you live in the apartment next door to your
parents, or at least in the same neighborhood.
- If you do not live at home, when your parents call, they ask if you have eaten rice,
even if it is midnight.
- You never call your parents just to say ‘hi.’
- You never discuss your love life with your parents.
- You have never seen your parents hug.
- Your grandmother lives with you and your family.
- Your parents are never happy with your grades.

Those statements may sound funny, but a lot of them expose the reality about Chinese
people elsewhere. From those experiences, and backed by studies done by prominent

scholars, I would summarize the typical values shared among the Chinese in child-rearing

1. Respect for authority: Chinese parents discipline their children in light of

seeking obedience (fu chong or ting hua). In Chinese society, parental control is most
prevalent. No over-indulgence (jiaozong) is endorsed. Consequently, children are not
encouraged to speak up their mind. Hyun (2005) explores the noticeable gap between
Asian Americans’ educational achievement and their professional advancement. Most
Asian Americans (Chinese Americans) work behind the desk as accountants,
researchers, analysts, and other “nerd” jobs. Compared to Caucasian Americans,
Asian Americans are somewhat passive. They do not dare to try some challenging
jobs requiring them to speak up, such as marketing, public relation, and politics. This
obstruction makes them hard to climb the corporate ladder. Hyun points to cultural
Confucian values that may hold them back. Authoritarian parenting demanding
excessive respect for authority and communal decision might be the perpetrators
responsible for this disadvantage. Cheah, Leung, Tahsen and Shultz (2009) find that
authoritative parenting exercised by Chinese parents predict increased children’s
behavioral/attention regulation abilities. This means Chinese children adopt lower
hyperactivity/inattention. Authoritative parenting demanding reliability, proper
respect, and solid moral values is actually helping the children to regulate their
behavior. According to Ang and Goh (2006), authoritarian parenting style could
possibly have a different cultural meaning for Asians. The negative authoritarian
parenting would hold children back, meanwhile the positive authoritarian
(authoritative, to be precise) would essentially encouraging children to excel.

2. Importance of perfect performance: Children are taught with a pressure

for the most excellent achievement. Parents stress on the importance of education.
The term “all jobs are low in status, except study which is the highest” or wan ban jie
xia pin, wei yao du shu gao pictures how parents place education in the utmost
priority. Chinese parents incessantly remind their children to study hard and impose
on best performance. With this pressure, parents believe the children would perform
better. However, sadly, that may not be the case in modern time. A study by Salili,
Lai and Leung (2004) shows that Hong Kong students spent significantly more time
to study than Canadian students. Despite of the amount of time spent for studying, the
Hong Kong students get significantly lower grades. Moreover, the undesired
consequences on pressures on children are seen in Hong Kong students, they are more
anxious and felt less competent. On the contrary, Huang and Prochner (2004) show
that authoritative parenting style demanding perfect performance is significantly and
positively related to children’s self-regulated learning, leading to better grades.

3. Moral education: early indoctrination is very common. Emphasis on

diligence, hard work, effort, perseverance, saving face, building networks (guanxi),
and thriftiness are indoctrinated at early ages. These values guarantee success in
future business. Haley, Haley and Tan (2004) prove that the keys of success in
Chinese businesses lay on a strong foundation that modern Chinese people still hold
to traditional values of diligence, hard work, thriftiness, and perseverance. And

building network (guanxi) is considered highly important in doing business. Last but
not least, the concept of “face” (lianshang) is eminent in Chinese culture. A child
should save the face of his parents by doing the right things to preserve the family’s
dignity and prestige. A child is not to “lose face” (diulian) by disgracing his and the
family’s nobility. It is important to “grant face” by letting a loved one (especially
older) succeed with his endeavor. These values are not able to grow in a short period.
They should be nurtured and shared from early ages (Taylor, 2006).

Permanence dimension in Chinese culture.

