A small study published in the journal PLoS One, titled “Who’s Afraid of the Boss,” reveals key cultural differences in the way people react to their superiors. The study notes a particularly stark difference between Chinese and Americans. Researchers in both countries showed subjects a rapid series of photographs, asking them to press a button either when they recognized themselves or their boss. The abstract states:
Human adults typically respond faster to their own face than to the faces of others. However, in Chinese participants, this self-face advantage is lost in the presence of one’s supervisor, and they respond faster to their supervisor’s face than to their own.
Americans, on the other hand, are predictably different in light of a cultural emphasis on independence rather than collectivism.
We found that European Americans, unlike Chinese participants, did not show a “boss effect” and maintained the self-face advantage even in the presence of their supervisor’s face. Interestingly, however, their self-face advantage decreased as their ratings of their boss’s perceived social status increased, suggesting that self-processing in Americans is influenced more by one’s social status than by one’s hierarchical position as a social superior.
The study concludes with some thoughts on the nature of power and hierarchy:
Specifically, we suggest that the concept of a “boss” may hold vastly different meanings for individuals from East Asian versus Western cultures, representing a personal social threat in the former and general social dominance in the latter.