Across many areas of marketing activity, successful western brands tend to try to emulate that success in developing markets. As researchers, our understanding of the motivations and benefits for consumer choice has grown out of Western markets and the application of underlying psychological and sociological theories developed in Western, and especially Anglo-American, contexts. Most of what we know about consumer behaviour is based on theories that originate in Western countries and while these theories are assumed to be applicable to people across the world, in reality the psychological set up they are based on is strongly influenced by culture.

We all know that local context and culture are powerful influences over consumers’ desires and behaviours. By ‘culture’ we refer to the sets of values and beliefs shared by individuals of a particular social system to interpret their environment and the behaviour of those around them. We talk about individuals having a ‘cultural orientation’: a tendency to interpret their surroundings in a way that is consistent with a prevailing particular dimension of culture.

As researchers, part of our job is to look at the world through other people’s eyes. We need to extend our own perspective to consider how frameworks from cross-cultural psychology can help us dig deeper into these consumer motivations and provide better insights for clients. Without a cross-cultural interpretative framework, we may struggle to see patterns in our data and discard potentially powerful insights as anecdotal. Cataloguing every single culture and its idiosyncrasies would be near impossible, but there are conceptual frameworks which we can use to grasp the major cultural dimensions and understand cultures different from our own.

At the core of many of these frameworks is bi-polar distinction between Western and Eastern cultures characterising differences in perspective as those of ‘tunnel vision’ and ‘wide angle lens’. Simply, in the West we are more used to viewing our lives through a limited focus whereas in the East people are more used to looking at the bigger picture. From this basic principle, a number of variables or corollaries have been identified which support this core duality at the level of individual psychology. It is worth pointing out, however, that studies which focus more on distinctive societal values also exist.

In this article we will;

  • First, at the level of the individual, discuss academic studies which highlight fundamental differences across cultures in the way people see themselves, how that affects their perceptions of the world around them and what implications that may have on consumer behaviour.

  • Second, we will explore a more detailed framework for analysing cultures through shared values and motivations.

How I see myself

The idea of a ‘tunnel vision’ or ‘wide angle’ lens is fundamentally linked to how we define ourselves, to our self-construals, and to the view that these are either independent or interdependent. The way in which we think about ourselves is rooted in culturally different ways of raising children and subsequently reinforced through continuing experience of a specific cultural environment and its behavioural norms. At the heart of selfdefinitions is whether you see yourself as connected to others or as separate from them, and your sense of agency, or to what extent you feel you are self determining, as opposed to being governed from the outside.

Western psychology is grounded in the idea of individualism which presupposes that an individual is an autonomous entity with a distinctive set of attributes (‘enthusiastic’, ‘friendly’, ‘ambitious’) and that these internal attributes cause behaviour. Being distinctive is seen as positive, although one’s attributes should be expressed consistently across different situations because behaviour that changes with the situation is seen as slightly hypocritical or false7. Expression of private opinions and self-actualisation are important, along with having personal time, freedom of choice, a challenging career as well as adventurous and varied leisure time8. This type of independent self-construal is typical of highly individualistic countries such as the UK, the US, Canada and Australia.

On the other hand, collectivistic countries such as those in the East, as well as Africa and much of South America, tend to foster more interdependent self-construals. There, people tend to describe themselves in relation to the context (‘I am a good daughter’ or ‘I am a hard-working student’) because behaviour is strongly influenced by the social requirements of different settings. In such settings, individuals constantly scan the environment for cues to guide them for how to behave and their actions are driven by the need to respond accurately to those who are important to them. Consequently, they may behave inconsistently in different social situations.

This inconsistency, however, is viewed as a positive because it signals receptiveness to external cues and an ability to adapt to the social environment. An individual’s identity is strongly tied to and defined by group memberships and the social network one belongs to, and there’s a preference for harmony over variety and adventure: avoiding loss of face is more important. People see themselves as fundamentally interdependent with one another: separating the self from others and the environment is near impossible. Social contexts frame the meanings for individual behaviour: it’s the consequence of being responsive to others, not driven by internal attributes and desires.

How do I see myself?

As independent and separate from others: I tend to do my own thing, regardless of what others do

As interdependent and connected to others: to understand who I am, you must see me with the members of my group

How do I describe myself?

Through my individual attributes: I’m the same wherever I am and whoever I am with, because being different is false

Through my relationships to others: who I am depends on the social context as I need to take others into account

What factors shape my decisions

One of the fundamental assumptions of consumer behaviour theory is that that consumers desire to control their lives and subsequently use consumption as a means to that end. Studies that have focused on cultural differences, however, have made distinctions between the degree to which an individual believes they have personal control over events that affect them.