Chinese culture promotes a mixed result in permanence dimension of explanatory style.
The importance of perfect performance promotes may uphold a negative explanatory
style. When we fail in school, we may be reminded of the “encouragements” we heard
from childhood:
• Study hard! Otherwise you will be poor and useless
• Make sure you don’t fail your exams or else you will be a useless person
Those negative buttresses may cause us to be helpless and feel nothing we did matters
and we are useless and stupid.
Some noble values may also contribute to the learned helplessness process. Values of
trusts and saving face are noble. But when stressed too much, they may backfire as
negative bullets adding to the already helpless us. Parents usually say that:
• Trust is extremely important, once you fail, people don’t trust you anymore
• Saving face is necessary, as when you loose face, you have to carry the burden for the
rest of your life
What if we accidentally break people’s trust? We may explain that this incident would
ruin our entire life, as we take into account those childhood lessons. Consequently, we
may learn to be helpless.

However, Chinese values often help us to bounce back after failure. From early
childhood we are taught to be persistence and diligent. So no matter how hard the fall is,
we have to be able to bounce back. Also placing “effort” over everything may help us to
try harder after facing adversities. This may break the bad permanence dimension and
turn it into a good one.

Pervasiveness dimension in Chinese Culture

Chinese culture encourages varied results in pervasiveness dimension of explanatory
style. We are compelled to believe that keeping family’s face is important as once we fail
to save our face (and our parents’ face), the entire family would suffer the consequences.
The old saying “the fruit falls not far from the tree” makes us take very seriously to
preserve the dignity of our family. We believe when the father is a crook, certainly we do
not trust the sons, and vice versa. In business, it is important to be perfect, because once a
customer is not satisfied with an officer, he believes that the whole firm is bad. This
belief may encourage negative explanatory style in pervasiveness dimension. What if we
unintentionally did some wrongdoing? We may explain to ourselves that this particular
incident would affect everything, our entire life, and also the life and dignity of our
family or business. And we may learn to be helpless accordingly. Nevertheless, the
Chinese believe in good luck (and bad luck) which may work in a favorable way to help

us holding to hope. If we believe that we already did everything we could to unsure good
luck, we may have enormous hope that things will get better eventually. As a result, we
may learn to be optimistic and try harder to bounce back.

What if you have learned helplessness? Unlearn it!

What if we grew up in the negative encouragements and we actually believe those? We
learned helplessness from our upbringing. Is there any hope for us to unlearn helplessness
and learn optimism instead? Yes there is! Dr. Seligman has spent most of his lifetime to
study about helplessness, optimism and happiness. As a prominent scholar of the
University of Pennsylvania, he has been enjoying all the resources needed for this
purpose. One of his remarkable contributions to humankind is the technique to learn
optimistic. Being an optimistic here does not mean that a person is a self-aggrandizing
braggart, a chronic blamer of others, and never taking responsibility for his own mistakes.
Dr. Seligman does not encourage people to be more selfish and self-assertive, and
presenting in overbearing ways. Learning optimism is simply learning a set of skills
about how we talk to ourselves when we suffer a personal defeat. We learn to speak to
ourselves about our setbacks from a more encouraging viewpoint. He offers a simple
technique to learn optimism: It is as easy as ABCDE:
• Adversity: When we encounter adversity, we react first by thinking about it
• Beliefs: Our thoughts rapidly congeal into beliefs. (These beliefs may become so
habitual, we don’t realize we have them)
• Consequences: When we exercise our reaction based on our beliefs, we get the
• Disputation, Distracting, Distancing
• Energization

Example of how the ABCDE works is as follows:

