What’s Wrong With Cross-Cultural Comparisons of Subjective Likert Scales?: The Reference-Group Effect

Social comparison theory maintains that people think about themselves compared with similar others.  Those in one culture, then, compare themselves with different others and standards than do those in another culture, thus potentially confounding cross-cultural comparisons. A pilot study and Study 1 demonstrated the problematic nature of this reference-group effect: Whereas cultural experts agreed that East Asians are more collectivistic than North Americans, cross-cultural comparisons of trait and attitude measures failed to reveal such a pattern. Study 2 found that manipulating reference groups enhanced the expected cultural differences, and Study 3 revealed that people from different cultural backgrounds within the same country exhibited larger differences than did people from different countries. Crosscultural comparisons using subjective Likert scales are compromised because of different reference groups. Possible solutions are discussed.