Cultural Learning: Wider and Deeper

Shaking up the win/lose paradigm through an openness to difference can help reveal hidden commonality in views and interests.

In some cultural training sessions—particularly in North America—a number of participants find the whole idea of our ways of thinking and behaviors being significantly influenced by cultural context uncomfortable. They might intellectually grasp the idea in the abstract, but fail to recognize the depth of the influence, particularly on themselves. North American culture, of course, is driven by the belief of individual self-determination and independence from others. The idea of being shaped by external or even internal forces doesn’t sit well (just look at badly we treat the mentally ill).

On the other hand, the social sciences driven by scientific aspirations—particularly economics and psychology—have tended to drive our search for understanding toward universal principles and explanations in the manner of physics and chemistry. A common assumption is that the results of social science tests and experiments are able to go beneath the specific content of cognition and behavior to reveal common human hardwiring.

But think about this: A 2008 survey of the top six psychological journals showed that 96 percent of subjects tested in psychological studies from 2003 to 2007 were Westerners, with nearly 70 percent from the United States. Ninety percent of neuroimaging studies have been performed in Western countries. Looked at another way, the subjects in these studies came from countries representing only 12 percent of the world’s population.

The Ultimatum Game

Cross-cultural psychology has been with us since at least the mid-19th century, but has always been something of a poor second cousin in the psychological mainstream. That now may be changing.

In 1995, while a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA, Joe Henrich carried out fieldwork among the Machiguenga people of Peru. Rather than carry out a traditional ethnographical study (aimed at producing an in-depth insider’s view of a culture), he ran a behavioral experiment. He used a “game” (the Ultimatum Game), which is similar to the well-known Prisoner’s Dilemma. These experimental games have been influential in the fields of both economics and psychology.

In the Ultimatum Game:

  • There are two players who are anonymous to each other.
  • Player 1 is given an amount of money, e.g., $100.
  • He or she is told that they must offer some of the cash—an amount of their choosing—to Player 2.
  • Player 2 can accept or refuse the division of money. If the recipient refuses the offer, both players leave empty-handed.

North Americans (the majority of subjects in previous experiments) typically offer a 50-50 split. Those on the receiving end (Player 2) show an eagerness to punish Player 1 for uneven splits—even at their own expense. The American subjects were demonstrating the tendency of other Westerners who have for generations been imbued with the workings of increasingly complex market economies.

Henrich didn’t have trouble finding volunteers for the game among the Machiguenga (there was free money involved), but Machiguenga behavior was dramatically different from that of the average American.

The offers of money from Player 1 were much lower. On the receiving end, the Machiguenga rarely refused even the lowest possible amount. As Henrich says, “They just didn’t understand why anyone would sacrifice money to punish someone who had the good luck of getting to play the other role in the game.”

Henrich led a similar study in 14 other small-scale societies from Tanzania to Indonesia, and the differences were significant. The average offers varied widely from place to place, but in no society did he find people who were purely selfish (always offering the lowest amount, and never refusing a split). In societies in which gift-giving is used consistently to gain favor or allegiance, Player 1 often would make offers in excess of 60 percent. Player 2 often would reject them because they understood in their culture that such generosity resulted in “burdensome obligations.”

Established psychological findings are being revisited and reverse-engineered to gauge cultural influence. The well-known Muller-Lyer Illusion (in which subjects are shown two lines of equal length but with either inward- or outward-facing arrow tips at their ends) turns out to be more complex than once thought:











Americans typically perceive the line with inward-facing arrow tips (bottom line) to be longer than the line with the outward-facing arrow tips. The San foragers of the Kalahari are more likely to see the lines as they are—equal. Americans are at the far end of the statistical distribution—seeing the illusion more vividly than other groups.

Research into cultural influences also is challenging the “universal” findings related to the Solomon Asch conformity tests in which subjects often make incorrect judgments to fit with group pressures. Across 17 cultures, Americans were shown to have the least tendency to conform to group pressures.

Recognize the Complexity of Cultural Differences

One finding of new researchers such as Joe Henrich is that cultural differences don’t have to be large to be important. When reverse-engineering, cultural content is looked at first and cognition and behavior second. Only when we expand the cultural representation among subjects will we start to develop a deeper understanding of human cognition and behavior.

Meeting with a group of professional marketers recently, I was impressed with their refusal to talk about overly general cultural differences. To paraphrase: “What does it mean when someone talks to us about ‘Hispanic’ culture in the U.S.? Are we talking Miami (Cuban-American), Austin (Mexican-American), Los Angeles (a variety of Central and South American cultures)? Not to mention the influences of Puerto Rican and Filipino cultures in various parts of the U.S. All these cultures have broad similarities, but can perceive the value of products differently, as well as the desirability of various shopping environments.”

It would be blessing for us all—marketers and academics alike—to recognize the fine-grained complexity of cultural differences; to go deeper. More sophisticated cultural differentiations will help us rid discourse of damaging stereotypes.

A Welcome Cultural Paradigm Shift

On a different note, how refreshing it was to end last year with a cultural paradigm shift in Paris. I’m talking about the historic climate change agreement in December between 195 nations. In a bid to smooth discussions on the most contentious issues, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who was chairing the UN negotiations, made a bold move—he stepped outside of what would have been the comfort zone for many participants. He introduced an inclusive consultation and negotiation approach called indaba. Indaba is rooted in the South African Zulu and Xhosa communities; it is a gathering of community leaders to hear all views and discover common ground in resolving important issues. Ironically, shaking up the win/lose paradigm through an openness to difference can help reveal hidden commonality in views and interests. We can learn so much by going culturally wider and deeper.

Terence Brake is the director of Learning & Innovation, TMA World (, which provides blended learning solutions for developing talent with borderless working capabilities. Brake specializes in the globalization process and organizational design, cross-cultural management, global leadership, transnational teamwork, and the borderless workplace. He has designed, developed, and delivered training programmes for numerous Fortune 500 clients in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Brake is the author of six books on international management, including “Where in the World Is My Team?” (Wiley, 2009) and e-book “The Borderless Workplace.”