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16 Basic Desires: China versus US

16 Types of Motivation and Culture Table Resized

16 Basic Desires  

I have been teaching in Asia at the college level for the last sixteen years. This semester just like every semester I reflected that my Thai students have very different motivations than other students I have had including American and Chinese students. I didn’t really find anything on the internet that was useful directly but I did run into one general theory of motivation that I think is detailed enough to be useful in the classroom and with adaptation the English as a foreign language (EFL) classroom.

Professor Steven Reiss has proposed a theory that found 16 basic desires that guide nearly all human behavior. The focus of research on motivation in the ESL classroom is on intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.   Lile provides a good overview of the application of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation in the classroom as well as some practical suggestions.

My observation is that most American teachers in Asia tend to think that Americans have more intrinsic motivation and Asians have more extrinsic motivation.  In language terms this is framed as integrative motivation (intrinsic) versus instrumental motivation(extrinsic). I might agree that Asians study English because this subject can lead to career advancement when they graduate but I think the picture is actually much more complex.

Below are the 16 basic desires listed by Reiss and I would like to suggest that there are consistent cross-cultural differences. My analysis is informal, subjective and speculative but based upon more than 20 years living in nine different countries. This is a post on my personal blog not a research article! Perhaps my blog post will MOTIVATE a researcher to follow up with empirical research that can be published in a peer reviewed research journal.

I am American. I lived in China for one year and Taiwan for seven years so I do have some familiarity with Chinese culture. In my opinion Chinese and Taiwanese are only slightly different in the area of motivation. Chinese/Taiwanese on the other hand as a group are very different from Americans. Below is a table comparing the US and China using Hofstede’s Dimensions.

Hofstede US vs China

I have five years of teaching Americans at the secondary level and ten years of experience teaching Americans at the college level. Below is a record of my thoughts followed by a table that provides a synopsis of my analysis.

Acceptance – The need for approval

The US scores higher on Hofstede’s individualism score than China so probably acceptance is a higher motivation in China than the US. Many Chinese universities do have an official class leader. I have found that choosing one or two students to be class leaders when this formal mechanism is not present does seem to motivate the top students and I think most Americans would find this practice elitist and at odds with their egalitarian sensibilities.

Curiosity – The need to learn

Americans are perhaps the most curious people I have ever lived with. Curiosity is almost a defining characteristic of Americans. As a teacher who has taught in American and Chinese settings I have had to adapt my teaching style by relying less on curiosity as a the motivating factor in my lessons. However, Chinese, based purely on my experience, are more curious than perhaps Thai students, who I have taught for over six years. There are ethnographic studies that show American students are very active in the classroom compared to their Asian counterparts. Inductive lessons seem to work better with Americans since inductive lessons rely heavily on curiosity.

Eating – The need for food

I would say food is a more central part of Chinese culture than American culture but this is a very subjective view. At the college level, students are much more likely to take their respected university American teacher out to dinner in China. Conversely, rewarding your top students with a dinner at a restaurant can instill an incredible amount of loyalty among your Chinese students. This practice might seem a little elitist to many Americans but is not unheard of in the US.

Family – The need to raise children

Again as a measurably more collectivist culture, China is generally presumed to view family as being more important than Americans. At the practical level this means Chinese students may miss class because of family obligations. Chinese parents can and do order their adult college students to attend family functions. For example, my Chinese students studying in Thailand can be told by their parents that they need to go home for Chinese New Year. Officially Chinese New Year is not a holiday in Thailand. An American teacher should reflect that giving a Chinese student more leeway in this area than an American student might be a positive cultural adaptation on the part of the teacher that will instill more loyalty in the students in the long run.

Honor – The need to be loyal to the traditional values of one’s clan/ethnic group

As defined above, China clearly values honor more than Americans. American is a multi-cultural country and even defining “American” values is difficult. However, there are some transcultural values such as a commitment to democracy that are very strong in Americans. Criticizing your host country in class is a bad idea anywhere but is probably an even worse idea in China. Discussion of the Three Ts (Taiwan, Tibet, and Tiananmen) in China in an inappropriate manner can lead to your quick dismissal from your teaching post.

Idealism – The need for social justice

Americans have a very strong commitment to democracy and that includes strong views about social justice including a strong commitment to equality under the law, privacy, and the rights of the individual overall. Discussions about politics may lead to dead silence in your college class in China. There may be less interest in the topic and of course the students may correctly assume this is a topic that can get everyone involved into trouble.   As mentioned, the three T’s, Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan are probably best avoided in classroom discussions in China. This is the one area in which Taiwan is very different. You have a much, much more freedom to discuss politics in Taiwan but I would say once again this might be a topic Taiwanese are not all that interested in compared to Americans.

Independence – The need for individuality

As measured by Hoftstede, the US is much more individualistic than China. Autonomy is a large goal for many Americans at work and in life. I think my biggest surprise in Asia has been that many college students are studying majors their parents want them to rather than majors they want to study. Asian students do seem less willing to share class work alone and would rather share work with the class with a group or a classmate. Having a student read their paper alone in front of the class might actually be perceived as punishment by many Chinese students.

Order – The need for organized, stable, predictable environments

There is a lot of overlap between this concept and Hofstede’s concept of uncertainty avoidance. China scores higher on uncertainty avoidance. Chinese might prefer a more predictable environment than US students.

Physical activity – The need for exercise

I don’t perceive a lot of difference between American and Chinese students in this area. Chinese universities sometimes have a physical education requirement that is not present in American universities. However, both countries suffer from rising obesity albeit the US more so than China for now.

Power – The need for influence of will.

Hofstede’s power distance dimension applies to this area directly. There is much higher power distance teachers and students in a Chinese classroom than in an American classroom. I do think Chinese students will be less comfortable with extracurricular activities without strong teacher supervision and certainly the Chinese system will not allow them a much freedom as in the US. However, that doesn’t mean the Chinese students don’t want more power over their lives. Chinese in a work setting do seem to be willing to go to great lengths to achieve more power.

Romance – The need for sex and for beauty

Maybe a long time ago China was less driven by consumerism and the message that everyone should be sexy and beautiful. I think nowadays both countries put a premium on romantic needs as part of a successful life.

Saving – The need to collect

Chinese have a higher uncertainty avoidance index and a tradition of saving more income than Americans.

Social contact – The need for friends (peer relationships)

China is less individualistic than the US and peer relationships are much more important than in the US.

Social status – The need for social standing/importance

Both Chinese and Americans put a premium on social standing. I would say this is something that both countries have in common.

Tranquility – The need to be safe

Again, China has a higher uncertainty avoidance score so a desire for tranquility is probably higher among Chinese students than American students.

Vengeance – The need to strike back and to compete

There is a Chinese legalistic tradition that favors harsh punishment in order to maintain social harmony. In theory harsh punishment is not about revenge but historically this has not always been the case. The US probably emphasizes due process more than any other country in the world and certainly more so than China! Due process does make using the system to exact revenge using state resources more difficult regardless of motivation.

 

Links

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201407/16-ways-motivate-anyone

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivation#Intrinsic_motivation_and_the_16_basic_desires_theory

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