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Updated: March 13, 2013 16:39 IST

Culture influences you very easily

Adam Alter
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Can small, temporary cultural cues really change the way we perceive the world?

The finding: Brief exposure to a foreign culture — even to a symbol of it — can make you adopt the ideas and behaviours of that culture.

The research: Adam Alter and his research partner Virginia Kwan of Arizona State University asked 50 Americans of European descent walking through New York’s Chinatown or Upper East Side to forecast the weather following a two-day pattern of rain or sun. Those in Chinatown were significantly more likely to predict a change, reflecting an Eastern mindset in which the world cycles back and forth between opposite states instead of progressing in a single direction. A similar bias was seen among European Americans who were leaving an Asian grocery in New Jersey or exposed to the Chinese yin-yang sign.

The Challenge: Can such small, temporary cultural cues really change the way we perceive the world? Professor Alter, defend your research.

You might think a culture would have an effect on you only if you’ve spent some time immersed in it, but that’s not the case. Culture influences you more easily than you realise. Thanks to the Internet and the rise of global commerce and travel over the past 15 to 20 years, we’ve all become more aware of foreign ideas and symbols. Our cities are peppered with the latter. And as you’re exposed to them, you’re inevitably swayed. When you’re in Chinatown or at an Asian supermarket, your worldview becomes more Asian.

Why did you focus on change?

It’s an area where Eastern and Western philosophies really differ. Easterners see change as inevitable and expect the balance between extreme positions, such as light and dark, to shift constantly, as represented by the yin-yang. Westerners tend to see change as a consistent trend in one direction – think of metaphors like “forward march” or “downward spiral.” We tested those assumptions in a lab by asking 185 European American and Chinese subjects to invest a fictional $1,000 across a group of stocks, some of which had performed well and some of which hadn’t. The Westerners put significantly more than 50 per cent of the money in previously appreciating stocks, while the Chinese tended to spread theirs out across the underperforming stocks in anticipation of a correction.

But if the European Americans had been eating dim sum in Chinatown or buying daikon at an Asian supermarket, they would have responded differently?

We suspect it’s not the dim sum or the daikon but the most prominent, recognisable symbols you see in Chinese environments – like the yin-yang. When we asked people who’d been in Chinatown what they remembered most, that’s what they cited. We all know symbols pack in a lot of meaning. We process them more quickly than words, often without realising it. And the most potent cultural symbols seem to work both within and outside their natural environments. For example, in three separate studies we gave either the stock-selection task or the weather-prediction task to shoppers in a New Jersey mall, to students at a campus center and to Wall Street employees on their lunch breaks. In all three, the subjects primed with a small yin-yang symbol – printed on their questionnaires or on the T-shirts of the research assistants – were more likely to anticipate change than those primed with other symbols, such as a crosshatch or a Chinese dragon.

Wouldn’t a Chinese dragon make people think in a more Chinese way, too?

It might – but not about change. In another study we found that European Americans exposed to the dragon were more likely to say that the sales growth of Chinese food products had outpaced the growth of those from other countries. The dragon primed them to think China was on the rise. But I’d also argue that European Americans know more about the meaning of the yin-yang than about the dragon, so the yin-yang has more influence on their thoughts and actions. And our last stock-selection study showed that yin-yang priming was especially effective on people who travelled more – those already open to foreign mindsets. In a separate research project, we saw a similar effect. My colleagues and I had people look at various pieces of jewellery, including a crucifix, and then assessed their honesty. The crucifix had an effect – but only on the subjects who identified as Christians because, for them, that symbol had a clear and positive meaning.

Do you need to feel good about a cultural symbol for it to influence you?

No, negative symbols can affect you, too. We’ve shown that swastikas make people more aggressive. National flags are a good example of this, too. They unify citizens but often polarise outsiders. I think political leaders make big errors in this regard. Take summits. Each leader typically appears with his or her own country’s flag, an emblem of national strength and pride. But if the aim is to find common ground, there’s a good argument for keeping those potentially divisive symbols away and instead using ones to which different groups ascribe the same positive meaning.

If I’m an American businessman trying to get into the head of a new Chinese partner, should I have the yin-yang and other Chinese symbols all over my office?

I’m not sure I can translate the research into such a specific recommendation. But, yes, if you’re trying to empathize with that person, it might help to decorate your office like that, eat in a Chinese restaurant or, better yet, travel to China and meet in an environment with symbols meaningful to both cultures, so you’re perceiving the world through similar lenses – at least for a time. Certainly this research is relevant for businesspeople making decisions about and from foreign locations. They need to realise that their actions will be influenced by the cultural primes around them.

Are there specific symbols that might prime Asian people to think more like Americans?

Because the United States has exported so many symbols, especially commercial ones, all over the world, that’s probably already happened to some extent. But it would be interesting to consider which American symbols have the most impact. For example, researchers at Duke have shown that people subliminally primed with the Apple logo perform tasks more creatively than those primed with IBM’s.

What about Latin America and Africa? Are we looking only at superpowers’ cultures here?

There’s very little in the study of psychology and culture that goes beyond East versus West: the United States and Europe versus Asia. I suspect that’s simply because most of the researchers are based in those regions.

But you’re Australian.

Yes, but born in South Africa and now living in America. I’m much more sensitive to that fact after doing this research. I see that I sometimes act more South African in certain environments and more Australian in others. And now when I go home to Sydney, for the first few days people will tell me I seem like an American version of myself. I’m like a chameleon blending into the background. We all are.

Adam Alter is an assistant professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business and is affiliated with the NYU psychology department. He is the author of “Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave.”

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

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