Cultural Factors in Decision Making

Question: Is choice cultural?

Sheena Iyengar: \r\n Well, you find that in certain cultures we… they don’t put as much of \r\nan emphasis in expanding their choices, so that, you know, one of the \r\nthings that I learned when I was in Japan way back in the 1990’s and \r\nthere were all these quarrels happening between the U.S. and Japan about\r\n allowing more American products into the Japanese market.  I would go \r\nto these Japanese stores and you’d see, like, two kinds of toothpaste or\r\n five different kinds of potato chips. You know, or three kinds of ice \r\ncream bars and you’d see this and like this… okay they could clearly \r\nbenefit from some more choices and I remember having these discussions \r\nwith the Japanese because they you know they often like to go to Hawaii \r\nfor vacation because it was definitely much cheaper for them and I would\r\n ask them, “So when you go to Hawaii, you know do eat all these other \r\nthings?”  And it turned out when they went to Hawaii they would go \r\nstraight and buy the same thing that they would buy in Japan.  They just\r\n got it cheaper, which they liked. And so they would still eat the red \r\nbean ice cream or the green tea ice cream, but they didn’t really take \r\nadvantage of the variety and it wasn’t clear that they cared.  I mean it\r\n wasn’t that they sat around thinking oh gosh I needed more choices in \r\nmy grocery stores the way I had come to think about it as an American \r\ngrowing up.  So I do think that there are cultural differences in the \r\nextent to which we value having more and more choice. 

To give \r\nyou another example, when I was recently in Russia I found that I \r\nthought I was going to give these people that I was interviewing a whole\r\n bunch of choice in terms of what they could drink while we were \r\nchatting.  And I put out a good 10 different types of drinks for them \r\nand they just said, “Oh, okay, so it’s just one choice.”  One choice?  I\r\n gave you Coke, Pepsi, Ginger Ale, Sprite.  They saw that as one \r\nchoice.  Now why was that one choice?  Because they felt, well, it was \r\njust all soda.  I didn’t really give them anymore than one choice, soda \r\nor no soda.  They didn’t… whereas we put a lot of stock in the \r\ndifferences between soda…  I mean we might even go to war as to whether \r\nwe love Coke or Pepsi and our whole identity is wrapped up in that \r\nchoice.  You know, for the Russians they felt that these minor \r\ndifferences between these various sodas was just hyped up and \r\nirrelevant.  You know give me choices that are truly different from one \r\nanother, otherwise they don’t regard them as meaningful choices.  There \r\nis a different attitude about, you know, how much differentiation there \r\nneeds to be between our options and how many choices do I need to have \r\nin order to make a choice. 

Different cultures have different attitudes about options–and about how many choices a person needs to have in order to decide.

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