Special Session Summary When Does Culture Matter? the Transitory Nature of Cultural Differences in Judgments and Choices

Donnel Briley, Hong Kong University
Jennifer Aaker, Stanford University
[ to cite ]:
Donnel Briley and Jennifer Aaker (2001) ,"Special Session Summary When Does Culture Matter? the Transitory Nature of Cultural Differences in Judgments and Choices", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 151-152.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 151-152



Donnel Briley, Hong Kong University

Jennifer Aaker, Stanford University

Consumer behavior literature examining cultural differences has expanded dramatically in the past several years, yielding important insights about how cultures differ. But this body of work has not yet incorporated important social cognitive concepts showing that individual’s cognitions, attitudes and behaviors can change depending on situational and contextual factors (see Wyer and Srull 1989 for a review). Such concepts, when applied to the cross-cultural realm, suggest that cultural inclinations may vary in strength based on the context in which judgments and decisions are made (Hong, Chiu and Kung 1997; Oishi, Wyer and Colcombe 2000). For example, Hong et al. (2000) show that subjects’ patterns of social attributions change when they are exposed to pictures of Chinese vs. American cultural icons prior to the attribution task. For both Hong Kong Chinese and Asian-American subjects, exposure to the Chinese icons resulted in a more Chinese mode of thinking (attributing cause to groups), while exposure to American icons resulted in a more Western mode of thinking (attributing cause to individuals).

Examinations of cross-cultural values and attitude constructs, the presumed drivers of cultural differences in behaviors, provide further evidence suggesting the need to explore the stability of cultural inclinations. These examinations have questioned the stable nature of values and attitude constructs (e.g., Heine et al. 1999; Peng, Nisbett and Wong 1997) and, further, using priming mechanisms have shown evidence that values can be shifted in predictable ways by situational forces (Briley and Wyer 2000; Lee, Aaker and Gardner 2000).

The aforementioned findings suggest that consumer behavior researchers should include in their thinking the possibility that culture-related behavioral inclinations are not ever-present, but are transitory. In the proposed session, we examine the malleability of consumer judgments and choices in a cross-cultural setting in order to answer the question, 'When does culture matter?’ The session has two primary objectives: (1) raise awareness of the potential transitory nature of culture-related cognitions and behaviors, and () suggest specific moderating variables that indicate conditions under which cultural leanings are either 'in force’ or dormant.

The session’s three papers present evidence suggesting that culture-specific patterns of behavior can be present in some situations but weak or absent in others. Each of the three deals with a different consumer behavior phenomenon and offers a distinct moderating variable to explain the effect. Briley, Morris and Simonson (2000) suggest that cultural leanings 'come forward’ to influence choices when cultural knowledge is activated, though such leanings may be dormant under other conditions. In particular, it is suggested that deliberating on reasons prior to making choices brings cultural knowledge to the fore of the mind. Prompting decision makers to provide reasons for selections causes them to search for 'plausible’ reasons (Wilson and Schooler 1991) and, it is argued, to recruit rules and principles that derive from cultural knowledge. Thus, culturally-conferred decision rules should be drawn upon when individuals seek rationales for their decisions, but not on many other occasions. The paper finds support for this proposition, which represents a dynamic rather than dispositional view of cultural influence, in a set of studies of consumer decisions that involve a tradeoff between diverging attributes, such as low price and high quality. Differences between East Asians and Americans in the tendency to select compromise options (Simonson 1989) emerged only when subjects were asked to explain their selections.

By manipulating the level of accessibility in the associations embedded in marketing communications, Aaker provides evidence indicating that cultural preferences, often assumed to be relatively stable and driven by culture-based norms and traditions, may in fact be relatively malleable. For example, when North American participants were exposed to a brand associated with "Peacefulness" associations (e.g., peaceful, mild, shy), significantly less favorable attitudes were found as compared with those of Japanese individuals. The converse pattern was found with a set of "Ruggedness" associations embedded in the appeals. More importantly, however, when the level of accessibility of the associations was increased (e.g., when cognitive elaboration was heightened through multiple exposures to the appeal), both culture-based differences were eliminated. Mediation analyses indicated that participants in the non-target culture elaborated on the relatively novel, yet positively-valenced appeal to a greater degree in the high vs. low elaboration conditions, a process that yielded increasingly positive thoughts which subsequently affected attitudes. In contrast, the increased elaboration by participants in the target culture generated increasingly negative associations toward the appeal. These results, which were replicated across three experiments using distinct operationalizations of the culture variable, provide additional support to a growing stream of research that suggests that culture-driven preferences are more malleable than previously thought.

In Price and Briley (2000) involvement and need-for-cognitive-closure are explored as moderators of cultural differences in responses to persuasion attempts, particularly in the context of deceptive advertising. Prior research has shown that cross-cultural differences in advertising outcomes are more pronounced under conditions of intensive processing. For example, Aaker and Maheswaran (1997) showed that members of Chinese cultures are generally more sensitive than those from North American cultures to consensus information as an input to product judgments, but the effect is most pronounced under high involvement conditions. Similarly, Chiu et al. (1994) found that differences in Chinese and American attributional reasoning are enhanced when the need for cognitive closure is high. It appears that cognitive pressures exerted by high involvement and high need-for-closure conditions lead consumers to rely more heavily on their natural cultural tendences than they do in low involvement and low need-for-closure settings. Price and Briley examine the differential effect of cognitive pressure on the responses of Americans and Chinese to deceptive persuasion messages. Consistent with the above findings, they predict and confirm that these cultural groups have opposite responses to the involvement manipulation. While Americans have been found to be more susceptible to deception under high pressure conditions, Chinese individuals were less susceptible to deception under high pressure conditions.

Together, the papers demonstrate the malleability of cultural inclinations in different domains (consumer choice, attitude formation, and susceptibility to advertising) and show three distinct moderating factors that account for the effects (need to provide reasons, accessibility of associations, and cognitive pressures). Thus, converging evidence is offered to support the assertion that cross-cultural differences in behaviors and judgments can be transitory. This result, which is found in three distinct settings, sheds new light on current findings in the cross-cultural consumer behavior literature, which as discussed by Robert Wyer, conceptualizes culture as a more stable or chronic force. Further, insights into the types of factors that raise and attenuate cultural differences are offered. Thus, it is expected that the proposed session will be of interest to a wide audience, including researchers interested in cultural influence, consumer choice and persuasion.