How culture affects cognition?

According to research, 88% of Greeks said: “they were ready to buy environmentally friendly products.” But in reality, only 13% of them bought such goods. So does that mean they were lying? Not quite.

Across the ocean, another study finds that 31% of Americans don’t believe that global warming is happening – even when they were told that 97% of the scientific community agrees. So does that mean they are in denial? Not exactly.

Yet another research shows that an average French drinks twice as much mineral water as an average Spaniard. Likewise, an average Turk consumes twice as many antibiotics as an average Brit. So does that mean French and Turks are abnormally anxious about their health? Not necessarily.

Why do people act the way they do? 

Why do we make the choices we make? How are we wired to make sense of the world? So far, marketers have answered those questions primarily by trusting their gut feeling. But there are other ways, more scientific ways.

By using research-based methods, we can decode human behaviour, which would allow us to decipher our decision-making. How?

Let’s revisit the examples above for a second. Personality factors -about which we will have a lengthy article- could explain some individual differences. For example, neurotic people could have a more skeptical attitude towards science. Or, highly-agreeable people – out of politeness- could concur with the statements that the pollster read. Or, close-minded people might have a higher sensitivity to disgust stimuli than others.

Personality theorists say that roughly half of what makes you tick is your personality. The other half, however, is mostly rooted in culture, more specifically in “cultural cognition.”

Personality theorists say that roughly half of what makes you tick is your personality. However, the other half is primarily rooted in culture, specifically in “cultural cognition.” We can tailor our messages accordingly if we can understand the cultural lenses through which people see the world.

Cultural cognition reveals your inherent worldview 

As cross-cultural communications professor Marieke de Mooij says, we are unfinished animals who complete ourselves through culture. There is no such thing as human nature independent of culture. The kinds of personalities we develop and how we function and communicate depend overwhelmingly on the given culture and society we belong to, which brings us to cultural cognition.

We are unfinished animals who complete ourselves through culture. That’s why there is no such thing as a human nature independent of culture.

Marieke de Mooij

In every society, there are some divisive debates. For example, which one is more critical: achievement or quality of life? Which one should come first: resolving conflict by compromise or letting the strongest win? Which one is better? Welfare society or performance society?

Then there are more contagious topics such as global warming, the death penalty, and gun control. Oddly, the more polarized a debate gets the less relevant facts. People with opposing opinions would look at the same data yet somehow end up with different conclusions -all consistent with their initial beliefs. How is that possible? After all, facts are supposed to be objective, right?

“Reason is the press secretary to the emotions,” says behavioural scientist Jonathan Haidt. Indeed, our minds are not informed by the facts. Instead, we process information in a way that protects our idea of ourselves and our unconscious ideals of how a society should organize and operate that we call cultural cognition.

“Reason is the press secretary to the emotions.”

Jonathan Haidt

Types of cultural cognition

Experts say we can map our world views along two dimensions: hierarchy and individualism. Together, they form the cultural cognition framework.

Hierarchists are big on predictability and stability, preferring a society with fixed class, race, and economic divisions. They love the status quo and the old reliable way of doing things. Egalitarians, just the opposite, want a more flexible society in which there are fewer restrictions on class and hierarchy. Individualists prefer a community that mostly leaves the individual alone, whereas Communitarians believe that societal interests should take precedence over individual ones.

Now, let’s analyze how cultural cognition shapes people’s beliefs. The more communitarian you are, the more likely you will accept climate change, since” we’re all in this together” is the motto of communitarians. On the other hand, the more individualistic you are, the more likely you will oppose gun control -and nationwide mask mandate for that matter- for you would see any kind of ban as a restriction of free will. Finally, the more hierarchic you are, the more likely you will defend the death penalty since the stability of society comes first. Neither is right or wrong, depending on one’s social and moral values.

Education makes cultural cognition worse

Hierarchy and individualism explain why such divided world views exist. But there is a kicker: the gap between two polarized cultural groups widens -let’s repeat: widens- as scientific literacy increases. In other words, ordinary people do not meet in the middle as their education level increases. Instead, they become further polarized compared to the less literate members of their respective camps! How could that be?

Ordinary people do not meet in the middle as their education level increases. Instead, they become further polarized compared to the less literate members of their respective camps.

There are multiple psychological factors at play here. The first one is called “confirmation bias.” As humans, we have a universal tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that fits with our current thinking. If you already believe that a Mac is better than a PC, you will seek out reviews that support your predisposition.

Then comes “identity-protective cognition.” We process information in a way that protects our idea of ourselves. As discussed above, there is no such thing as a self, independent of culture, for our identity is shaped by culture. That’s why culturally diverse individuals selectively credit and dismiss evidence that reflects the beliefs that predominate in their group. Hierarchists discard information that supports gay marriage, while communitarians zero in on facts that support gun laws. Eventually, we recall what we are motivated to remember, and we forget what we would prefer weren’t right.

Finally, as our education level increases, we become more successful at fitting new evidence to our current worldview. From a cognitive standpoint, we become better equipped to slice and dice the data.

Cultural cognition is universal and has four more dimensions

Social psychologist Geert Hofstede’s seminal research on national cultures demonstrates that hierarchy and individualism exist in all cultures. More importantly, he shows that the two aspects tend to be negatively correlated: hierarchical cultures are also likely to be more communitarian. Egalitarian cultures, on the other hand, are more individualist, which makes polarization even worse.

In addition to hierarchy and individualism, Hofstede identified four more dimensions of culture. The first one is uncertainty avoidance (UAI), which deals with a society’s tolerance for ambiguity. Uncertainty-avoiding cultures try to minimize the possibility of ambiguous situations through strict laws and rules. People in uncertainty-avoiding countries are also more emotional, and they are motivated by inner nervous energy.

