A loose, contextualized summary of Toshio Yamagishi’s 2008 study “Preferences versus strategies as explanations for culture-specific behavior” published in Psychological Science. Journal site for article here, PDF download of pre-print author version of article here.


In my recent past I cycled and skateboarded 25,000km (16,000 miles) around the world through 30 countries (see In total now, however, I’ve been living in Japan for over 8 years. This past led me to a fairly obvious realization: Humans inhabit a vast variety of physical and social environments. And depending on the environment, us humans seem to have an amazing capacity to adapt. We seem to be driven to adopt behaviors that ensure the success of ourselves individually, and that of groups we have a vested interest in.

When I was traveling, I didn’t realize there was actually a formal area of research that captures the reality I was experiencing: the socio-ecological approach to human behavior. According to this approach, people’s behavior – as well as material culture such as rituals and artifacts – can be seen as an adaptation (or response) to the physical and social environment they find themselves in (see Oishi & Graham, 2010). This approach transformed the way I thought about, and ultimately researched, cultural differences in behavior.

A key piece of research which captured my imagination in this school of behavioral science is a simple pen choice study conducted by Japanese researcher Toshio Yamagishi and his colleagues (Yamagishi, Hashimoto, & Schug, 2008). Yamagishi noted that previous research into cultural differences in human behavior considered societal differences in behavior to be a product of differing preferences for certain behavior. That is, people in culture X behave differently from culture Y because that’s the way they prefer to act.

Furthermore, previous research insisted those preferences were due to internalized cultural norms or beliefs about the self (see Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Yamagishi, however, argued this was too simplistic a view of human behavior. He insisted people behave strategically (consciously or not), according to specific incentive structures existing in a social environment.

He demonstrated his point elegantly by conducting a study in Japan and the US. He asked people to imagine they were offered a handful of pens, and had to make a choice which pen to choose. In any one handful of pens there would contain only two colors of pen. There was always more of one color than the other. He asked people in both countries to imagine what color pen they would choose; a majority color or unique color.

Prior to this research, everything cultural psychology knew about behavior told us the Japanese would choose the majority color – because they prefer conformity. Likewise, we should expect American to prefer uniqueness, and choose a unique pen.

There was a catch to Yamagishi’s experiment, however. Some people were simply told to choose a pen (the default scenario). Some were told they were the first person to choose (initial scenario). Others were told they were the last to choose (final scenario). Finally, some were told to imagine they were in a shop purchasing the pen for themselves (purchase scenario). If indeed Japanese prefer conformity, we would expect Japanese participants to choose the majority color pen regardless of the scenario.

The results? In the default scenario, there was no surprise: Japanese chose the majority color pen, the Americans chose the unique pen. Japanese culture favors conformity, American culture uniqueness. Case closed, right? Not necessarily. The initial, final and purchase scenarios, however, told a different story. In the initial selection scenario, where participants were asked to imagine they were the first to choose, Americans were just as likely as Japanese people to choose the majority color. Furthermore, in the final and purchase scenarios, the Japanese were just as likely as the Americans to choose the unique color.

What are we to make of these results? Ignoring the default scenario completely, we would have to conclude people from both societies 1) equally prefer uniqueness, and 2) they’re scaredy-cats; if they’re first to choose, they respect others’ desire for uniqueness, trying to avoid offending others who are still to choose.

The default scenario, however, is where the concept of people’s adaptation to social environments becomes most stark. Despite a clear preference for a unique color, why did the Japanese choose a majority pen in the default scenario? Yamagishi and his colleagues concluded rather than Japanese having a preference for conformity, a ‘do-not-offend’ strategy is at play in ambiguous social situations in Japan. But why is offending others such a big deal in Japan, but not in the US?

Yamagishi theorized this was due to the relative open or closed nature of the two societies. By ‘open society’ he meant a society where it is easy to replace lost relationships (a society like the US). By ‘closed society’ he means societies where groups and relationships are relatively closed to outsiders. Japan, he insisted, is predominantly a ‘closed society’ for interpersonal relationships. Thus, avoidance of being negatively regarded should be adaptive in Japan; if it’s not clear whether you’re going to offend someone or not (by denying someone else’s desire for a unique color pen), its best to play it safe. Better not to risk offence and possible costly social rejection. This suggests under different social environmental scenarios, people adapt, strategically.

Overall, Yamagishi’s study is fascinating because it extends and deepens our understanding of cultural differences in behavior. Cultural psychology gives us a broad understanding of why people behave the way they do across cultures. The socio-ecological approach complements cultural psychology – it certainly does not replace it – giving a different nuanced view of behavior.

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