College students in Hong Kong, for example, who were prompted ahead of time with icons of Chinese culture were more likely to cooperate with friends than were students who had been cued with American cultural icons, according to Ying-yi Hong of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Hong and a former student, Rosanna Yin-mei Wong at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, presented their findings in the June issue of the journal Psychological Science. "The world is becoming more and more globalized, and intercultural contact is becoming very frequent," said Hong, a professor of psychology at Illinois.
As a result, she said, people with exposure to multiple cultures may be able to -- or even be guided to -- respond in a certain way by placing into their minds icons that represent a particular culture. Such knowledge could prove to be important in international negotiations and in the decisions of people involved in multinational business, Hong said.
"In the past, when researchers studied cultural influences, they would record samples from different cultural groups and then compare the thinking, style, emotional expression and behavioral tendencies between the samples," Hong said.
"This type of research informs us of the differences and similarities between people from different cultural backgrounds," she said. "However, this approach makes people wonder if responses are really the result of culture or because of different demographic composition, different historical backgrounds or other factors."
To resolve this problem, Hong said, she randomly assigned bicultural participants into seeing different cultural icons and measured their subsequent responses. "Then, the different response patters found between the cultural icon conditions are more likely the result of the activated cultural frame than other factors, such as demographic composition or historical background," she said.
Five years ago, while at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Hong and colleagues Michael W. Morris of Stanford University, Chi-yue Chiu of the University of Hong Kong and Veronica Benet-Martinez of the University of Michigan proposed that the active mindset of people might guide decision-making. "Instead of comparing samples from different cultures, we looked at how cultures move within a person's mind," Hong said.
Chinese people in comparison to North Americans tend to explain social events in terms of factors external to themselves, such as social pressures. Americans, in comparison, explain situations in terms of factors internal to a person, with the individual at the forefront, Hong said.
In the journal American Psychologist (July 2000), they showed how it might work. Hong Kong students, who are raised in traditional Chinese families but also immersed in Western education and culture, were shown photos of icons that were culturally neutral, American or Chinese before seeking their opinion of what was happening in a photograph of a lone fish swimming ahead of others.
Students who had viewed Chinese icons were more likely to see the lone fish as being chased, while those exposed first to American icons saw the lone fish as a leader.
Since that study, Hong said, Morris has moved on to the Columbia University Graduate School of Business, where he tests the theory in cross-culture negotiations.
"We argue that there are many people who have substantial exposures to more than one culture," Hong said. "If these people have knowledge about both cultures, they should be able to switch between each culture when they are cued. In our research, we use environmental cues -- cultural icons that trigger, prime or activate a particular cultural system -- that lead people to respond in the corresponding cultural way."
For the new study, Hong and Wong worked with 171 Hong Kong Chinese college students who were faced with the prisoner's dilemma: to cooperate or defect. In such a scenario, each player gains if each cooperates, but only the defector gains more if another player cooperates.
Students were paired with friends or strangers and shown either Chinese or American icons; control groups viewed neutral geometric drawings.
Friends participating after viewing Chinese primes not only were more likely to cooperate, they were much more confident that their partners also would choose cooperation strategies than those shown American icons before facing the problem.
When partners were strangers, those viewing the Chinese primes were only slightly more likely (63 percent to 59 percent) to cooperate with each other, the researchers found.
Their approach borrows heavily from social psychology theory of symbolic interaction, which says people act based on the symbolic meanings they are exposed to in a given situation, Hong said. In this case, she said, what people have learned from each culture represent toolkits that can be deployed in various situations.
"Our findings suggest that cultural icons can activate higher-order goals, such as motivation to maximizing joint profit, and expectations, such as whether partners will cooperate, but that the activated goals and expectations are translated into behaviors only in specific relational contexts," Hong and Wong write in their conclusion.
The findings, Hong said, should be applicable to most bicultural situations, including those involving Hispanic Americans in the United States.
"We have replicated these findings over and over again," she said. "We have gotten the same results using samples of Hong Kong Chinese and Chinese Americans."