Positive illusions have a welcome place in most relationships, especially romantic relationships. It is unclear, however, whether individuals from different cultures are viewed in an overly positive way, or enhanced, by their partners to the same extent. This set of five studies (n = 196-286 per quantitative study) examined patterns of enhancement by a partner (also known as partner-enhancement) among young couples in the US and in China.
In Study 1, I surveyed undergraduates (n = 286) who were currently in romantic relationships and found similarities in levels of perceived enhancement by a partner (PEP) for Asian, European, and Hispanic Americans, despite ethnic differences in self-ratings consistent with previous research that documented lower self-enhancement among Asians. Additionally, for all ethnic groups, PEP varied by attribute type, such that physical attractiveness was perceived to be the most enhanced of four attribute types (the other attribute types were related to kindness, intelligence, and outgoingness).
In Study 2, I surveyed dating couples (n = 236) to test ethnic differences in actual enhancement by a partner (AEP). As with Study 1, East Asian, Southeast Asian, Hispanic, and European Americans were similar in levels of AEP. Also consistent with prior research and findings of Study 1, East Asian Americans rated themselves less positively than did European Americans. Furthermore, physical attractiveness was again the attribute most enhanced by romantic partners.
In Study 3 (n = 248), I obtained, in addition to the original measures of PEP and AEP, measures of PEP and AEP based upon third-party ratings of physical attractiveness. That is, partner-enhancement was assessed using third-party ratings, instead of self-ratings, as the baseline. Also, I examined possible ethnic differences in associations between partner-enhancement and relationship quality. Findings were consistent with Studies 1 and 2, in that East Asian, Southeast Asian, Hispanic, and European Americans showed few differences in third-party-based partner-enhancement or in the original measures of partner-enhancement. For all cultural groups, physical attractiveness was again the most enhanced. Few ethnic differences were detected in associations between partner-enhancement and relationship quality. The exceptions indicated that partner-enhancement may be less beneficial for Asians than for European Americans. Across the four ethnic groups, PEP was more positively associated with relationship quality than was AEP, and partner-enhancement of relational attributes (e.g., kindness) was generally more positively associated with relationship quality than was partner-enhancement of personal attributes (e.g., intelligence, outgoingness, physical attractiveness).
In Study 4, given that the lack of ethnic differences in Studies 1 through 3 might have been due to participants' acculturation to American norms, I examined patterns of partner-enhancement in a sample of young couples living in China (n = 196), comparing them to the sample in Study 3. Although Chinese rated themselves lower on all attribute types than did Americans, Chinese and Americans were similar in levels of PEP and AEP. For both groups, physical attractiveness was the most enhanced attribute type. Associations between partner-enhancement and relationship quality were generally similar for the two groups, with three exceptions out of eight comparisons. These exceptions indicated that partner-enhancement may be less beneficial for the relationship quality of Chinese than of Americans.
Finally, in Study 5, I conducted focus groups of young college students in the US (n = 28) and China (n = 34) who were currently in romantic relationships to understand the underlying motivations behind partner-enhancement. Results indicated that Americans had individual-oriented motivations for partner-enhancement, whereas Chinese had social-oriented motivations.
In summary, across the first four studies, there were similarities in levels of partner-enhancement on selected attributes across ethnic and national groups despite differences in self-ratings on these attributes. These cross-cultural similarities in levels of partner-enhancement held across attribute types (e.g., relational and personal traits) and informants (i.e., participants, their partners, independent raters). Partner-enhancement was also similarly associated with relationship quality across cultural groups, with only a few examples showing that partner-enhancement of certain attribute types may be less beneficial to relationship quality in eastern than western culture. Based on responses from the focus groups that I conducted, this pattern might be due to feelings of pressure to live up to a partner’s high expectations (from partner-enhancement) among Asians, which contrast with feelings of confidence derived from partner-enhancement among Americans. In conclusion, partner-enhancement may be more culture-general than self-enhancement, but its motivations may differ cross-culturally, and attribute type and informant should be considered when studying partner-enhancement.