In Brief

Personal enemies like Peter Pan and Captain Hook are widespread in Western film and literature; however, most Americans do not personally identify with the concept of personal enemies in their everyday lives.

That stands in contrast with the experience of people in many West African settings, according to a study in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 6) that found that many Ghanaians commonly perceive others as enemies in their everyday world, including in newspaper letters to the editor, video entertainment and Ghanaian songs like "Fear Your Neighbor."

Lead researcher Glenn Adams, PhD, a University of Kansas psychology professor also teaching at the University of Toronto, suggests his study can inform social psychologists' understanding of the particular constructions of reality that underlie people's relationship experience in any setting.

"It's important to look under the surface at the sociocultural foundations that are taken for granted," he says. "Those foundations structure people's experiences of relationships in different settings."

To discern cultural differences, the researchers interviewed 40 Americans and 48 Ghanaians either alone or in groups of two or three people. The researchers asked the participants to explain whether they had enemies, first without specifying a definition and then asking according to a standard definition, "Are there people who hate you, personally, to the extent of wishing for your downfall or trying to sabotage your progress?"

Then, the researchers asked the participants their impression of a person who denied having enemies and a person who was certain they were the target of hatred, malice and sabotage from unidentified enemies.

Ghanaian participants were nearly three times more likely than American participants to report being the target of enemies. Furthermore, while most of American participants considered a person who thought they had an unidentified enemy as abnormal, nearly half the Ghanaian participants considered a person who thought they had no enemies as foolish.

Adams suggests that the study shows that both Ghanaian and American belief patterns may be grounded in different realities, rather than depicting distortions of some objective reality.

"People in West African settings tend to inhabit realities of dense, interpersonal connection in which enemies, like relationships in general, are considered a fact of human existence," Adams says. "In contrast, people in North American settings have a sense of freedom from enemies because they inhabit realities that promote an experience of relationship as a choice--they imagine that they can choose not to have enemies."

Adams notes that one example of the cultures' differences is in their domestic lives. West Africans' families can often include multiple wives and children who reside in the same compound and are interdependent. As a result, Adams says, tensions may arise in such situations more often than in mainstream American settings, in which people are more isolated and independent.

In future studies, Adams aims to investigate the implications of different relationship realities for friendship, attraction and intimacy.