Ann is a foreign student striving for good grades. She failed in math, an important subject
to her major. (Ann is facing adversity). Ann thinks she is stupid and she can not keep up
with the rest of class because the language used is not her mother tongue. She gives up by
thinking that it is impossible for her to compete with her classmates. She begins to think
about what kind of gloomy future she might have. Who will hire a person that does not
speak the language fluently? (She has a wrong belief that failure in math will affect her
future badly). She felt totally rejected and useless. She is embarrassed she even gave it a
try, and she decides she should withdraw from her courses and go home to her home
country. Consequently, she starts to develop some symptoms of despair leading to an
early depression stage. (The consequence of her wrong belief is depression). For some
people already adopting learned helplessness, this condition might lead to serious
advanced stage of depression. They would fall downturn continuously as they believe
they are helpless and nothing they can do to fix the situation. That would be how the
ABC’s work. The ABC usually works automatically without us thinking about it. Our
beliefs; already being adopted for so long; generate mechanical reaction based on the

Now to stop the unfavorable process of ominous consequences that might occur, Dr.
Seligman offers three general ways to deal with pessimistic beliefs; disputation,
distraction, and distancing.

The deepest and more lasting remedy is disputation. Give the pessimistic beliefs an
argument. Go on the attack. By effectively disputing the beliefs that follow adversity, we
can change our customary reaction from dejection and giving up to activity and good
cheer. There are four ways to make our disputation convincing; we have to ask ourselves
these following questions.
• What is the evidence of this negative belief? The most convincing way of
disputing a negative belief is to show that it is factually incorrect. Much of the
time, we will have facts on our positive sides, for pessimistic reactions to
adversity are so often overreactions. Ann believes that her appalling grades are
the worst in the class. Now she checked the evidence and finds out that the person
sitting next to her has much lower grades. Dr. Seligman makes an important note
that this approach is not the so-called “power of positive thinking.” Positive
thinking often involves trying to believe upbeat statements such as “in every way
I am getting better and better” in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of
contrary evidence. Learned optimism is about accuracy. Learned optimism works
not through an unjustifiable positivity about the world, but through the power of
“non-negative” thinking. (Seligman, 1998).
• Is there any other alternative that cause the failure? Almost nothing that happens
to us is caused by only one cause. Most events have many causes. If we did
poorly in a test, we have to consider all alternative causes such as: how hard the
test was, how much we studied, how fair the professor is, how tired we are, how
smart we are, and how other students did. Pessimists always have a way of tying
adversity to the worst of all these possible causes – the most permanent, pervasive
and personal one. In this case, Ann picks “I am so stupid and hopeless to compete
with all my classmates.” Actually there are multiple causes, so why latch onto this
most menacing one? To dispute our negative belief, we scan for all possible
contributing causes and focus on the changeable (not enough time spent
studying), the specific (this particular exam was uncharacteristically hard) and the
non personal (the professor graded unfairly) causes.
• What are the implications of our belief? If our negative belief is correct, and the
facts are not on our side, we have to examine all implications. Ann is a foreign
student and she does not speak the language, so her negative belief is true. But
does it mean that she will have a gloomy future? No! It also does not mean that
she is less intelligent. So we have to examine all implications.
• What is the usefulness of our negative belief? Is our belief destructive? What
good will it do to us to dwell on that? At times it is useful to get on our day
without taking time to examine the accuracy of our negative belief and disputing
it. Just distract ourselves from the belief.


Distracting our negative belief means not thinking of it or postponing to think about it.
We have the capability of controlling our thought and distracting it. Let us try a small
experiment here. Now do not think about a piece of chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream
on top. It is hard not to think of it, isn’t it? We find that we have almost no capacity to
refrain from thinking about the chocolate cake and ice cream. But we do have the
capacity to redeploy our attention. Think about the chocolate cake again. Now stand up
and slam the palm of your hand against the wall and shout “stop!” The image of the cake
disappeared, didn’t it? This is one of the many techniques in distraction or thought-
stopping. Some people wear a rubber band in their hands and snap it whenever they want
to distract themselves from thinking negatively. Some people carry a small card with the
word “stop” in big red letters. Actors do this when they have to switch from one emotion
to another. We may undercut ruminations and make a promise to ourselves to think about
it some time later. We may make a schedule to think about our negative beliefs and
worries at night. Ann may re-schedule thinking about her negative belief later, not when
she is having her exam.

