Are individual choices truly “individual” and an indication of our own personal preferences?

In a study conducted for Stanford University in 1999, 29 Asian and 27 European-American citizens recruited at the San Francisco International Airport were asked to fill in a short questionnaire and told that afterwards they would receive a pen as a gift.

The pens used for the experiment, of the same design and quality, were selected in two different colour — green and orange — and presented in a group of five characterized by a colour imbalance: either a one-four or a two-three ratio. 

The findings reported that regardless of the scenario, Asian citizens picked a pen of the more common colour more frequently than their European-American counterparts (75% v 25% ratio), proving the theory that participants to the study chose their prize according to their own (unconscious) cultural values.

As stated by researchers Kim and Markus, “Uniqueness has positive connotations of freedom and independence in American culture, whereas conformity has positive connotations of connectedness and harmony in East Asian culture”.

The study concluded that while choosing the more uncommon colour seemed to point toward “an expression of individual preference,” the 75% of European-American participants making the same choice indicated that a “preference for uniqueness was the norm.” 

On the other hand, by choosing the pen that did not stand out among the group (the “non-deviant” element), Asian participants showed both their preference for conformity and a high level of concern and consideration for the other members of the group who might have preferred the “unique” item.

What are some of the behaviours and beliefs that characterize collectivist and individualistic cultures? 

According to Professor Emeritus Geert Hofstede and to his framework for cultural dimensions, in individualistic societies (that include – to varying extents – most Western societies): 

  • the focus is on personal priorities and self-fulfilment
  • independence and self-reliance are highly valued: people are expected to take care of themselves and a few loved ones and to take responsibility for the outcomes
  • self-concepts are based on personal traits rather than on social roles (“I am kind” instead of “I am a good, loving son”)

In collectivist societies (that include – to varying extents – most Latin American, Southern European, Asian and African countries and tribal communities around the world): 

  • the focus is on preserving harmony and respecting hierarchy within the community
  • collective priorities are more important than personal pursuits: the group (family, tribe, organization, etc) takes care of individuals, individuals are expected to be unconditionally loyal to the group they belong to. Selflessness and conformity are highly valued, individual achievements are often portrayed as a result of personal circumstances rather than personal merit
  • extreme self-control is likely to be practised by members of collectivist societies, who are highly aware of the impact their words and actions may have on others

Why is then cultural awareness vital when promoting a product or service into a new market defined by values that may be significantly different from our own? Because, as authors Thomas Petit and Alan Zakon observed, “Advertising must be compatible with the values of the consumer if it is to influence behaviour. Advertising is an educating and not a forcing process. It interprets the want-satisfying qualities of the product for the consumer. To do this, it must relate product characteristics and consumer benefits to values the customer has already learned. The surest way to lose a sale and a customer is to go against the tide of what people think is right and wrong.