Perceived locus of control refers to the extent to which a person expects life outcomes to be determined more by their own behaviour and personal characteristics (internal locus of control) or alternatively by chance, fate or someone more powerful (external locus of control). The more internal locus of control an individual feels, the more likely they are to take action to improve their life conditions and the more sense of agency they feel. They are more inclined to view achievement as individual gain and recognition, and therefore failure prompts doubts about one’s own abilities.

By contrast, individuals with a dominant sense of external locus of control and interdependent self-views are more concerned for harmony, presenting oneself modestly is important, as is achievement on behalf of the group rather than oneself. Here, failure to accomplish something is often attributed more to circumstances such as poor connections to others, bad luck and fate.

It follows that internal locus of control is typical of individualism and independent self-construals10, whereas the individual with a more interdependent self construal embraces more of an external locus of control. The next chart summarises the bipolarity of West and East discussed so far, from the perspective of the individual consumer;

How do I see myself?

As independent and separate from others: I tend to do my own thing, regardless of what others do

As interdependent and connected to others: to understand who I am, you must see me with the members of my group

How do I describe myself?

Through my individual attributes: I’m the same wherever I am and whoever I am with, because being different is false

Through my relationships to others: who I am depends on the social context as I need to take others into account

What determines what my life will be like?

My personal characteristics and behaviour

Fate, chance or more powerful others

What's most important to me?

Expressing individual opinions and choice as well as adventure and personal achievement

Group membership and social networks as well as harmony and achievement on behalf of the group

Whose needs are most important?

My personal interests are more important than those of the group (such as extended family)

Group needs are more important than my personal ones

What do I look for from brands?

In Western individualistic cultures, consumers predominantly aspire to brands that portray them as independent, unique, and distinctive, seeking a consistency in the expression of brand values across consumption contexts. Brand identity here is more likely to focus on situations that are aimed at making people feel good about themselves, reinforcing the values associated with thinking yourself as independent. Subsequently, consumption motives such as indulgence and treating yourself are more dominant in individualistic cultures such as the UK, USA and other Anglo-Saxon countries.

Conversely, in Eastern collectivistic cultures brand personalities frequently demonstrate group identity11 while advertising in collectivistic cultures tends to focus on in-group benefits, harmony and family. For example, in Japan brands are not used for enhancing one’s unique personality but to confirm social status and there is more encouragement for self-criticism as it supports the need to accommodate and fit in with others12. Brand identities tend to be regarded as a part of a larger whole, which is reflected in many Eastern companies favouring corporate or umbrella brands over product brands.

Object versus context

Different ways of seeing oneself also influence the way we think; some academics suggest that two thinking styles emanate from adapting to different social environments that require differing perceptual and cognitive skills. For example, the heightened role of social relationships for individuals with interdependent selfconstruals have given rise to more context dependency and holistic thinking as opposed to the analytic and object-focused style linked to independent self-construals.

A number of studies, focused on mapping out the cognitive differences between East Asians and North Americans, suggest that the former tend to think holistically: the heightened awareness of social relations also extends to a deeper acceptance of complexity and multiple possible causal factors when it comes to decision making, whereas the analytical way of thinking, of the latter, favours linearity and more direct causal relations. These differences also affect how we process advertising: analytic thinking style could be compared to a tunnel vision where we pay more attention to the most salient objects in any visuals, whereas holistic style is more akin to a wide-angle lens that focuses more on the bigger picture and observing relationships between objects and the background.

Finally, these differences in thinking style influence how we categorise objects: in the West we tend to be more focused on objects whereas in the East the emphasis is on context. We are used to grouping things into categories based on rules and shared features, whereas in the East category membership depends on relational and contextual criteria. For example, in a study where people were asked which two out of three entities (man, woman and child) belonged together, we in the West feel it’s more natural to group the adults whereas in the East people were more likely to group woman and child because the former takes care of the latter. This difference in categorisation has potential implications for company structures (corporate vs. product brands) and marketing strategy such as brand extensions14: while it might seem strange for a cosmetics brand to branch out to food products, if you perceive the core category of the brand to be ‘beauty’ instead of ‘cosmetics’, functional food becomes just another way to achieve the same purpose: beauty.

Hofstede Culture Comparisons

The individualised portraits of ‘Tunnel Vision West’ and ‘Wide Angle East’ present us with a challenging dichotomy to consider when we try to assess the meaning of research findings for marketing and communication strategies. More practical tools can help us understand and compare cultures. Values are a key element of cultural orientations so a framework that maps out societies on different dimensions of the predominant values can be a very useful guideline.

One such framework was developed by Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede whose analysis is based on a large-scale study among IBM employees in 76 countries. Other frameworks are also used within cross-cultural psychology, but Hofstede’s dimensions are the best known categorisation of cultural differences outside academia. Readers might also appreciate that his data is also available as an online tool that enables easy comparison of a large number of countries on all of the dimensions.

Hofstede mapped out nations on four dimensions and described the cultural manifestations of a country being high or low on each of them.

