World-reowned psychologist Fanny Cheung has worked to eliminate cultural and scientific blind spots at home and abroad.
By Danny LaChance
When it comes to family, everyone is an armchair psychologist. But what happens when you're living with grandparents, 12 brothers and sisters, three uncles, their spouses, and countless cousins? What happens, indeed, when your family occupies every floor of a six-story building?
Then, it seems, you end up pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology. At least if you're Fanny Cheung, the current chair of Chinese University's Department of Psychology in Hong Kong.
“I had a lot of opportunities to watch complex human interactions," Cheung recalls of her girlhood in Hong Kong. She'd watch, fascinated, as the nannies her family employed to help rear the household's children would compete with one another, bragging about the achievements of their particular charges. Adults in the family, meanwhile, would often conduct serious discussions behind closed doors. When they emerged, Cheung would study their facial expressions and behavior, trying to divine their secrets.
These days, Cheung draws her conclusions about human personality not through furtive glances across rooms, but through the pathbreaking tests she's developed over the course of her 30-year career in psychology. Cheung, who earned her Ph.D. from Minnesota's Department of Psychology in 1975, is a world-renowned expert in personality assessment.
Cheung returned to Hong Kong after finishing her degree. There, she eventually developed an entirely new personality test, the Cross-cultural (Chinese) Personality Assessment Inventory (CPAI). It measures those elements of personality ignored by western assessment tools, such as our attitudes and approaches to interpersonal relationships.
While she was inspired by the work that had been done in personality assessment before and during her tenure in Minnesota, Cheung recognized some of its potential blind spots. “Dominant Western personality theories tend to focus on the individual," she explains. “But in collectivistic cultures," like the one in which she had been raised, “the relationships between the individual and other people are an important part of personality."
It's not that Westerners and Easterners have different personality traits, Cheung explains. The difference lies, she says, in what counts as a personality trait in cultures. “Personality factors may be packaged differently in different cultural settings," she explains. The Chinese, for instance, often describe personality in terms of one's preference for harmony—a rarity in Western culture.
Cheung has also been working to eliminate another kind of blind spot since her return home. In 1975, she says, it wasn't uncommon for newspapers' help wanted ads to include gender and physical ability amongst a list of required qualifications applicants needed for a job. One-third of newspaper ads were still doing so in 1996, when Cheung became the first chair of Hong Kong's Equal Opportunity Commission (EOC).
To help implement anti-discrimination laws that had been passed in the territory, the EOC launched ad campaigns exposing the damage caused by gender stereotypes. One commercial produced for the campaign showed a man in downtown Hong Kong slowly turning into an ape as he made sexist remarks. “I wasn't sure about that one initially," says Cheung, laughing. “But the message got through." Just two years after the public awareness campaign launched, nearly 90 percent of the public knew about the EOC, up from 35 percent in 1996.
The next phase of the campaign for gender equality needs to emphasize the benefits for men, Cheung says. “Men sometimes think of equality of the sexes as requiring them to give something up," she explains. “We want to show them that they gain, too." Most men want more time with their children, she notes, something that gender parity would enable.
It's at this intersection of psychology and public policy, Cheung says, that she hopes to establish her legacy: a future, she hopes, in which help wanted ads excluding women will seem as bizarre as apes in downtown Hong Kong.