Home CV Research Publication Project Lab Courses Useful Links

Research Interests

My primary focus is on the psychological factors that contribute to social adaptation, including emotion, personality, social working memory, and acculturation strategy. In my research, I merge diverse theoretical frameworks (e.g., social, cognitive, and cultural) with contemporary psychometric and social-cognitive methodologies to investigate a number of fundamental questions concerning emotion, culture, social adaptation, and psychological well-being. Below I briefly describe past and current projects based on three distinct, but interconnected, lines of research.

I. Emotion, Culture, and Psychological Well-being

1. Individual Differences in Emotional Complexity

In my dissertation project, I explored the role of emotion in interpersonal adjustment. Emotion theorists and researchers have contended that emotion plays an important role in adaptation to the environment, and they have focused attention on emotional expressiveness in this regard. However, few studies have been designed to explore the significance of emotional complexity for adaptation. I conceptualized emotional complexity as a person (a) having a wide range of emotional experiences and (b) being able to make subtle distinctions within emotion categories. Based on an extensive literature review, I hypothesized that varied and well-differentiated emotional experience would be related to a tendency to be aware of thoughts and feelings, to be cognitively complex, to be more open to new experiences in general, to understand other people’s feelings in interpersonal situations, and to be better adjusted socially. To test these hypotheses, I developed the Range and Differentiation of Emotional Experience Scale (RDEES) and used it in several large-scale studies. The results supported all of the hypotheses, providing extensive evidence for the RDEES’s construct validity (Kang & Shaver, 2004).

2. Cultural Differences in Emotional Complexity, Relationship Quality, and Well-Being

Based partly on personal experience and intuitions and partly on results of my studies that suggested differences between Asian American and European American students in my dissertation studies, I expanded my research on emotional complexity and interpersonal adjustment to include cross-cultural comparisons. Because it has been argued that maintaining harmonious interpersonal relationships should be a crucial component of self-esteem in collectivistic cultures (Markus & Kitayama, 1991), I reasoned that having well-differentiated emotional experience plays an especially important role in those societies. Further, I hypothesized that maintaining good interpersonal relationships would make individuals in collectivistic cultures not only feel good about their lives but also feel better about themselves. I tested these hypotheses with European American, Asian American, Korean, and Chinese groups using multi-group analyses in a structural equation model. Results supported my hypotheses and indicated that emotional differentiation contributes to maintaining good interpersonal relationships in collectivistic cultures, which contributes to self-esteem and satisfaction with life (Kang, Shaver, Sue, Min, & Jing, 2003).

3. Cultural Differences in Emotion Recognition: Out-group Advantage or Methodological Artifacts?

Another important aspect of emotion that contributes to social adaptation is emotion recognition. If individuals know how their interaction partners feel in the course of an interaction, this information would play an important role in maintaining a smooth interaction. One of the intriguing arguments related to this issue is that there is an “out-group advantage” in emotion recognition (Elfenbein & Ambady, 2002). A literature review revealed that minority group members tend to understand the majority’s emotional expressions better than they understand their own. Elfenbein and Ambady (2002) attributed this perplexing finding to the relative power and status of majority and minority groups in a society. This out-group advantage should be interpreted with caution, however, due to possible methodological confounds. For example, empirical studies have shown that when more complex dynamic stimuli were utilized instead of static stimuli in emotion recognition, cultural differences tended to be smaller (Rosenthal, Hall, DiMatteo, Rogers, & Archer, 1979). Because the studies that found an out-group advantage were based mainly on posed emotional expressions (i.e., static pictures), it would be interesting to explore whether the out-group advantage would still emerge when more dynamic stimuli (i.e., video clips) are employed. The main purpose of this project is to reexamine the validity of the out-group advantage in emotion recognition using more ecologically valid stimuli. I finished collecting data to address this issue, with European Americans and Asian Americans as the target majority and minority groups from two different sites (CSUN and UCLA), and currently working on a manuscript with Dr. Anna Lau at UCLA.

