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People constantly seek causal explanations for different events. That is, when something particularly good or bad happens, people attempt to determine the cause of these events. Explanatory style, which refers to one's habits of explaining events, has been shown to influence vulnerability to depression, achievement, and physical health (e.g., Abramson, Metalsky, & Alloy, 1989; Buchanan & Seligman, 1995; Peterson & Seligman, 1984; Peterson & Ulrey, 1994; Seligman, 1991). In the present research, we investigated the hypothesis that White Americans, Chinese Americans, and mainland Chinese differ in their explanatory style.
Explanatory Style: From Individuals to Groups and Nations
In research on explanatory style, pessimism is defined as the habit of thinking that bad events are caused by stable, global, and internal factors, whereas good events are caused by unstable, specific, and external factors (e.g., Burns & Seligman, 1989; Kamen & Seligman, 1987; Peterson, Luborsky, & Seligman, 1983; Peterson & Seligman, 1984; Peterson et al., 1982; Seligman, 1991; Zullow, Oettingen, Peterson, & Seligman, 1988). On the other hand, optimism is defined as the habit of thinking that good events are caused by stable, global, and internal factors, whereas bad events are caused by unstable, specific, and external factors. For instance, a pessimistic person believes that he received a raise because the company had a good year (i.e., unstable); he does not think he would receive a raise elsewhere but only in this particular company (i.e., specific); and he thinks his raise (i.e., good event) is the outcome of the company's good year (i.e., external). Meanwhile, suppose he has failed an important exam. If he thinks he is incompetent or unintelligent (i.e., stable, global, and internal), he exemplifies a pessimistic attributional style.
Empirical evidence suggests that an optimistic attributional style results in higher achievement. For example, optimistic sales representatives sold more life insurance than pessimistic ones (Seligman & Schulman, 1986). Optimistic students usually did better in school than pessimistic ones (Peterson & Barrett, 1987); and individual swimmers with a pessimistic explanatory style showed more unexpectedly poor performances during swimming competition than optimistic swimmers (Seligman, Nolen-Hoeksema, Thornton, & Thornton, 1990). Optimistic people fight off depression better than do pessimists, and their health is better than that of pessimists (Buchanan & Seligman, 1995; Peterson, Seligman, & Vaillant, 1988; Seligman, 1991).
Although the research above suggests clearly that individuals differ in attributional style, we know of little research that examines whether such variation exists between cultures. That is, can we say that people in Group A (e.g., Culture or Nation) are more optimistic than people in Group B (e.g., Culture or Nation)? Optimism or pessimism characterizes different social and cultural groups, with people of different religious arid political beliefs having, on average, different explanatory styles (Oettingen, 1995; Oettingen & Seligman, 1990; Seligman, 1991; Sethi & Seligman, 1993). For example, by using the Attributional Style Questionnaire (ASQ) and content analysis, Sethi and Seligman (1993) found that fundamentalist religions (e.g., Orthodox Judaism, Calvinism, and Islam) were more significantly optimistic than moderate religions (e.g., Conservative Judaism, Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Methodism), which were, in turn, more optimistic than liberal religions (e.g., Unitarianism and Reformed Judaism) in the United States.
In a study of pessimism and depression in East versus West Berlin before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Oettingen and Seligman (1990) unobtrusively observed signs of withdrawal versus expressiveness, sadness versus cheerfulness, and anxiety versus confidence through Berliners' facial expression, bodily behavior, posture, number of smiles, and number of laughs. Specifically, it was found that the East Berlin workmen showed more facial and behavioral signs consistent with depression than the West Berlin workmen. West Berliners smiled and laughed significantly more often than East Berliners. Content analysis of sports, reporting showed East Berliners to be more pessimistic than West Berliners. Oettingen and Seligman speculated that "the political differences between East and West Berlin most likely were responsible for the discovered differences in both explanatory style and depressive behavior" (p. 217). Before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, political restrictiveness and economic failure may have produced pessimism and depression on a massive, national scale in East Germany. In sum, all research above suggests that sociocultural (i.e., religious) values and political economy play an important role in the overall explanatory style of various groups (e.g., cultures or nations).
Why Study Mite Americans, Chinese Americans, and Mainland Chinese?
To some degree, our reasoning can be thought of as an extension of Oettingen and Seligman's (1990) study but applied to a different communist country. In terms of political or social systems and economic situations, comparing East with West Berlin resembles comparing the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United States. Consistent with Oettingen and Seligman, Lee (1995) found that Chinese and American nationals perceived Chinese politics and society as less free than American politics and society. Note that the gross national product (GNP) in mainland China was $350 billion, with $320 Per capita in 1992, whereas the GNP in the United States was $5,233.3 billion, with $21,082 per capita (Wright, 1992). Although political freedom and economic wealth do not guarantee optimism and satisfaction with human life, they may shift the entire distribution of explanatory style in an optimistic direction. Based on this reasoning, we predicted that mainland Chinese would be more pessimistic than those in the United-States (i.e., Chinese Americans and White Americans).
However, a question concerning culture and genetics arises here. That is, East and West Berliners were culturally and genetically similar to each other, whereas mainland Chinese and White Americans are different in this regard. In addition, the political and economic differences between East and West Berlin stretch back only about 40 years, whereas the differences between China and the United States reach back millennia. Nevertheless, the history of international communism tells us that Chinese communism did not start until after World War II (i.e., 1949), as did the East Berlin communism. In other words, both East Berlin and mainland China began with communism at the same time. Research (see Chen, 1992; Oettingen, 1995) indicates that communist countries basically share highly similar political and economic systems.
Because there are a number of relevant factors that systematically differ between the PRC and United States, a Chinese American sample was introduced to the current research as a control group, thus permitting a clearer examination of the relative importance of political economy, familial culture, and genes. Which would be more important--political economy, or familial culture …