American and Japanese cultures have different ideas about how to measure success.

podium.jpg Credit: Ryan Pike

If at first you don’t succeed (and you’re Japanese) try, try again. However, if you’re an American, don’t worry, your competitors are probably just naturally better than you.

According to a study recently published in Psychological Science, the American and Japanese media have very different ways of evaluating the performance of athletes at the Olympics. These models uncover the distinct cultural perceptions of what determines success in competition.

The authors concluded that members of the American media typically attribute success to an athlete having “the right stuff,” and often spin one athlete’s failure as the success of a worthy competitor. The Japanese media, on the other hand, accounts for several factors of success—such as extended preparation, a strong relationship with a coach and the correct emotional state during a performance. They tend to portray loss as the failure of the competitor and value athletes who win after having performed poorly in the past.

“You don’t just see the world and understand it,” said Stanford psychology professor Hazel Rose Markus, the study’s lead author. “You come to an understanding through different models that you have about that world. We actually aren’t seeing the same world. We’re experiencing and we’re creating somewhat different worlds.”

Markus examined the American and Japanese television coverage of the 2000 Summer and 2002 Winter Olympics. Since nearly 30% of the athletes from both countries medaled, there were plenty of success stories to analyze. They took note each time either a commentator or the winning athlete mentioned any of several categories such as “physical attributes” or “background” as contributory to success.

Markus said Americans tend to spin things toward the sunny side, while the Japanese dwell an athlete’s failures as well as his successes.

“The Japanese mention about equal numbers of positive and negative, and the Americans are extremely focused on the positive,” she said. “The Japanese mention failure and then show the triumph over that hardship or that failure.”

Markus said the American model of success—athletes win because they’re innately good at what they do—can have negative consequences for people living in the US.

“I think lots of Americans suffer because of having a theory of ability that takes the ‘right stuff,’” she said. “We do that—as parents and educators—a lot to kids”

The Japanese model of success, Markus says, may instead put too much burden on their children, especially with respect to the number of activities they participate in.

“What you can see in Japan is too much pressure on kids, because of the idea that performance or ability comes from working hard, without the more American idea that you need to do more than one task,” she said.

“You need to have a little variety and some breaks.”

Originally published February 21, 2006

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