II. Psychometric Issues in Cross-Cultural Research

1. Acculturation, Scale Format, and Language Competency

Acculturation has emerged as one of the main research topics in psychology because of its association with psychological well-being among ethnic minorities (Rogler, Cortes, & Malgady, 1991; Suinn, Richard-Figueroa, Lew, & Vigil, 1987), and a number of scales that measure individual differences in the acculturation process have been developed during the past two decades under the influence of the bidimensional model of acculturation (Berry, 1984). I wondered why a number of the existing bidimensional acculturation tests did not show the expected independence between ethnic and mainstream cultural orientations (e.g., Birman, Trickett, & Vinokurov, 2002; Flannery, Reise, & Yu, 2001, Nguyen & von Eye, 2002; Tsai, 2001). I suspected that the lack of independence is partially due to the adoption of a specific scale format. I hypothesized that unique structural features commonly found in bidimensional acculturation instruments (paired questions that differ only in their cultural orientations and utilize the “frequency” format) cause strong inverse associations between the two cultural orientations. This study also explored the relative importance of language competency compared to the other domains of acculturation in the prediction of psychosocial adjustment. As predicted, results from a sample of 489 Asian-Americans supported the hypothesis that the scale formats contribute to the lack of orthogonality. They also showed that language competency was a stronger predictor of adjustment than the other domains of acculturation, implying that language competency is an important indicator of acculturation among Asian-Americans. A paper based on this study was published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology (Kang, 2006).

2. Measurement Issues and Item Response Theory

I am also interested in measurement issues and the application of Item Response Theory (IRT), an important contemporary model of test quality. Dr. Niels Waller (Vanderbilt University) and I have been interested in the issue of levels of measurement (ordinal vs. interval scales) and have explored when and how a spurious interaction effect might be generated due to the use of an inappropriate scale. For this project, I wrote a Fortran program calibrating item parameters and scoring latent ability. The results from Monte Carlo simulation studies suggest that IRT could be used to guard against spurious interaction effects (Kang & Waller, 2005). Although IRT could be a very useful tool for assessing individual and cultural differences, it has been underutilized in these research areas. One of my research goals is to rigorously apply IRT to personality and cross-cultural studies. For example, it is possible to develop a comprehensive computerized personality test (similar to the computerized GRE test) because item difficulty and item discrimination parameters can be calibrated through IRT, which also opens a new door to assess and understand cultural differences at the item level. Using a Differential Item Functioning analysis, I am currently exploring cross-cultural differences in self-esteem and optimism between collectivistic and individualistic societies with the collaboration with scholars in China, Taiwan, and Japan (Kang, Nakamura, & Liu, 2007).

III. Social Working Memory, Multiple Social Tasks, and High-Functioning Autism/Asperger Syndrome

In another line of research, I am developing a new measure of “social intelligence” by applying the concept of working memory and its framework to the area of social intelligence. The concept of social intelligence emerged from the observation that a high IQ does not necessarily guarantee successful interpersonal relationships beyond academic achievement (e.g., Felsman & Vaillant, 1987; Vaillant, 1977). In addition to verbal and spatial intelligence, psychologists suspected that there might be a third type of intelligence that explains people’s social functioning (Brody, 1992). However, research on social intelligence has sputtered during the past century, mainly because of the failure to develop a sound measure of the construct (Hedlund & Sternberg, 2000; Kihlstrom & Cantor, 2000; Walker & Foley, 1973). The purpose of my project is to assess individual differences in social intelligence by applying the concept of working memory. Adopting a working memory perspective, I define the core aspect of social intelligence as the mental ability to handle multiple social tasks efficiently, and I hypothesize that individuals with a larger social working memory capacity should be recognized as more socially and interpersonally adjusted than those with a lower capacity. To test this hypothesis, I developed a new social intelligence task called “Multiple Social Tasks (MST)” and written with Visual Basic. To establish the construct validity of the MST, a series of studies will be conducted for the next several years. I will explore whether performance on the MST can predict social skills assessed by peer- and observer-ratings (predictive validity) and also whether it distinguishes individuals with high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome from normally developed individuals (discriminant validity). If the construct validity of the MST is successfully established through these studies, this new test will be a useful tool to reevaluate a spectrum of interpersonal adjustment problems, including social impairment in high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome.

Home | Top