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Who is stronger, David or Goliath?

New research from Queen’s University says the answer depends on your culture.

New research from Queen’s University has revealed the way people evaluate an opponent in a competition can be drastically different depending on cultures.

Li-Jun Ji, a professor in the Department of Psychology, and Albert Lee, a former Queen’s PhD student (now a professor at Nanyang Technological University), have found that people around the world decipher the appearance of their opponents in competitions in different ways. For many North Americans of European descent, an opponent is perceived as threatening when he or she shows signs of strength or advantages in appearance, such as looking powerful, strong, confident, intimidating, and so on.

For many people in Asia, such as the Chinese, an opponent is perceived as threatening when he or she shows no sign of strength. It is not a tough-looking opponent that the Chinese would fear, but an opponent who looks ordinary or weak.

“We are borrowing on the story of Goliath (a gigantic, mighty-looking warrior) and David (a small, weak-looking shepherd) from the Bible,” says Dr. Ji. “So, if we ask people ‘Who do you watch out for in a tournament, Goliath or David?’ our research suggests that the answer depends. If you were a Canadian or American of European descent, you tend to fear Goliath. If you came from a Chinese background, you tend to fear David.”

Dr. Ji explains such cultural differences can be explained by the differences in philosophical stances between Western and Eastern cultures. Grounded in many schools of Eastern philosophy is the principle that appearance is misleading. This principle, however, is much less apparent in the Western philosophical traditions.

The new research translates into everyday life as we are often competing with others for a goal.

“We could be competing with others for a spot in hiring, a medal at a sporting event or a slice of the market if we are working in business,” Dr. Lee says. “From this angle, I believe that an average person would benefit from knowing a little more about the role culture plays in how people behave and think, especially in situations involving head-to-head encounters among people.”

The next steps of the research include broadening the scope to other areas of life, such as situations that are not competitive in their nature, but they still require people to make judgments based on appearance. The team of the researchers are also interested in investigating whether people from different cultures would choose to present themselves in different ways, especially in competitive settings.

The research was published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.