A sense of obligation: Cultural differences in the experience of obligation

Emma Ellen Kathrina BUCHTEL, Leo C. Y. NG, Ara NORENZAYAN, Steven J. HEINE, Jeremy C. BIESANZ, Sylvia Xiaohua CHEN, Michael Harris BOND, Qin PENG, Yanjie SU

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39 Citations (Scopus)


In this investigation of cultural differences in the experience of obligation, we distinguish between Confucian Role Ethics versus Relative Autonomy lay theories of motivation and illustrate them with data showing relevant cultural differences in both social judgments and intrapersonal experience. First, when judging others, Western European heritage culture (WEHC) participants (relative to Confucian heritage culture [CHC] participants) judged obligation-motivated actors more negatively than those motivated by agency (Study 1, N = 529). Second, in daily diary and situation sampling studies, CHC participants (relative to WEHC participants) perceived more congruency between their own agentic and obligated motivations, and more positive emotional associations with obligated motivations (Study 2, N = 200 and Study 3, N = 244). Agentic motivation, however, was universally associated with positive emotions. More research on a Role Ethics rather than Relative Autonomy conception of agency may improve our understanding of human motivation, especially across cultures. Copyright © 2018 by the Society for Personality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1545-1566
JournalPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Issue number11
Early online dateMay 2018
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2018


Buchtel, E. E., Ng, L. C. Y., Norenzayan, A., Heine, S. J., Biesanz, J. C., Chen, S. X., . . . Su, Y. (2018). A sense of obligation: Cultural differences in the experience of obligation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(11), 1545-1566. doi: 10.1177/0146167218769610


  • Motivation
  • Culture
  • Obligation
  • Agency
  • Self-determination theory


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