University of Rochester

Culture May Influence How You Describe Your Personal Goals

December 6, 2001

In the United States where individual rights are valued, most people express their independence in approach-oriented personal goals: To be rich, to have friends, to do well in school. But for people in countries like Russia where the group trumps the importance of the individual, people set goals to avoid the unwanted.

New cross-cultural comparisons by a team of psychologists indicate that an individual's personal goals appear to match the emphasis of the culture.

"Russians adopted almost twice as many 'avoidance goals' as people in the United States because their culture is directed at avoiding negative outcomes," says Andrew J. Elliot, associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and lead author of the studies. "They don't want to cause disharmony in their group, they don't want to make waves; they want to fit in." Because of that, people focus on negative things about themselves that they can get rid of in order to avoid discord with others.

Elliot and co-authors Valarie I. Chirkov and Youngmee Kim at the University of Rochester and Kennon M. Sheldon at the University of Missouri at Columbia studied the way people describe their goals and how they relate to physical and psychological well-being. Their findings are reported in the November issue of Psychological Science.

In one of the first cross-cultural investigations of personal goals, the psychologists sampled groups in Russia, South Korea, and the United States. They knew from earlier U.S. studies that when people base their goals on what they want to avoid, they're more pessimistic and tend to be self-critical. Those feelings can detract from good physical and psychological health throughout life.

As the researchers expected, people from Russia and South Korea focused their goals on avoiding certain situations. Surprisingly, though, these studies found that if goals match the culture-even if they are expressed in ways to avoid something-then a person's well-being may not be impacted negatively.

"The more avoidance goals people pursue, the worse their life satisfaction," says Elliot of earlier studies with U.S. citizens. For those in a collectivist society, however, avoidance goals don't negatively impact well-being.