Distancing ourselves from the accusation that we launch at ourselves may help us
empowering ourselves. Our reflexive explanations are usually distortions, bad habits of
thought produced by unpleasant experiences in the past. In distancing, there are times
when we just simply have to distance ourselves from the source of our negative beliefs.
We may not want o hang out with friends that are always discouraging. Ann may not
want to hang out with friends that are always making fun of her accent and discouraging
her. This way she may be distanced from the accusation she launches at herself.

Give ourselves energy to learn optimism and unlearn helplessness. We have to commit to
ourselves that from now on we are going to learn optimism. The fundamental guideline
for deploying optimism is to ask what the cost of failure is in the particular situation. If
the cost of failure is high, optimism is the wrong strategy. A wife being frustrated with
her husband should not decide to divorce her husband right away in light of an optimistic
thought that her life will be better off after the divorce. The cost of failure in divorce is
very high as the children and other important matters are at stake. On the other hand, if
the cost of failure is low, use optimism. A sales agent should use optimism in making
efforts to call his prospective customers. The cost of failure in being rejected by people is
low, as he can always try to call new customers.

In conclusion, motivation adoption in Asian people; particularly the Chinese; appears to

be quite different than that in other cultures. Even though it is very much likely that the
Chinese would adopt learned helplessness as they grew up with “negative
encouragements,” most Chinese are motivated to excel in life due to a number of positive
moral education starting from early age. The state of learned helplessness is not
permanent and can be unlearned by replacing it with learned optimism.


Ang, Rebecca; Goh, Dion (2006), Authoritarian Parenting Style in Asian Societies: A
Cluster- Analytic Investigation, Contemporary Family Therapy 28 (1), pp.131-151.

Cheah, C.S.; Leung, C.Y.; Tahseen, M; Schultz, D (2009), Authoritative Parenting

Among Immigrant Chinese Mothers of Preschoolers, Journal of Family
Psychology, 23(3), pp. 311-320.

Chen, X (2002), Growing up in a Collectivistic Culture: Socialization and Socio-

emotional Development in Chinese Children, eds., Ina A.L. Comunian & U.P. Gelielen,
International Perspectives on Human Development, Lengerich, Italy: Pabst Science
Publishers, pp. 331-353

Haley, G; Haley, Usha C.V.; Tan, Chin Tiong (2004), The Chinese Tao of Business: The
Logic of Successful Business Strategy, John Wiley and Sons.

Huang, Juan; Prochner, Larry (2004), Chinese Parenting Style and Children’s Self-
regulated Learning, Journal of Research in Childhood Education, March 2004.

Hyun, Jane (2005), Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling, Harper Collins Publishers

Kochanska G (1990), Maternal Belief as a Long Time Predictor of Mother-Child

Interaction and Report. Child Development 61, pp. 1934-1943.

Lau, Sing (1996), Growing up the Chinese Way: Chinese Child and Adolescent
Development, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lee Y. (1987), Academic Success of East Asian Americans: an Ethnographic

Comparative Study of East-Asian-American and Anglo-American Academic
Achievement, Seoul: American Studies Institute, Seoul National University Press.

Renchler, Ron (1992), Student Motivation, School Culture, and Academic Achievement:
What School Leaders Can Do, ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management,
University of Oregon

Salili, F; Lai, M.K.; Leung, S.S.K (2004), The Consequences of Pressure on Adolescent
Students to Perform Well in School, Hong Kong Journal of Paediatrician, 9, pp. 329-

Seligman, Martin (1998) Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life,
University of Pennsylvania

Seligman, Martin (2004) Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to
Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Simon and Schuster Inc.

Taylor, Thomas (2006), What Can Euro-American Parents learn from Asian Parents?
Delta State University.

Wu, Fang; Qi, Shen (2004), Asian-American Parents: Are They Really Different? Online
Submission, Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Chinese American
Educational Research and Development Association (San Diego, CA, April 2004).