Cultural Conundrums / What Follows ‘Batter Up!Pqx: Cultural Accommodation in Baseball Risk-Taking

The great thing about culture is that it’s everywhere. I am not a fan of baseball, but my spouse is, and as a result I’ve been to several games and spent many, many more hours in our living room, with one game or another playing on TV. Unsurprisingly, I’ve acquired a tiny bit of knowledge of the sport, though this is surprisingly meager considering all the hours of auditory input accrued. Sports, like foreign languages, require more than mere exposure. Without genuine engagement, some points are picked up but deeper comprehension remains sketchy.

Luckily for me, though, I have a great interest in culture, and culture permeates everything. And as the research of Roxie Chuang, a researcher of cultural influences on decision-making, and her three colleagues makes plain, baseball is no exception. In a paper published in 2022, Chuang and her team provide evidence for a phenomenon which fans of baseball in the United States and Japan may already have anecdotal awareness: players on American teams are bolder in seeking home runs.

Chuang and her colleagues analyzed Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball data over 15 seasons, from 2005 to 2019, encompassing 70,462 MLB games and 25,778 NPB games. The average number of home runs per game in the MLB was 1.06, but it was only .82 in the JPB. As the researchers point out, this means that over five games MLB spectators would typically enjoy one more home run than their Japanese counterparts.

Going for a home run involves the risk of striking out, and in fact, the average number of strikeouts per game was higher in the MLB, with an average of 7.52, compared to 6.91 for the NPB. Conversely, as a low-risk payoff strategy, a sacrifice bunt can be considered the inverse of a home run. And indeed, sacrifice bunts were more common in the NPB, with an average of .83 per game, much higher than the MLB average of .28.

It’s in the researchers’ second study that things get particularly interesting. Of course, players on these American and Japanese teams are not necessarily from the home culture. In 2017, about 35% of MLB players were Asian or Latino, and in 2020, 10% of NPB players were non-Japanese. Yet these teams comprised of different nationalities nevertheless appear to adhere to the cultural norms of the country the team is part of. Chuang and her colleagues suspected that the foreign players are responsive to the inclinations of local fans and play accordingly.

To test whether the risk decisions might stem from fans’ preferences, the researchers collected data on fans’ proclivities through a questionnaire that asked them to imagine themselves in a real-time game and choose one of two actions to take. To be certain that the respondents were sufficiently knowledgeable, a pre-test was held that asked questions like, “How many balls are required to walk a batter?” The task showed 239 European Americans and 349 Japanese respondents were adequately familiar with baseball, and these individuals proceeded to the main survey. Eight scenarios were described, and the respondents were asked to choose either the higher-risk payoff or the lower-risk payoff. For example, given the scenario “You are at bat, your teammate is on first base with 1 out. The pitch count is 3-0. Your coach just gave you the green light. Would you take the pitch or try to swing?” respondents selected “I would try to swing” or “I would take the pitch.”

Of the Japanese respondents, 78% went for the lower-risk payoff, compared to 56% of the Americans. In the end, four of the eight scenarios were predicted by the cultural groups while two showed no difference. Interestingly, though, in the remaining two scenarios as coaches, the Americans were more likely than their Japanese counterparts to choose the lower-risk payoff. They were less prone to having a runner try to steal a base, but more prone to asking a pitcher to intentionally walk someone. In the first scenario, the divergence between the two cultural groups was 9% and in the second, 7%. Nevertheless, overall, the Japanese respondents were more apt to go for the lower-risk payoff than the Americans.

Just to be sure that this strategic decision-making actually reflected general cultural tendencies, the researchers also administered the Behavioral Inhibition and Behavioral Activation Scale, developed by psychologists Charles Carver and Teri White, which asks respondents to personally assess 20 statements on a scale of one (very false for me) to four (very true for me). The statements include “approach motivations,” like “I go out of the way to get the things I want,” and “avoidance motivations,” such as “I worry about making mistakes.” The average score for the Japanese on the avoidance motivation items was higher than that of the Americans, at 3.08 compared to 2.81, while the Americans’ approach motivation average was 2.92 and that for the Japanese was 2.78.

As intercultural scholars often emphasize, culture is not “out there,” waiting to be discovered like untried terrain, or like an iceberg, with part of it sticking out while the rest remains hidden. Instead, it is something that continuously emerges out of the actions and behaviors of each member of a community. Culture is constructed, one swing or one bunt at a time.


It has been my great pleasure to write this column for this newspaper for over 20 years. This will be my last column here, but I will continue writing about cultural issues elsewhere. Readers can contact me at Thank you for reading my column!

(This is the final installment of Cultural Conundrums.)

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.