The Role of Culture on Success

I and other social science professionals believe that cultural and ethnic affiliation significantly shapes who we are. Here, I look at the known connection between culture, achievement and “success”.

I place the term success in quotes, because, in some ways, success is in the eye of the beholder. We tend to use financial earnings as only one indicator. Other markers include self-satisfaction, degrees of approval and recognition from others, and demonstrated high achievement in other facets of life.

In the social sciences, we recognize that enculturation is learned, and acquired in a dynamic manner. And it starts even before birth! The Chua and Rubenfeld article recently published in the New York Times articulates the success of Jewish-Americans, Indian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, and Mormans, to name several groupings. These authors illuminate the following three factors as being highly predictive of success:

  1. a sense of exceptionality
  2. a feeling of insecurity
  3. high impulse control

As I read through their article, I recognized the psychosocial concepts of high self-efficacy, low fear of failure, and high achievement need that are also highly predictive of those who are successful. Self-efficacy involves both a sense of confidence and of competence. Low fear of failure is mediated by high self-efficacy so we are motivated to continue our efforts despite some unsuccesses along the way. In regards to impulse control, they are really talking about the ability to delay gratification over a protracted time, and not surrender to disappointment and frustration.

Chua and Rubenfeld add that the paradoxical insecurity that the above groups experience is balanced by a deep respect for their parents, and even their ancestors: they resolve to honor the sacrifices made on their behalf. They are also motivated to do well based, in part, by a sense of social marginalization to mainstream material-oriented American culture. Thus, they feel a need to prove themselves time and time again.

In sociology, I talk a lot about role sets. In each role set, there are obligations to others, responsibilities to others, and expectations by others of us. There is a concept in psychology and research confirming the “Big Five” personality traits that are common across cultures. One of the five is consciousness. We tend to differentiate societies and cultures into those that are primarily collective, and those that are primarily individualistic. Those from collective societies feel stronger social ties. And those of us, who take our role sets seriously, achieve more than those who do not. Thus, culture/ethnicity significantly certainly plays a role in achievement and success.


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Image via Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock.

Richard Kensinger, MSW

Richard Kensinger, MSW, has over forty years of clinical experience in behavioral healthcare as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and faculty member in the Psychology Department, Mount Aloysius College. He has also taught at Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, and Temple University. He is also a lover of "football", known in the USA as soccer. He is currently associated for over 30 years with youth "football", 26 as a referee.
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