Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Cultural Differences in Decision Making

I'm reading Sheena Iyengar's book, The Art of Choosing, which I'm enjoying a great deal. In the book, Iyengar describes some critical cultural differences in how individuals make decisions. She talks about one broad distinction in cultures around world: individualism vs. collectivism. Some cultures, such as the U.S., are much individualistic, while other cultures, such as Japan, are much more collectivist. These cultures differ in a number of ways. For instance, individualistic cultures tend to emphasize choice, while collectivist cultures tend to emphasize one's duty.

Iyengar describes some fascinating studies she has done on cultural differences in decision-making. Take one study with 7-9 year old students, half of whom were Asian American and half of whom were Anglo-American. She assigned the students randomly to one of three groups. One group looked at some anagrams and colored markers and told, "Here are six piles of word puzzles you can choose from. Which one would you like to do? It's your choice." Children could choose which category of anagrams to work on and which color marker to use. A second group of children were told by the person running the study to work on a particular category of anagrams and to use the blue marker. A third group was told that their mother wanted them to work on a particular category of anagrams and use a particular color marker.

Interestingly, the Anglo-American children did best when given total personal choice, while the Asian American children did best when they felt that their mothers had chosen for them. The Asian-American children who thought their moms had chosen for them "solved 30 percent more anagrams than those who were allowed to choose their materials themselves." These children also spent much more time playing with the anagrams than those children who had chosen for themselves. Anglo-American children, in contrast, reacted with embarrassment when told their moms had been consulted about the exercise!

The point is that people raised in individualistic cultures tend to value autonomy and choice very highly, while the collectivist culture emphasizes shared goals and objectives. Consequently, we see individuals taking a very different perspective with regard to how decisions are made, and how they feel that they should be made.

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