Cultural Comparisons of Variety-Seeking Behavior

Edmund W. J. Faison, University of Hawaii
ABSTRACT - Japanese and Americans were compared regarding their desired level of variety for entrees, music, and toothpaste. Americans preferred slightly more variety for entrees, slightly less for music, and both groups showed little desire for variety for toothpaste. Japanese and Americans want variety for entrees and music and consistency for toothpaste.
[ to cite ]:
Edmund W. J. Faison (1980) ,"Cultural Comparisons of Variety-Seeking Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 255-257.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 255-257


Edmund W. J. Faison, University of Hawaii


Japanese and Americans were compared regarding their desired level of variety for entrees, music, and toothpaste. Americans preferred slightly more variety for entrees, slightly less for music, and both groups showed little desire for variety for toothpaste. Japanese and Americans want variety for entrees and music and consistency for toothpaste.


Within the past few years there has developed a growing interest in variety-seeking behavior. This phenomenon is particularly interesting to cognitive theorists because of the philosophical implication that a mechanistic view of man does not adequately account for his behavior.

There are two divergent views of man. The mechanistic view of man is that he is a pawn of fate. His responses are made to stimuli in the same manner that a billiard ball bounces off a cushion at an angle and speed related to the direction and force of the cue stick. In other words, man is little more than a high class machine.

In contrast, the free will view of man is that he is master of his fate; he is capable of deciding for himself what he wants and can consciously plan a program which will meet his desires.

It is paradoxical that the social critics, who generally consider themselves to be humanists, assume the mechanical view of man in writing about the influence of advertising, while "hard-nosed" businessmen generally assume the opposite view.

Actually, this controversy has raged through the ages since the time of the earliest philosophers. Plato and Aristotle distinguished between the aristocrats and the commoners. The aristocrats were seen as having free will with the highest destiny being to search for truth and beauty. The commoners were thought to be little more than high forms of domesticated beasts who had no task higher in life than obeying their masters.

As scientists began to roll back the frontiers of knowledge, a mechanistic view of man gained credence. This mechanistic view of man became widespread with the introduction of Newtonian physics. Newton's physics, with the philosophical underpinnings provided over a period of time by Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza, presented the world and all things in it, including men, as nothing more than a series of interacting motions of minute particles. This mechanistic-deterministic view of man held full sway from the beginning of the Renaissance till the end of the nineteenth century.

In opposition to this view was the position of the theologians which had dominated man's thinking throughout the Middle Ages. These theologians were "dualists". The dualists were concerned about the mind-body problem. while the body was thought to follow mechanistic principles, the mind, soul, or spirit was thought to be of higher order and to have a different destiny. The concepts of "good and evil", "right and wrong", and "heaven and hell" which were central to these theological views implied a free will in which events were not preordained. Those who chose to live the "good" way were believed to be rewarded by the fruits of heaven, while those who chose the "evil" way were believed to be punished with the horrors of hell.

In modern times the mechanistic view of man has been perpetuated by the behavioral psychologists. Based on Parlor's "conditioned reflex", J. B. Watson and Clark L. Hull promulgated a behavioral psychology that dominated psychological theory until the 1960s. Perhaps the best known proponent of the behavioral view today is B.F. Skinner.(Skinner, 1971).

While the behaviorists were having their heyday in American universities, Sigmund Freud and his disciples in Europe discovered that a completely physiological view of man was inadequate for medical treatment. Some diseases and behavioral irregularities appeared to have no organic base. The psychoanalysts discovered that for these problems it was necessary to treat the mind rather than the body.

The philosophical underpinning for the mechanistic view began to give way in 1873 when physicist Clark Maxwell developed an electromagnetic theory which questioned the premises of Newtonian mechanics. Maxwell showed that much of the mystery of electricity could be described in mathematical terms without a complete, detailed, finite understanding of the entity itself. The mechanistic theories of Newton were shown to be inadequate to account for the forces described by Maxwell's equations or for other fundamental concepts of science such as thermodynamics and gravitation.

The coup de grace to mechanistic theory was administered by Niels Bohr's theory of the atom. This theory led to the conclusion that individual atomic events were unpredictable, although higher order processes seemed to follow regular patterns.

One of the cornerstones of modern quantum physics as opposed to mechanistic determinism is Heisenberg's "principles of uncertainty" which noted that atomic behavior followed probability principles rather than principles of certainty. This principle led to a fundamental change in the view of reality. The new findings regarding the unpredictability of the atom indicated that despite the universal order of the world, the individual atomic events were not fully predictable.

At a higher level, Bohr's principle has provided a philosophical basis for questioning the crucial assumption of the behaviorists that all behavior is causally determined by external events.

In short, this principle has supported the view of the existentialists, the humanists, and the theologians that man has free will. If everything is not causally determined, man has a choice. This principle supports the view that man can "act" rather than "react", that man can be the master rather than the pawn of fate.

Within the past few years several studies of motivation and learning have supported the unpredictability of man and animals. While these studies have been conducted in a number of fields and have been given many different labels, they can be lumped under the concept of "variety drive". Many of these studies were described by Edmund W. J. Faison. (Faison, 1977).