  • individualism
  • power distance
  • uncertainty avoidance
  • masculinity

A profile of each country can be found on his website, which also offers an option for comparing up to three countries against each other. For this reason, only an outline of the dimensions is provided here

Each of these dimensions can be related to equivalent concepts in the more individual psychological theories as follows:

Individualism is the society level equivalent of independent self-construals
The focus is on looking after yourself or your immediate family only. However, individualism is linked to wealth with wealthier countries tending to be more individualistic. Indeed, some researchers have suggested a shift in cultural values in countries like China, but it is too early to conclude whether the change will eventually be a substantial one.

High power distance is linked to interdependent self construals and collectivism
In these cultures, there is greater acceptance of authority and hierarchy is seen as normal part of life. Status is particularly important as a means of demonstrating position, and older people are revered. Conversely, in small power distance cultures authority can have highly negative connotations: equality in terms of rights and opportunity are valued. For example, in the UK people in positions of authority such as politicians often to try look less powerful by, for example, choosing holiday destinations favoured by the general public.

Uncertainty avoidance is the societal level equivalent of external locus of control
The locus of control perceived by individuals is related to the nation level dimension of uncertainty avoidance. This dimension measures the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and want to avoid ambiguity as much as possible. Despite the common misperception, uncertainty avoidance is not the same as risk avoidance. In fact, individuals in high uncertainty avoidance cultures may sometimes even take more risks as a means to avoid ambiguity. It is interesting that societies have tended to create structure to life by means of formality and adherence to rules governing behaviour which they see as a way of coping with uncertainty. Experts are held in high esteem and there is a stronger interest in, for example, the process of how a product works as opposed to the results its usage will bring. Conversely, societies low on uncertainty avoidance tend to want as few rules as possible and believe more in common sense. Focus on innovation is strongly influenced by the level of uncertainty avoidance with lower levels associated with early adopters. The UK and US are typically low on this dimension whereas countries like Germany and Japan can be found on the other end of the scale.

Masculinity is linked to an individual status and achievement
In societies that are high on masculinity, dominant values centre on achievement and success. High earnings, recognition for and advancement based on performance are important: being a winner is highly positive and there is a higher tendency of consumption for the purpose of showing off. Personal status is an important consumption motive. Conversely, societies low on masculinity (i.e. more ‘feminine societies’) rate nurturance over assertiveness: caring for others and quality of life are focal values instead of competitiveness. There is a reverence for the small as beautiful, a desire for consensus and a more practical approach to consumption. Scandinavian countries are good examples of more feminine societies whereas US, UK and Japan score high on masculinity.

It’s important to note that Hofstede’s dimensions are measured at a nation level which means that the scores represent national averages that have been controlled for cultural biases in how people respond to surveys. As such they do not necessarily apply to all individuals within a country. Given this caveat, it is nevertheless instructive to consider how these dimensions can also be combined to uncover a deeper layer of understanding of what motivates consumer behaviour in different cultures. For example:

  • Power distance and masculinity jointly explain the differences in status motives in different countries: high masculinity with low power distance results in a motive to communicate success (for example the UK, US, Germany), while a high power distance with low masculinity is reflected in a desire to convey one’s position in society through consumption (e.g. France, Spain, Korea).

  • Moreover, low scores on both dimensions can manifest itself in a lack of status needs provided by consumer culture altogether (for example Scandinavian countries, Finland and the Netherlands).

  • Similarly, a combination of these dimensions (individualism, low uncertainty avoidance along with a short-term time orientation) can be used to understand differences in the dominance of convenience as a consumption motive;

  • Or the reasons for buying a car; the pleasure seeking of individualism results in an emphasis on enjoyment of driving whereas environmental friendliness is a stronger motive for small power distance cultures.

The challenge for our research

To a degree, perhaps greater than we acknowledge, our approach to research has implicitly deployed, and not significantly challenged, assumptions that the same principles apply across different cultures and are equally valid across the globe. If we are not sufficiently aware of the significance of deep-lying cultural differences, we are more likely to notice and impose more similarities than there actually might be. In Western Europe alone it is apparent that assumptions of shared values can mislead.

There are probably no two countries in Europe as different from each other as Belgium and the Netherlands despite sharing a language and a border, though research findings from one are often extended to the other. There is also a desire to group countries together under umbrellas such as ‘Mediterranean’ in order to sample just one of each as an example, yet there are considerable differences between countries in terms of hierarchical thinking and cultural values that affect consumer behaviour in fundamental ways.

The ascent of global brands and global advertising campaigns has too easily led to a desire for common solutions and to an assumption of universality of consumer behaviour. The myth of the global consumer is slowly fading and being replaced by a growing understanding that globalisation does not necessarily lead consumers to buying products and services in the same ways and for the same reasons in different countries.


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