#251 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 12          December 1996

The Culture of Decision-Making
by J. G. O’Boyle

Mr. O’Boyle is senior analyst with Cultural Studies & Analysis, a think tank in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which consults on problem definition, value perception and cultural effects to corporations and institutions.  Phone (215) 413-9041.  

Every of us, at some point in our lives, makes perfectly non-logical decisions that don’t turn out as we expect.  Before we can understand why we make bad decisions, we have to understand how people make decisions, and the hidden cultural assumptions that influence our decision-making process. 

A recent market survey of U.S. automobile buying patterns by J. D. Power & Associates revealed that more than one-third of all male car buyers deliberately stopped at the dealership when it was closed to “spy” on the cars when no one else was around.


Think about it.  How much useful information can a potential car-buyer get through a display window or a chain-link fence?  Not much, if the answer to why people choose one car over another is rooted in “facts” about handling or miles per gallon.  Those are the traditional features car dealers tout; but to the customer, they are assumed—significant only in their absence.

In the U.S., cars are not selected merely as transportation.  If they were everyone would buy by price, and the most inexpensive would be the market leader.  Instead, we choose cars on the basis of projection:  how well they reflect the values we feel are important—to others and to ourselves.  What messages does this car project?  Does it project a forward-looking image?  An image of freedom and mobility?  Does it say conservative and powerful, or youthful and adventurous?  Does it project an aura of success?  These are values that are central to U.S. culture.

Other cultures may need to project different values:  stability, conformity, precision, endurance, security, reliability, tradition or established power.  They may also share values with Americans, but rank them by a different priority.  But no matter what values they select, the car of their choice must clearly reflect them in its design, and our human brains perceive that reflection most clearly without a salesman clouding the image with facts and figures.

What About the Facts?

At work, engineers, scientists and other specialists of any culture base their decisions as much as possible on Process Logic—the systematic evaluation of quantifiable facts.  When they are not practicing their professions, they most likely use facts the way we all do—to confirm choices we have already made.  In our day-to-day life, facts are validation, coming at the end of the decision-making process, not at the beginning.

In practice, humans make very few major decisions by drawing up a checklist of positive and negative attributes.  We don’t do it for the cars we drive, the friends we choose, the house we buy, or the person we marry—we don’t even do it when we decide which profession we should pursue—even those like engineering and science, that rely heavily on the dispassionate evaluation of quantifiable facts.

Cultural Logic

In our daily lives, we make very few decisions using Process Logic.  Instead, we use Cultural Logic.  Our brain constantly monitors input from our senses, matching them for signatures—familiar patterns similar to those which the collective experience of the group tells us will meet our needs.  That’s why we gravitate towards neighborhoods of people who look and behave like us, and prefer new music that sounds like the music of our youth.

We do this because it works—most of the time.  Indeed, we couldn’t function at all if we had to analyze every decision as if it were a new situation.  We simply wouldn’t have the time.  Cultural Logic has been honed over a thousand centuries of human evolution, enabling us to instantly assess new situations as either potentially dangerous or desirable. 

Defining Values

Cultural Logic depends on our almost instantaneous ability to unconsciously recognize patterns of values, which are broad cultural tendencies to prefer one state of affairs over another.  For instance, in the U.S., self-reliance is preferred over dependence, and mobility over ties to one place. 

These signature values operate at an invisible level, so basic to our sense of self that we assume they are shared by all human beings.  So fundamental are these cultural imperatives that contact between people with differing cultural value systems is often marked by confusion, frustration, and even hostility.  At the most obvious level, people brought up in the U.S. have difficulty understanding those who prefer identity as a group rather than as an individual, while Japanese find it unsettling to deal with U.S. companies whose policies change as management changes.  Similarly, Americans consider the Dutch unassertive in their business approach, while the Dutch consider the standard American business résumé to be so boastful as to be unreliable. 

Multinational corporations spend millions on cross-cultural training, so the root of this confusion isn’t that individuals are unschooled in the customs and behaviors of other countries.  The difficulty lies in the fact that, as specific cultures evolved to meet the needs of particular environments, each group developed a style of thinking that affected both their perception of a situation and the steps they take to deal with it.  Most people recognize that other cultures do things in different ways, and can adapt their interpersonal skills to accommodate to these customs, but it’s extremely difficult for even the most well-schooled to think like another culture.

Most people, in fact, don’t really understand the mental operating systems of their own culture.  In the U.S., much has been written on the need for creating a successful corporate vision, and nearly all of it is based on the assumption that vision is something personal—conceived by a lone “visionary” and wrestled into being by sheer force of will.  In this cultural set, the status quo is the enemy.  In cooperative cultures such as Japan and The Netherlands, the status quo, while improvable, doesn’t represent the forces of reaction, but the goals of all social effort and, therefore, isn’t something to be discarded lightly.

Similarly, the values identified with leadership are culturally attuned.  In the U.S., a visionary leader need only line up the votes of his board of directors or his political allies in order to implement his personal vision.  But it would be a rare Japanese CEO who would dream of acting without consensus from middle management on up.  But while cultures can have diametrically opposed values, it is vital to remember that these values are never random.  They are the products of culture, the complex adaptive system the brain uses to help meet universal needs within a specific environment.

Ready, Fire, Aim

Culture is a communications system.  Humans need constant sensory feedback in order to function.  Just as we may know our parents love us, but still need to experience consistent patterns of behavior that reinforce that belief, our Cultural Logic database is constantly being reinforced by our environment.  Yet, because this system operates at an unconscious level, it is not necessary to move outside your own national boundaries in order to misread cultural assumptions by mistaking the evocation for the value. 

U.S. automakers resisted making smaller, more fuel-efficient cars for years because they “knew” that “Americans prefer big cars.”  What Americans preferred, as the Volkswagen beetle and Japanese imports proved, was mobility—which in Cultural Logic terms translated into “Freedom.”  Making cars smaller and less costly to operate actually sent cultural cues signaling an increase in personal freedom, such as more miles covered for the same cost and more responsive steering and maneuverability giving the driver an enhanced sense of control.  Customers, in other words, don’t buy products, they buy values.

Poor decisions are most often made in environments that don’t function as we are trained to expect.  For decades, American business schools have turned out marketing experts who are adept at managing the myriad details necessary to mass market products, but use only Process Logic to determine how people find value in those products.  This leads to a high and costly failure rate.  In the U.S., 90% of all new product advertising fails, despite being “market tested” in advance with process-logic consumer surveys and focus groups, for the simple reason that people make decisions in a cultural context, not a “logical” one.  As former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca observed, “Market research never told us to create a mini-van.”

In order to operate successfully within any business environment, it’s essential to understand the values that drive the culture of that environment.  Institutions with an “elite” identity, such as art museums, attract staff members comfortable with the values of that subculture—and who have great difficulty in designing exhibits with values that attract the non-elite mass audience.  Process-oriented companies often focus on different values than their customers—and good products go unsold as a result.

Culture shapes expectations and assumptions which, in turn, shape both the perception of a problem, and the direction necessary to solve it.  Most problem-solving models start with “Define the problem,” which assumes a logic base of mutually-shared and consistent sets of assumptions.  This is why so many decisions seem to be made by using the “Ready, Fire, Aim” system.

The first step in any creative decision-making process should not be “Define the problem” but “Define the operating assumptions.”  This is the “ready” stage of the “Ready, Aim, Fire” sequence, and the one most essential to putting your decisions on target.  

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