Since that time, a number of studies have been conducted at the University of Hawaii to determine some of the parameters which influence aspects of variety-seeking behavior. (Faison, 1979). The present study is part of this ongoing program.

The purpose of the present study was to compare variety-seeking patterns between cultures.


Two hundred respondents were interviewed. One hundred were Caucasian residents in Hawaii ranging in age from 20 to 60. These respondents were members of various service, philanthropic, or religious groups who were willing to participate.

The other hundred were Japanese tourists visiting Hawaii for five days to a week as part of a sightseeing package. These tourists also ranged in age from the early twenties to the sixties based upon observation. All interviews with the Japanese group were conducted in the Japanese language.

Three questions were asked each respondent:

1.  List the meat you would like to have for dinner each night for a week.

2.  List the musical selection you would like to hear for the next seven selections.

3.  List the brand of toothpaste you would buy each month for the next six months.


As shown in the following tables, the Japanese preference for variety appears to be lower than the preference exhibited by Americans for dinner entrees, higher for musical selections, and about the same for toothpaste brands.



From the above table we see that the Japanese requested the same entree 2.51 times in a week compared to 1.92 times for Americans. In other words, Americans exhibited a desire for more variety since the most frequently requested meat was requested less often than by the Japanese.

A different pattern was revealed for desire to hear musical selections.



The Japanese requested the same song a fewer number of times than the Americans on average. The more interesting finding, however, is that a small number of Japanese and Americans want to hear the same song repeatedly.

For toothpaste we see a high degree of consistency for both groups.




While these results show slight but significant differences between ethnic groups, what is more interesting is the similarities. In general, both the Japanese and Americans want variety in their dinner entrees and music selections, but want consistency in the brand of toothpaste they use.

Thus, in both cultures, variety is desired at some times and for some things, but, at other times, consistency is more important. These same differences probably occur within each of the categories measured here. while the Japanese want variety in their entree, many want rice at every meal. Similarly, many Americans want potatoes or bread at every dinner.

We also have contrasting behavior at other meals. Some people want the same breakfast every morning, while others want variety. But even for those who want variety, many still want to have orange juice day after day.

With music, certain songs become popular, and many listeners want to hear them repeatedly. Then suddenly they wear out and other songs come to the fore. In contrast, it is the more familiar operas that the majority of patrons want to see rather than the new ones. Why? What are the factors which cause us to want variety at times and consistency at times?

One possibility, which this author and others have considered in earlier papers, is the need for some sort of optimum tension level. If a cognitive state of tension exists that is higher than the optimum amount, a consistency behavior might be expected, but if the individual is below the optimum level, variety behavior might be more likely to be exhibited.

Consider this situation. A busy executive, Japanese or American, arises early in the morning with the many problems of the coming day heavy on his mind. As he approaches breakfast, he doesn't want to clutter his mind with additional decisions, so he selects the same breakfast he had yesterday and the day before without thinking about it.

By evening the affairs of the day are behind him, and he wants to relax. When he goes to a restaurant he enjoys the opportunity to mull over the different selections, finally deciding on one most likely to tempt his palate. While this example is given for a male executive, it would be equally likely for a comparable female.

Let us assume that our mythical male or female executive retires. The tension level is lowered. Suddenly the breakfast decision becomes more important. Should the spread for the toast be orange marmalade or strawberry jam? Now, there are hosts of decisions to be made that were automatic in busier times.

While this "optimum stimulation theory" is plausible, it is difficult to confirm, with the studies that have been conducted to date, it has been observed that the variety needs of individuals appear to vary as a function of age, sex, culture, and situation.

What is needed now is a systematic series of studies to define this optimum level of stimulation.

Returning to the toothpaste results, the fact that both the Japanese and Americans prefer continued use of the same brand of toothpaste is interesting from a marketing standpoint. It demonstrates that there is a factor of brand loyalty upon which manufacturers can depend.

On the other hand, the loyalty is not unmovable. Out of six purchases, respondents tell us that one or two will depart from their regular brand.

This brings us back to the philosophical view of man expressed earlier. He is not a machine. No matter how satisfied he is with a particular product, he is likely to experiment with other brands just for a "change of pace". This change of pace or variety need is the salvation of many products, although it is seldom used properly. When a new brand is introduced it is more likely to attract triers by appealing to this variety need, rather than a bombastic appeal stating that, "At last there is a new brand better than all other brands" A headline more consistent with behavior would be, "If you're in the mood for a refreshing change, try our brand." Such a headline attracts interest without commitment.


The present study demonstrates that while there are significant differences in behavioral patterns both the Japanese and Americans exhibit a desire for variety regarding dinner entrees and musical selections, but a desire for consistency regarding the toothpaste brand that is used. For both groups it is suggested that the needs for variety are related to an optimal level of stimulation.


Skinner, B.F. (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity, New York: Knopf.

Faison, Edmund W. J. (1977), "The Neglected Variety Drive: A Useful Concept for Consumer Behavior," Journal of Consumer Research, 4, 172-175.

Faison, Edmund W. J. (1979), "Consistency Versus Variety Seeking Behavior: Situational Effects," Proceedings of the Academy of Marketing Science 1979 Annual Meeting in press.