Groups and trust: Cross-cultural research can shake common assumptions

REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
People cross a street in Tokyo April 28, 2011.

“The Japanese are group-oriented so…” Aargh! Ever since the notion that Japanese people are group-oriented while Americans are individualistic began to take root several decades ago, there have been researchers pushing back, calling for a more nuanced view, or in some cases plainly overturning such crude categorization. It may be human nature to oversimplify complex findings in any field. It generally leads those with access to more precise knowledge — or even with just the warning tug that greater experience frequently bestows — to say, somewhat wearily, “Yes, but…” On the other hand, nothing is more energizing than a nicely wrought experiment that helps bring further clarity and precision to the issue at hand.

Social psychologist Masaki Yuki and three colleagues made an investigation of attitudes toward groups among American and Japanese university students and how these outlooks might be demonstrated in terms of trust behavior. Their research focused on two studies. In the first, Yuki and his colleagues asked the participants to read three scenarios and assess how likely they would trust the person described in it. The scenarios included 1) asking a stranger to look after your bags in an airport; 2) lending a stranger money in a restaurant; and 3) buying concert tickets online from a stranger. Likelihood was assessed on a seven-point scale from complete distrust to complete trust.

The stranger in the scenarios was one of four types. The first was a member of the same in-group: In the airport scenario this was identified as a student at the same university; in the restaurant, a person from the same city as the student; and when buying tickets, a person living in the same country. The second type was someone not belonging to the same group, but with a potential relationship to the student: a different university/city/country, but one where the student knows someone. For the third variety of stranger, students were specifically informed they did not know anyone at the university or in the city/country. Regarding the last type, no information was given. This group was used as a baseline.

Unsurprisingly, both the American and Japanese students trusted the strangers from the same in-group much more than type-three out-group strangers. But the Japanese trusted type-two potential relationship strangers almost as much as in-group strangers whereas the Americans trusted both potential relationship and out-group strangers significantly less than in-group strangers. Another interesting finding was that baseline trust was identical for the airport scenario and very close for the ticket-purchase situation, but the Japanese trusted strangers in a restaurant considerably more than the Americans.

In the second study, Yuki and his colleagues upped the stakes by making the trust situation real rather than hypothetical. They did this by having new groups of Japanese and American students play a game that yielded varying amounts of money, which they would get to keep, depending on who they trusted. Students were told that they would be playing a game online with another student and that randomly they would be assigned to be either an allocator or recipient of money. In fact, the study participants were always assigned to be recipients. The allocator had $11/¥1,300 and could share this money as they pleased with the recipient. But before hearing how much money the allocator would give them, the recipient could opt for a “sure-thing” payment of $3/¥400.

The students were given a list of well-known universities in their country and asked to circle the universities where they knew a student. This information was used at the beginning of the game, when the study participants were told that the allocator was either 1) a student at their own university; 2) a student at a university where they knew someone; or 3) a student at a university where they had no acquaintances. The students played three games, each time ostensibly playing with one of the different types of potential students, presented in random order. Refraining from exercising the option to go for the sure-thing payment was considered to show trust in the allocator.

Similar to the results of the first study, the Americans demonstrated trust when they believed the allocator was a student at their own university, but were equally much less likely to take a chance on the allocator’s largesse when told the allocator was a student at a university where they knew someone or knew no one. In contrast, the Japanese students were almost as likely to trust a supposed allocator from a university where they knew someone as one from their own university, and much less likely to trust a student from a university where they knew no one.

Basically, the trust/distrust likelihood was the same for both the Americans and the Japanese when the students were at the same university or at one where they had no connection at all, but for the middle type, a different university where they did know someone, there was a large divergence in terms of trust. Yuki and his co-researchers suggest that the results indicate that the American students made judgements on the basis of group membership, while the Japanese students made assessments centered on potential networks, even though there was no certainty that there was any direct connection between their acquaintance and the student appearing in the scenarios in the first experiment or presumed to be playing the role of allocator in the second experiment.

Americans may be individualistic (although research I introduced in this column last year suggests Japanese people may be more so). But when it comes to groups, the boundaries seem more rigid. On the other hand, perhaps Japanese people are group-oriented, but in a special sense of being always open to enlarging the group, valuing even potential connections and considering such unfamiliar people with a feeling of trust. It’s an expansive inclusiveness that amplifies and deepens the meaning of group itself.

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