Motivated Identity Construction in Cultural Context

Welcome to the Workspace for the Research Project 'Motivated Identity Construction in Cultural Context'

On this site you can read about the objectives, methodology, and findings of our research. You can discover who contributed to the project, and download abstracts and publications. Our project was financed by the ESRC (click here to see our project page on the ESRC website).

Project at a Glance

Beyond basic needs for food, water, affiliation and security, people’s thoughts and actions are often guided by symbolic needs, including identity motives - which predispose people to see themselves in particular ways.

Research has shown that people in contemporary Western societies are motivated to see themselves positively (the self-esteem motive), as distinguished from others (the distinctiveness motive), persisting through time (the continuity motive), accepted by others (the belonging motive), competent and capable (the efficacy motive), and having meaning and purpose (the meaning motive). However, researchers have debated the relevance of these motives to people in non-Western cultures - the majority of the world’s population.

We conducted two large-scale survey studies measuring the strengths of identity motives, sources of motive satisfaction, and cultural beliefs and values, among over 12,000 participants across 33 nations. Supporting a middle way between ‘universalist’ and ‘relativist’ perspectives, identity motives varied little in strength, but ways of satisfying each motive varied considerably with beliefs and values across diverse cultural groupings. Thus, a common set of motives underlies the different expressions and outcomes of identity observed across cultures. This improved understanding may be beneficial to practitioners in domains from psychotherapy to education, health promotion, business management, social cohesion, and international relations.

Research Objectives

Our original research objectives were:

  • RO1. To test the generality of Vignoles and colleagues’ (2006) findings beyond Europe.
  • RO2. To test predictions that ways of satisfying motives for positive self-regard, continuity, distinctiveness, belonging, efficacy and meaning vary meaningfully among different sociocultural groups.
  • RO3. To test explanations of this variation in terms of broad and specific dimensions of psychological culture, as well as dimensions of ecocultural context (especially indices of economic development and urbanisation), measured at national, group and/or individual levels of analysis.
  • RO4. To test whether additional motivational constructs proposed by our collaborators are best understood as additional motives or as indigenous ways of satisfying the motives currently theorised.

To address these objectives, it was necessary also to establish reliable and cross-culturally valid measures of several dimensions of cultural orientation included in our predictions. Cross-cultural psychology already has a well-established, theoretically-derived and empirically-validated approach to measuring value priorities at individual and contextual levels of analysis, but we sought to complement this with advances in the conceptualisation and measurement of two further, equally important domains of culture: personhood beliefs and self-construals.

Participants and Procedure

We assembled a collaboration network spanning 38 nations. We targeted nations (Study 1 and 2) and cultural groups (Study 2) to provide maximally diverse coverage of global cultural variation. For financial and practical reasons, sampling was necessarily opportunistic within each targeted group.

Ethical approval was obtained from our university Research Governance Committee, and from local committees where appropriate. No special ethical problems arose during the research.

Study 1 addressed the outlined objectives among high school students in 19 nations; a longitudinal design was used to give confidence about causal relationships among the variables studied; effects of culture was tested using individual-level and cultural-level measures of cultural orientation. 5254 individuals (55% females, mean age = 16.8, SD = 1.7) in 19 nations answered our first questionnaire; 3508 individuals in 16 nations answered our second questionnaire around 5 months later.

Study 2 used a simplified design to reach adults in a larger number of cultural groups, aiming to sample maximum possible cultural diversity between and within nations, in order to provide the strongest possible test of RO1 and to replicate and extend Study 1 findings concerning RO2-RO4 in a maximally diverse sample. 7279 individuals (56% females, mean age = 35.0, SD = 13.0) from 55 cultural groups in 33 nations responded to a shortened and simplified questionnaire.

Participants responded in their native languages. Before translation, collaborators helped us to culturally ‘decentre’ our measures. Translations were checked and amended using independent back-translations.

Design and Measures

Both studies employed a multilevel survey design:

Within-person measures. Adapting the methodology of Vignoles et al. (2006), participants freely listed up to 10 aspects of their identities, then completed ratings measuring (1) the relative priority of each identity aspect within subjective identity structures, (2) the extent to which it satisfied our hypothesised identity motives, (3) the extent to which it possessed characteristics that we predicted would be satisfying to particular motives in particular cultural contexts, and (4) additional constructs suggested by our collaborators. In Study 1, participants reviewed their list of identity aspects and repeated these ratings at Time 2. In Study 2, participants listed just 8 identity aspects and rated them on fewer dimensions.

Individual-level measures. We measured various dimensions of cultural orientation including values, personhood beliefs, self-construals, religiosity, and community orientation. Where possible, we used existing, well-validated measures; other measures were developed and validated during the project. Individuals’ scores were interpreted as measuring cultural internalisation.

Cultural and nation-level measures. Using the cultural orientation measures, we calculated mean scores for each cultural group (Study 2) and each nation (both studies) to represent the cultural context. We also collated relevant archival measures of national context, including indicators of economic development, inequality, democratisation, religious variables, population variables, ecological threats, and previous psychological indices.


Analyses were conducted using SPSS, HLM, MLwin, AMOS and Mplus software.

Cultural orientation measures were corrected for acquiescent response bias; new measures were refined using multigroup and multilevel CFA and cross-validated with external measures.

Our main analyses used multilevel modelling. At the within-person level, we modelled identity priority based on motive satisfaction ratings, and we modelled motive satisfaction ratings based on theorised sources of motive satisfaction. We added cross-level interactions, testing whether the strengths of identity motives, or routes to motive satisfaction, were moderated by individual or group-level variations in cultural orientation, or by other features of national context.