How Culture Influences Our Response to Risk

It’s been almost exactly 10 years since I first wrote a post on framing effects in this blog. A lot has happened since then, including a growing number of cross-cultural studies on decision-making and the context of a pandemic.

Framing is a technique that presents individuals with a problem that highlights positive or negative aspects of the same decision. Usually this leads to different responses.

One famous instance of framing initially developed by Tversky and Kahneman used the scenario of a disease and presented people with choices that highlighted either the number of individuals that could be saved or the number that would die.

Here’s an updated version of the problem with the positive or negative framing options:

Imagine that [your country] is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs is as follows:

Which of the two programs would you favor, Program A or B?

[Positive framing condition:]

If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.

If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.

[Negative framing condition:]

If Program A is adopted, 400 people will die.

If Program B is adopted, there is 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.

Past research has found that, in a positive frame (highlighting lives saved), most people would opt for the guaranteed 200 lives saved (Program A). Presented with a negative frame (deaths), on the other hand, most people would prefer the risky 2/3 probability that 600 will die (Program B) over a guaranteed 400 deaths (Program A). According to prospect theory, people are more likely to make risky choices when they are faced with a loss.

This public health problem, of course, has been very relevant to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers Hohjin Im and Chuansheng Chen decided to take the opportunity to investigate the problem globally by obtaining data from a large sample of respondents in 49 countries.

The main purpose of their work was to look at cross-cultural differences. One of the dimensions of particular interest pertained to differences between individualist and collectivist cultures. Individualist cultures focus on the individual as an interdependent agent and are predominantly found in the West. In collectivist cultures, prevalent in the East, individuals are seen as interdependent parts of larger social groups.

Framing effects have been researched cross-culturally before, but most of these studies focused on business and financial domains. In contrast to framing problems in the domain of business and finance, public health dilemmas focus on outcomes for others rather than the self. For this reason, the researchers hypothesized that people from collectivist cultures would be more averse to risk in the disease scenario.

The study’s results show very robust framing effects. In fact, compared to a negative frame, a positive frame is associated with a higher proportion of individuals choosing the risk-averse option. Im and Chen note that participants’ response to the disease scenario does not appear to deviate much from the original findings even in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

With respect to cultural differences, the data show that individuals’ collectivism was associated with more risk-taking in both the positive and negative framing conditions. Framing effects were also smaller for people from collectivist countries.

How can these cultural differences be explained? Im and Chen note that:

Indeed, for collectivistic cultures, an agent may be more motivated to engage in riskier options to maximize the potential well-being of the greater mass out of a perceived social obligation to do so even at the expense of one’s own conscious guilt in the event that no one is saved. This is in contrast with individualistic cultures were the risk-averse option to guarantee the lives of a smaller mass and possibly minimize said guilt from the possible likelihood of mass death may be the more palatable option.

The authors suggest that the same explanation can be used for the finding that collectivist individuals are less susceptible to the framing effect in general compared to those from individualist cultures. The danger of a disease may carry a greater sense of relevance for people from collectivistic societies, as their culture emphasizes a concern for collective well-being. Past research suggests that greater relevance leads to a more analytical thinking style, which is characterized by more controlled and decontextualized information processing. Thus, collectivist participants may look at the disease problem more analytically, which would make them less susceptible to the context effect produced by framing. This explanation remains to be tested in future research.

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