Conformity in Culture: The Colored Pens Study

Say, you’re given a bin of pens.

Most of them are black and a few are blue. Your favorite color to write with is blue.

Which pen would you choose?

This study was conducted by Japanese researcher Toshio Yamagishi and his research team with participants from Japan and the US.

The study involved a default scenario, an initial scenario, a final scenario, and a purchase scenario.

  • Default scenario – participants simply told to choose a pen
  • Initial scenario – participants told they were the first person to choose a pen
  • Final scenario – participants told they were the last person to choose a pen
  • Purchase scenario – participants told they were buying a pen

Considering previous research on the differences between individualist and collectivist cultures, one might think the Japanese would always choose the majority color, due to their preference for conformity, while the American would always choose the minority color, due to their preference to stand out.

The results, however, were a bit more complex.

Preference for Uniqueness

Although the Japanese did choose the majority color and the Americans the minority color in the default scenario, the results between the two cultures were similar in the other three scenarios: the Americans and the Japanese were just as likely to choose either the majority or minority color.

These last three results indicate that both cultures prefer uniqueness in equal measure.

The results also show that each culture, in being the first to choose, is cognizant of other peoples’ desire for uniqueness and, therefore, may be reluctant to offend those who have yet to choose their colored pen.

But when the social situation becomes ambiguous, as in the default scenario, why do the Japanese assume the majority pen, when the results show that they prefer the unique pen just as much as their American counterparts?

This is where the preference for harmony comes in.

Do Not Offend

The default scenario reveals that the Japanese don’t necessarily prefer to conform; after all, they were just as likely to choose unique over conformity in the other three scenarios.

Rather, the Japanese prefer harmony over disharmony.

Yamagishi and his team concluded that the disparity was in the ambiguity: the desire not to offend is stronger in the Japanese than in the Americans, particularly in ambiguous social situations.

And why not offend?

One theory posed by Yamagishi is centered around interpersonal relationships.

Japan is a “closed society” regarding groups and relationships. By this, we mean that it’s considerably more closed to outsiders; if you’re not part of the in-group, you’re not welcome. In this way, it’s harder to replace lost relationships when you’ve offended someone.

The US, on the other hand, is an “open society.” It’s much easier to replace a lost relationship if one has caused offense.

This is why the Japanese avoid offending in ambiguous situations, which may come at the cost of their preferences on occasion. Group loyalty over self-loyalty, as we talked about last week.

The ambiguity of whether your choice of a unique pen may or may not offend someone is balanced against the cost of social rejection.

The result is this strategic and nuanced adaptation under differing scenarios.

How does this apply to the type of management style a culture prefers?

We’ll talk more about that next week.