Culture, Language and Colours: How culture affects the decision-making process?

Have you ever thought about why we perceive Germans to be a precise people? Or why we consider the Chinese to be math geniuses? In a world where we tend to assume everyone thinks the same as we, members of the Western world, do, and ignore the potential effects of culture, you might be surprised as to just how powerful some of these small differences can be.

Most times, when we think about the decision-making process, we immediately think about the bounded nature of our minds. However, there are actually three sets of factors that have influence over our decisions.

They include (1) the features of the decision, (2) the situational factors and (3) the characteristics of the decision-maker.

The features of the decision concern how we are prepared to take them, how the situation is framed and how the options are ordered. The situational factors are related with time constraints, social pressure and other phenomena of this kind. The characteristics of the decision-maker include their age, gender, personality, social class and even their culture.

The first two sets presented are the ones that are discussed and studied the most, while the latter is sometimes ignored.

Culture has tremendous effects on many aspects of our lives,  even affecting some of the mental shortcuts we intuitively take. Therefore, it’s easy to realise the importance of understanding its impact over us. This is also  where it gets strange because, when we look at data, we realise that most research on decision making was made in Western countries such as the US: 96% of the samples in these studies come from countries that only represent 12% of the world’s  population. Moreover, the population of these regions live under special circumstances, their countries are democratic, and the population has high living standards and is highly educated. This enforces the idea that the samples we usually consider may not represent the entire world. This way, we are, in an implicit way, assuming that, cognitive biases are universal and operate in similar ways despite the different cultures, for instance. This is the reason why theories in cognitive psychology almost never consider culture as a factor. Again, we assume that the way we think is universal. However, recent studies might have shown the opposite.

Recent cross-culture research shows that culture can affect some of the most basic psychological domains such as visual perception, moral reasoning and self-concepts. Even though this kind of research is limited, it is proving itself to be extremely beneficial as it may allow us to unravel the deepest foundations of our behaviour.

It might seem natural to assume that people all over the world would perceive colours in the same way. Nevertheless, studies have found that colour categorisation may vary depending on the language – the way we formulate colour categories is connected with the linguistic terms used to describe them.

For example, the population of the Himba tribe (a tribe of around 50,000 people living in northern Namibia) have difficulties in distinguishing between green and blue, since their language only has one word for both colours. In contrast, another interesting example is tied to the way the Russian language has a different term for a lighter and darker tone of blue. This differentiation allows Russian speakers to categorise and distinguish colours faster than English speakers.

Another study has shown that culture and even age may affect even more basic aspects, like visual perception.

Image 1: The Müller-Lyer arrows

Image 1: The Müller-Lyer arrows

The Müller-Lyer arrows is an optical illusion where the line in the top arrow appears longer than the bottom one, despite both being the same length. The study found that the illusion is stronger to young American people and that almost disappear for the members of the San forager tribe (that live in the Kalahari Desert), for instance. A possible explanation for this is that American people tend to live in more urban areas, with straight lines, square corners and right angles, whereas forager tribes live in a more irregular environment. This greater exposure to rectangularity may lead Americans to be more susceptible to the illusion.

If simple things like colour categorization and visual perception vary significantly from culture to culture, what can we say about more complex psychological processes? Even though we do not have an answer, simple cross-culture studies found meaningful differences that question the way the world and our behaviour are perceived.  Their importance is increased when we consider that most of the samples- people from western countries- may represent outliers that by consequence ignore the profound differences created by our cultural context.