ISSN 0439-755X
CN 11-1911/B

Acta Psychologica Sinica ›› 2024, Vol. 56 ›› Issue (1): 107-123.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1041.2024.00107

• Reports of Empirical Studies • Previous Articles     Next Articles

“Neijuan” in China: The psychological concept and its characteristic dimensions

ZHANG Wen1,2, PAN Chao2,3, YAO Shiming1,2, ZHU Jiajia1,2, LING Dong1,4, YANG Hanchun1,5, XU Jingsha1,6, MU Yan1,2()   

  1. 1CAS Key Laboratory of Behavioral Science, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
    2Department of Psychology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
    3Department of Psychology, Henan University, Kaifeng 475004, China
    4Nanning Taikang Home Guiyuan Elderly Care Service Co., Ltd., Nanning 530010, China
    5Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9AG, UK
    6Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal H3A 1G1, Canada
  • Published:2024-01-25 Online:2023-11-23
  • Contact: MU Yan


With the deepening and spread of reform and opening-up, China has undergone rapid and unprecedented economic growth and societal transformations over the past few decades. Accumulating evidence has revealed the impacts of sociocultural changes on Chinese mental health. Since 2020, a popular buzzword, “Neijuan” (involution), has garnered significant attention and discussion in daily life. Neijuan could be traced back to agricultural involution, which refers to a process of inward over-elaboration in agricultural development. This concept was first identified by the anthropologist Geertz (1963), who observed that population growth failed to enhance productivity growth and economic development.

Despite Neijuan's growing attention, it is still unclear about the connotation and characteristic dimensions of this social phenomenon. Cultural psychology provides a solid theoretical and empirical basis for exploring how social and cultural changes affect individuals’ psychological states and behaviors. In this context, we propose that Neijuan is a multidimensional psychological concept of great significance in this new era, closely connected to cultural changes in China’s rapid development and growth.

To explore the psychological concept of Neijuan, Study 1 employed a grounded theory approach through in-depth interviews to clarify the intricate psychological components of Neijuan, including resource scarcity, social norm, psychological pressure, and competition (see Figure 1). At the macro level, limited resources of society and organization would make people conform to the implicit norms and perform irrational behaviors related to Neijuan. At the micro level, people would perceive intrinsic and extrinsic stressors to make them feel stressed and lead to no-benign competitive behaviors.

Based on the results of Study 1, Studies 2 and 3 developed a measurement tool to validate the multiple characteristic dimensions of Neijuan in Chinese culture, utilizing exploratory factor analysis (EFA) and confirmatory factor analysis (CFA). We first designed the measurement including 68 items to assess individuals’ perception of Neijuan. Based on the classical measurement theory, the discrimination ability of 68 items was analyzed by using the independent sample t test and the correlation test of total scores and each item score as the discrimination index. Through item analysis, we deleted only one item because of no difference between the low- and high-score groups. Then, principal component analysis (PCA) and the Procrustes variance maximum-oblique rotation method were used to analyze the factors of 67 items. The results showed that there are four factors for the feature value greater than 1, the cumulative total variation is 56.62%, and the load value of each item is between 0.45 and 0.88. Further, we explored the rationality of the four-factor model. The results among employees and undergraduates showed that χ2/df was less than 3, SRMR was less than 0.10, TLI and CFI were all more than 0.80, and RMSEA was less than 0.10, which suggested the model fits well. Thus, we supplied the effective 18-item measurement for assessing the individual perception of Neijuan and confirmed that Neijuan comprises four dimensions: resource scarcity, social norm, psychological pressure, and competition. Subsequently, Study 4 used a Neijuan scenario-based task in the university and workplace environments to assess participants’ behavioral tendencies related to Neijuan and examined the relationship between individuals’ perceptions of Neijuan and their actual behaviors. Results revealed that individuals with higher levels of perceived Nejuan exhibited a greater tendency to engage in behaviors associated with Neijuan among employees (r = 0.66, p < 0.001) and undergraduates (r = 0.61, p < 0.001).

In summary, the series of studies sought to explore the psychological concept and multiple characteristic dimensions of Neijuan, which provides a theoretical and empirical basis for understanding this significant phenomenon in the contemporary era. The current research also offers an effective measurement tool to assess individuals’ perception of Neijuan and enlightens future research on the effect of Neijuan on psychological maladjustment and non-benign competition behaviors related to Neijuan.

Key words: Neijuan, competition, social norms, cultural psychology, Chinese society