Friday, June 20, 2008

A new perspective on culture-specific behavior

Yamagishi et al. demonstrate that the East Asian "preference" for conformity is actually a default strategy to avoid accrual of negative reputation. When the possibility for negative evaluations in a given situation was clearly defined, cultural differences in the tendency for uniqueness disappeared. The framework for analyzing the motivations for choices made by Japanese and Americans in a simple task is described in a summary in Science.
When offered a single colored pen from a group of five pens as a token payment for filling out a survey, Hokkaido students were less likely than Wolverines (Michigan students) to take a particular pen if it were the only one of that color available--that is, they would avoid reducing the scope of choice for subsequent people and thus, by incurring the cost of passing up the uniquely colored pen, not run the risk of making a negative impression on others. In contrast, a cultural psychological assessment would explain this outcome as revealing the preference (higher valuation) that East Asians place on conformity as opposed to the affinity of Westerners for individualism. When the choice task was expanded to include situations where the student was told explicitly that he was the first or the last of the five students to receive pens, the East-West difference disappeared; both Japanese and Americans were less likely to take the uniquely colored if they were the first and more likely (equally so) if they were the last to choose.
Yamagishi et al. suggest that:
... while cultural psychological perspectives are commendable for bringing culture into the mainstream of psychology, they have tended to be oversimplistic in attributing the cause of culture-specific behaviors to internalized cultural norms and values.
Their approach to the issue of the culturally grounded nature of human behavior is:
... from a game-theoretic perspective, and proposes an institutional approach as an alternative to the cultural psychology approach. The institutional approach to cultural differences views culture-specific behavior as strategies adapted to a set of collectively created social incentives. In this framework, no psychological concepts such as self-construals are required to interpret cultural differences, and thus the institutional approach can provide a more parsimonious explanation of cultural differences that can extend toward social science disciplines outside of psychology.

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