Cultural Differences Affect Decision-Making, Study Finds

April 28, 1999

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A new study of Japanese and American business students found striking differences in how students from the two countries approached a decision-making task.

Researchers compared how students from the two countries used a computer software program that helped them choose from a variety of compact cars to buy.

The results suggest that cultural differences between the two countries affected how the students used the software to make their decisions. For example, the findings indicated that Japanese students used a more intuitive process to make decisions, while the Americans relied more on "number-crunching" and careful information processing.

"This goes against the popular view that the Japanese are more mathematically oriented and systematic than Americans," said Eric Spires, associate professor of accounting at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.

"We think the results show the importance of culture in influencing how people make decisions," he said. "The results could have important implications in our global economy where companies may operate in many different countries."

Spires conducted the study with P.C. Chu, an associate professor of management information systems at Ohio State's Fisher College, and Toshiyuki Sueyoshi of the Science University of Tokyo in Japan. The results were published in a recent issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The study involved 39 undergraduate seniors at a university in Japan, and 30 undergraduate seniors at an American university.

Each of the participants used a specially designed software package that simulated the purchase of a compact automobile. The program offered a selection of 12 cars.

Each car was rated on price and seven other attributes, including safety, acceleration, styling and reliability. The ratings differed by attribute. Safety, for example, had three levels: good, average or poor. Acceleration had five levels ranging from very fast to very slow. The ratings on the computer were available both as text (i.e., good or bad) or as numerical values (i.e., 1 or 3 on a 5-point scale).

In some cases, the participants were also able to use special software features, called decision aids, that were designed to help decision making. For example, one decision aid sorted all the cars in order (from best to worst) based on a specific attribute, such as safety.

Participants could take as much time as they wanted and could base their final decision on any attributes they wished. What interested the researchers was how they made their choices and which decision aids they did or didn't use.

The computers automatically recorded how the participants used the software.

The results suggested that American students were more likely to use what is called a compensatory decision process -- one in which they weighed all the attributes of all the cars, compared the different combinations, and came up with the "best" alternative. In this method, a low score on one important attribute could be "compensated" for by a high score on another important attribute.

Japanese students used a more intuitive process in which they based their decision on the attributes that appealed to them, without comparing as much across the different attributes.

One indication of the different decision processes was the fact that Americans were more likely to use the numeric ratings of the car attributes than were the Japanese students. "If you want to make comparisons of several different cars on several different attributes, it is much easier using numbers than text," Chu said.

"All of these results point to the conclusion that Japanese individuals are less likely to use compensatory decision processes than Americans," Chu said. "The best explanation is that cultural differences affect how we make decisions."

The intuitive nature of the Japanese was one cultural difference that the researchers believe influenced decision making. Another cultural difference is a Japanese tendency to avoid conflict. The Americans used a decision process where they essentially pitted one attribute against another to determine which was more important. "This involved a conflict-confronting thought process that is contrary to Japanese culture," Spires said.

The results of this study may have implications for global business, according to the researchers.

"An international company can't assume that the decision processes that work for managers in America are automatically going to be useful for their managers in Japan," Spires said. Cultural differences also make it difficult to make world-wide standards in fields like accounting, where people from different countries may have different ways of doing work, he said.
-end-
Additional Contact:

Eric Spires, 614-292-4422; Spires.1@osu.edu

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, 614-292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu



Ohio State University

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