Cultural stereotypes lead to misunderstandings

The problem with cultural stereotypes

If you work with colleagues or clients from other cultures on a daily basis cross-cultural awareness is a must.  Unfortunately, we have cultural stereotypes about how cooperative people from different national groups will be.  Gaps between stereotype and reality often cause misunderstandings, and result in conflict and lost opportunities.

Recently, two German psychologists – Angela Dorrough and Andreas Glöckner –  set out to investigate the determinants of cooperation between people from different nations.  They worked with about 1,000 participants from six geographically, culturally, and economically different countries: Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, and the U.S..  Each national sample was representative of the country in terms of age and gender.

An experiment to test cultural stereotypes

The researchers divided participants into pairs.  One player in each pair was given a dollar; they could hold on to the money or transfer some or all of it to their partner [note: transfer was used as the core dependent measure for cooperation].

The researchers doubled the amount given to the partner; the partner had to make the same decision about sharing (without knowing what the other person had done).  In essence, the activity was a one-shot prisoner’s dilemma.  Only interacting once eliminated strategic cooperation, e.g. heavy cooperation initially with the aim of building a good reputation and generating reciprocity.  With a one-shot round there could be no learning over time. The players went through rounds with players from each of the six countries.  The only information each player had was the nationality of their partner in each round.  As a final activity, participants completed a questionnaire about their attitudes to the nationalities.

The size of money transfers depended on how cooperative participants expected other nationalities to be, and that’s where stereotypes come into the picture.  The questionnaires showed that nearly everyone held ‘strong and transnationally shared expectations’ about other countries. Participants expected most cooperation from the Japanese (a very strong stereotype given their group-orientated culture), with Americans second, and Germans third.  The Mexicans came in fourth, followed by Indians, and Israelis last.

What the researchers were interested in was the extent to which the stereotypical expectations matched the reality of money transferred (cooperation).  What happened was that the stereotypes correlated negatively with the transfers.  Japan, the country with the highest expected transfer level had the lowest, with Germany just above.  Israelis had the highest transfer level among all the nations.  Mexico had the second highest level.

Lesson: Always remember your stereotype might not match the reality. Slow down and learn before leaping.


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About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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