Assertiveness refers to the distribution of emotional roles between the sexes. The assertive pole has been called “masculine” and the modest, caring pole “feminine.” The women in feminine countries have the same decent, caring values as the men; in masculine countries, they are somewhat assertive and competitive, but not as much as the men, so these countries show a gap between men’s values and women’s values.

The fifth dimension is time orientation. Long-term-oriented cultures focus on future rewards, fostering virtues like perseverance and thrift. On the contrary, short-term orientated cultures value the past and present. They promote quick results and the bottom line. Asian countries and Germanic nations score very high in on-time orientation, while African, South American, and Muslim societies are short-term oriented.

Finally, we can map cultures on a spectrum ranging from indulgence to restraint. Indulgent societies allow relatively free gratification of basic and natural human drives related to enjoying life and having fun. South American countries score very high on indulgence. In contrast, restraint stands for a society that suppresses gratification of needs and regulates it by means of strict social norms. The lowest scores come from Eastern European communities, Baltic countries, and Muslim nations. Those cultures tend to be cynical and pessimistic. People from that geography don’t put much emphasis on leisure time, believing that indulging themselves is somewhat wrong.

How to discover your customers’ cultural cognition?

If you can decode an individual’s cultural cognition, you can be much more productive with your messaging. But how?

First, you can use Hofstede’s framework. His set of dimensions is universal, and they stood the test of time. Second, there are instruments that you can use to map out your customers. Third, you can use reverse correlations. As discussed above, contagious topics such as global warming, the death penalty, or gun control reveal cultural fault lines as well as where one stands. But there are more subtle -and fun- ways of identifying cultural cognition.

Especially in highly polarized cultures like the US, brands serve as a Rorschach test. Individuals see the reflection of their values in those brands (or more likely, they project their values onto brands.)

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For instance, in the US, the NFL is grossly more popular among Republicans, while more Democrats see the NBA in a favourable light. When it comes to retail, people who support transgender individuals are twice more likely to prefer Target over Walmart. Likewise, Papa John’s is far more popular with Republicans than with Democrats, by 24 percentage points in net favorability.

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That social dynamic is not unique to the US. A British study reveals that people who purchase HP Sauce or eat Bisto sausages are far more likely to have voted for Brexit. Leave brands were seen as more traditional, straightforward, simple, down-to-earth, good value and friendly, whereas remain brands are progressive, up-to-date, visionary, innovative, socially responsible, and intelligent.

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Likewise, in Turkey, one’s political views significantly influence which brand of chocolate or biscuits they eat. Government backers prefer Torku and Ulker, while the opposition would strictly avoid those two brands, opting for ETI – a brand that represents a secular way of life.

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Practical applications

The cultural cognition of your customers has many ramifications for your brand. For instance, uncertainty avoidance alone, explains why the French drink more mineral water, and Turks pop antibiotics like candy. High uncertainty-avoidance, combined with high levels of power distance, tell why Greeks don’t act on their purchase intentions.

No sector is immune to cultural cognition, and cosmetics are not an exception. In more egalitarian societies like the Netherlands, people use cosmetics to look young. They demand naturalness and purity. As the power distance increases, in countries like China or Turkey, the value of cosmetics shifts towards social status. That means, depending on who you are talking to, you should either highlight the ingredients of your product, or the people using your product.

Staying with cosmetics, in high-uncertainty avoidance cultures like Japan, scientific claims and well-known brands become essential. On the other end of the spectrum, in low uncertainty avoidance cultures, a variety of the product – not the brand itself- comes to the front. So, as a rule of thumb, if your customer can’t cope with uncertainty, amp up your scientific claims and usage of experts.

Speaking of experts, competent and high-profile presenters (like a doctor) work best in uncertainty intolerant and masculine cultures. Germans and Italians respect credibility. Americans prefer the spokesperson of the brand to be a successful hero (like Michael Jordan.) That’s almost the opposite of the Scandinavian approach, where customers relate to an antihero.

At a deeper level, cultural cognition affects one’s overall appearance too. We all know that individualistic cultures pay a premium on uniqueness. After all, most adolescent brands and trends come from the Western world, which promotes individualism. Collectivist cultures, by contrast, pay attention to conformity and harmony. Having said that, things get a bit more interesting when you add uncertainty avoidance into the mix.

Individualistic and uncertainty intolerant cultures (like Italy) value uniqueness and fashionableness. Individualistic and uncertainty tolerant cultures like Sweden or the UK, on the other hand, are unique but informal. People from a collectivist and uncertainty intolerant culture, say Koreans, are more likely to be conformist yet formal, whereas an average Chinese would believe in conformity yet dress up in a more informal way.

Cultural cognition also influences advertising style. In collectivist cultures, such as Brazil and Japan, communication tends to be indirect. In such countries, the context of the ad supersedes the content. Likability and entertainment become important. The opposite is also exact: individualistic cultures tend to be more direct. Particularly in Scandinavian countries, the content and the persuasiveness of the ad become more critical.

Comparative advertising is not appreciated in all cultures. For such a tactic to work, a culture should be individualistic as well as masculine. Anglo-Saxon and German-speaking countries fit that description. On the contrary, comparative advertising is almost never used in Turkey. Why? Because, in a culture like Turkey, in which modesty is essential, direct comparisons would backfire, for they are too aggressive.

As you see, cognition is not independent of culture. What your brand should say and how you should say it is determined by culture to a high degree. But as we discussed above, culture is one of the many elements that affect how we think and behave. In the next article, we will discuss cognitive styles and how they impact our decision-making.

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