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What Influences a Person’s Psychological Boundaries?

Personal sovereignty in Russia, Armenia, and China


Professor Sofya Nartova-Bochaver of the HSE School of Psychology and colleagues from universities in Armenia and China conducted a comparative analysis of the psychological boundaries of individuals living in different countries. The results indicate that age and sex play a greater role in the formation of those boundaries than culture does.

Every day, people must defend their boundaries in relation to their own body, home, personal belongings, friends, tastes, and values. People whose boundaries are well defined in each of these areas are considered ‘sovereign individuals,’ while those with poorly defined boundaries are referred to as ‘deprived.’

Psychological sovereignty is a personality trait that forms in childhood and manifests itself as the ability to defend one’s personal space — that is, to maintain a balance between one’s personal needs and the desires of others.

The six parameters that determine personal sovereignty

Body. To what extent can a person tolerate a violation of bodily comfort? This includes physical coercion, force-feeding (for example, of children), wearing uncomfortable clothing, etc.

Territory. This refers to a person’s home, including their room, apartment, and plot of land.

Things (Personal belongings), including money, car, and personal computer. To what extent does a person feel comfortable with others using their things?

Routine habits. How does a person feel about a disruption to their daily routine? How unpleasant is it for a ‘night owl’ to be active in the early morning, and vice versa?

Social contacts. This includes relatives, friends, and even pets — everyone with whom a person interacts regularly. How important is it for a person to choose with whom and when they communicate?

Tastes and values. Is a person easily manipulated?

A person’s environment influences and helps form their personal sovereignty. Family members can either violate or strengthen personal boundaries. If a child is raised in a friendly family atmosphere and his wishes are respected and fulfilled, he does not require additional protection and his personal boundaries remain intact. Thus, the level of personal sovereignty reflects the extent to which a family is ready to respect the growing child’s needs.

Earlier empirical studies have shown that personal sovereignty helps youth and adolescents to adapt. In particular, it has a positive effect on a person’s self-esteem, gives them greater confidence, and reduces anxiety.

Researchers have also found that personal sovereignty is more developed among men than women and is stronger among adolescents than youth. At the same time, young people’s inherent desire to defend their personal boundaries decreases as they grow older. Researchers attribute this to adults’ readiness to start a family and to share their personal space with others.

In order to understand how the culture of a particular society affects the formation of personal sovereignty, the HSE School of Psychology professor worked with colleagues from the State University of Yerevan and Xiamen University of China to conduct cross-cultural comparative research. In all, 780 people were surveyed: 361 men and 419 women, of whom 223 were from Armenia, 277 from China, and 280 from Russia. The respondents also belonged to two age groups: adolescents averaging 13 years of age and youth aged 21.

The study focused on Armenia, China, and Russia because the countries share a history of socialism and collectivism. At the same time, each country prioritizes a different set of values. Armenia places greater emphasis on such traditional values as religion and family, whereas Chinese and Russian societies share a more secular and rational outlook.

All respondents were asked to complete a questionnaire designed in 2010 specifically to determine the level of personal sovereignty. Participants either agreed or disagreed with 67 statements related to the six parameters of personal sovereignty. Each statement described a situation that the respondents might find unpleasant or provocative. For example: ‘Even as a child I was sure nobody touched my toys when I was absent,’ or ‘I often felt offended when adults punished me with slapping and cuffing.’

The results indicate that the surrounding culture does not influence overall level of personal sovereignty. However, individual parameters varied widely between countries. For example, Chinese respondents were most apt to defend their tastes and values, Russians expressed the strongest sovereignty with regard to their bodies, and Armenians were the least concerned about belongings sovereignty.

By age group, youth had a higher level of personal sovereignty than adolescents did. This was reflected primarily in attitudes towards personal territory and time habits sovereignty.

The study found no significant gender based differences. However, women had more clearly defined psychological boundaries regarding their time habits and values, while men were more concerned with territory sovereignty.

When factoring for both gender and culture, researchers found that in Armenia and Russia, men were more adamant about their social contacts, while in China women exhibited these traits.

In terms of both age and culture, in Russia and China the level of personal sovereignty increases as people age, while in Armenia no such trend is evident.

When factoring for both gender and age, researchers found that both male and female adolescents defend their personal boundaries to an almost identical degree. As they mature, however, girls devote more attention to defending their value and belonging sovereignty whereas sovereignty in these areas declines in boys as they grow older.

When looking at personal sovereignty in terms of all three factors of culture, gender, and age, female Chinese adolescents and young Armenian women showed the lowest main sovereignty scores, while young Russian and Chinese women had the highest.

The researchers explain the difference between sovereignty indicators for Chinese girls and Chinese young women as resulting from the fact that the sample group was drawn from among university youth. Chinese girls living in rural areas who have no access to higher education probably have a less clearly defined sense of personal boundaries.


Study Authors:
Sofya Nartova-Bochaver, Professor, School of Psychology, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences
Anna Hakobjanyan, Svetlana Harutyunyan, Narine Khachatryan, Yerevan State University
Michael Wu, Xiamen University
December 26, 2018