A Sense of Obligation: Cultural Differences in the Experience of Obligation

Emma E. Buchtel, Leo C.Y. Ng, Ara Norenzayan, Steven J. Heine, Jeremy C. Biesanz, Sylvia Xiaohua Chen, Michael Harris Bond, Qin Peng, Yanjie Su

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

34 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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1545-1566
Number of pages22
JournalPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2018


  • agency
  • culture
  • motivation
  • obligation
  • self-determination theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology


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