A Bird In The Hand? Proverbs Show Differering Cultural Views

November 03, 1998

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A new study uses an unusual source -- proverbs -- to reveal cultural differences in how Chinese and American citizens view risks and risk-taking.

When Chinese and American students compared proverbs from their countries they agreed: Chinese proverbs generally advocated greater risk-taking than did American proverbs.

These results help explain earlier research that has found Chinese citizens are indeed more willing to take financial risks than are Americans, said Elke Weber, co-author of the study and a professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

"Proverbs are part of a nation's culture and reflect the nation's beliefs and values," said Weber. "By looking at proverbs, we were able to show that long-standing cultural differences are one reason that the Chinese are more risk-seeking than Americans when it comes to financial issues," Weber said.

Weber conducted the study with Christopher Hsee of the University of Chicago and Joanna Sokolowska of the Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. The results were published in a recent issue of the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

Students from the two countries rated American proverbs such as "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush," and Chinese proverbs such as "Failure is the mother of success."

The study also found some differences in how students from the two countries viewed proverbs. For example, Chinese citizens generally viewed proverbs as advocating more risk in financial situations than in social situations. There was no such distinction made by American participants.

Weber said the collectivist culture of China -- a culture that emphasizes commitment to family -- allows people to take greater financial risks because citizens know their network of friends and family will help them in a crisis. However, because of the importance of their social network, Chinese are less willing to take social risks in which they might alienate friends or family.

In America's individualistic culture, people have to be more careful financially because they don't have the "cushion" of a social network to fall back on, Weber said. On the other hand, Americans don't have to worry as much about their social network. "The proverbs of each country reflect these differing cultural values and concerns," Weber said.

In one study, 82 American and 87 Chinese college students were asked to rate 34 proverbs -- 17 from each country -- that had some advice about dealing with risk. The proverbs were translated into the participants' native languages and participants were not told which country the proverbs were from.

The participants were then asked if each proverb promoted risk aversion or risk seeking in two different situations: one financial and one social. They rated the proverbs on a five-point scale in which 1 was risk-averse, 3 was neutral and 5 was risk seeking.

The participants from each country rated Chinese proverbs as more risk seeking in general than the American proverbs, Weber said. For example, in one group of proverbs, American students gave the American proverbs an average score of 2.83, and the Chinese proverbs an average score of 3.07.

However, Weber said the evidence was clear that Chinese people believe proverbs advocate more risk seeking in financial situations than they do in social situations.

In addition, Chinese proverbs seem to deal more with the problems of social risk-taking than do American proverbs, reflecting the countries' differing values. For example, American students said 95 percent of American proverbs were applicable to financial decisions, but only 63 percent were applicable to social decisions. But Americans thought 78 percent of Chinese proverbs were applicable to financial decisions and 73 percent were applicable to social decisions.

"The Chinese are much more interested than Americans in protecting their social networks." Weber said. "These findings are consistent with the notion that China is, and has long been, a collectivist society and America an individualistic one."

A second study, which also included German proverbs, found that people rated German proverbs in between those from America and China -- but closer to Chinese -- in terms of risk seeking and risk aversion. That makes sense, Weber said, because German culture is quite collectivist in a social sense, much like China's, even though the country has an economic system that is more like America's.

Weber said this research is important for several reasons. For one, it shows how researchers can use cultural products -- such as proverbs, novels, or nursery rhymes -- to help explain cross-cultural differences in beliefs and behavior. These results also have a practical use in helping people involved in international negotiations to better understand cultural differences. "When you're dealing with someone from another country, it is important to know if there are differences in perceptions or values that can affect negotiations. In this case, if you know the other person has different risk perceptions or risk preferences than you, it is possible to develop an agreement than leaves both sides better off."

This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Written by: Jeff Grabmeier

Ohio State University

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