Christmas: Do you want Santa or an Apple? – How to Understand Culture to Access Heuristics in Decision-making 

By Kathy Cheng

I have been thinking about sharing some results from our recently completed pretty awesome cultural model (many say ground-breaking). As the holidays are fast approaching, it occurs to me, what could be a better time to reflect on culture?

What is Culture?

Culture is traditionally described as an onion because it has many layers (Hofstede and Trompenaars). I instinctively disliked the metaphor because onions are stinky and make you cry. More importantly I felt that the metaphor failed to explain the relationship between the layers. I decided that the flower is a more appropriate metaphor (see Fig.1).

“Basic assumptions are many series of routines and methods a society has developed over time in order to survive. They have become so basic that, like breathing, we no longer think about how we do it.” – Fons Trompenaars

I like the flower metaphor because it demonstrates that basic assumptions are the basis of values, and values drive behaviour. And I’d like to use Christmas to illustrate how the three parts interact.

Santa or an Apple? 

You might be wondering what my title is supposed to mean. It references two Christmas traditions I find particularly intriguing.

In multicultural Canada with many traditions to celebrate Christmas, a country-wide tradition is to “write to Santa.” It’s a tradition in many Western countries, but Canadians are especially proud to say that Canada is the home of Santa Claus, whose Canadian postal code “HOH OHO” is clearly the best proof (Fig. 2).

In China, Christmas is not a traditional holiday but it has become popular over the years. An increasingly popular tradition is giving apples on Christmas eve, because in Chinese, Christmas Eve is “Ping An Ye” (平安夜), meaning an evening of peace. Apple in Mandarin sounds like the word for peace (Fig. 3).

If writing to Santa is the “flower”/the behaviour, the “stem/leaves” are the belief that you will be rewarded if you work hard towards your goal, and the “root” is more of independence self-construal and an internal locus of control.
If apple-giving is the “flower,” the “stems/leaves” are the belief that wishing each other well is the best gift for the holiday season, and the “root” is more of interdependence self-construal and an external locus of control.
A good understanding of the interaction between the layers, guides research design. It is ironic that Hofstede said “values could be observed only through behaviour,” yet almost all existing cultural studies rely on a self-reported evaluation on values. We were convinced that we needed to do things very differently.

Research to Understand Basic Assumptions 

1) Independence vs. interdependence self-construal 

Fig. 4 shows one of the questions we had in our cultural model questionnaire. According to cultural theories, people from interdependence cultures tend to see the “relationship” first and are thus more likely to pair an animal with its corresponding food. Conversely, people from independence cultures tend to see things by category, and are more likely to group animals together or foods together.
Our data show that some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates (1.4* times more likely), China (1.29 times more likely) and India (1.1 times more likely) are more likely than Canada to display interdependence orientation. Spain (indexed at 0.81) and United Kingdom (indexed at 0.84) are less likely than Canada to display interdependence orientation. United States (indexed at 1.01) and Canada are similar in terms of interdependence orientation.  The results explain reaping the rewards of doing one’s best in Canada (more of an independence orientation) versus sending best wishes to each other in China (more of an independence orientation).
Independence culture societies consider the individual a separate self-contained entity encouraged to be unique and strive for personal goals. In interdependence cultures conversely, the individual adjusts him/herself to fit in and maintaining group harmony is of higher priority. (See Fig. 5 below.)
*Indices are calculated by dividing % of each country choosing bunny+carrot or monkey+banana by % of Canada making the same choices. For the purpose of this article, country is represented by Millennials (to minimize generational difference biases) who currently live in the country and were born in the country (to minimize the impact of migration). 

2) Internal vs. external locus of control  

Internal vs. external control is the weight people assign to their natural environment – do they try to control nature or do they submit to it?
Western cultures tend to celebrate one person, one God or one relationship. That’s an easier relationship to manage because of a single point of contact. In the “write to Santa” tradition, for example, the moral is if you behave, you will be rewarded, speaking very much to the cause-and-effect internal control locus.
In contrast, power comes from more abstract sources or substances in Eastern cultures. Multiple Gods are common in Eastern religions. Subjects of worship range from the earth, the sky, the rain, the wind, the stove – they are everything and everywhere – like apples for Christmas Eve. That speaks very much to the external control locus.
One of our questions yielded responses indicating that China is 1.3 times more likely than Canada to be external control oriented. Due to length constraints, I won’t elaborate on the question. I do want to point out an additional step that we did to identify impulsive orientation.  Guided by our behavioural scientist and using machine learning, we created an 11-point scale combining selected values and response time (standardized using MZ-score transformation) – see Fig. 6 below. Scores at the extremities represent minimal response times, indicating impulsive orientations that often lead to irrational and subconscious decisions. The more centered the scores are, the longer the response times employed, indicating more analytical orientations, often leading to rational and conscious decisions. The difference between Canada and China on “impulsive external control orientation” is much more salient – China is 3.4 times more likely than Canada to believe in fate’s sleight of hand!

Culture exerts a powerful influence on the intrinsic biases heuristics are based on and heuristics are usually automatic. General cultural differences with impulsive and analytical orientations combined are often diluted or even misleading. That’s where traditional cultural models fall short and significant gaps need to be filled in order to understand heuristics and irrationality.
“A heuristic is any approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals. Examples of this method include using a rule of thumb, an educated guess, an intuitive judgment, stereotyping, profiling, or common sense.” – Wikipedia

Final thoughts and wishes 

I started the article by saying that there’s probably no better time than the holiday season to reflect on culture. Now is when we send our finest prayers and wishes, no matter what our cultural backgrounds are. There’s an external control side and an interdependence side to all of us – just like we are all kind, patient and optimistic at least from time to time. Cultural differences are not dichotomous or black or white, they reveal how likely one is to access certain measures of tendency in different contexts. Just like in the context of the holiday season, we access more of those aspects of ourselves and expect more or less the same from others. Understanding the context is as important as understanding cultural differences.
With that, I wish you all a very auspicious holiday season and a fantastic new year ahead!

Kathy Cheng is a Co-founder of Selffii Intelligence Inc. She has two decades of global research experience and is a leading researcher in Canada’s multicultural and new Canadian markets. She co-authored “Migration Nation: A Practical Guide to Doing Business in Globalized Canada”. Selffii’s cultural model is based on an online quiz-style survey with over 50K completes from 130 countries, from July to September, 2016 using a non-probability convenience sample.
Title illustration by Louis Durrant @ Carrot Cake Studios

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