Cultural variation in choice and its consequences implications for decision making, victim blaming, and social policies
by Krishna Mukundrai Savani(
and held by
Choice is one of the most important categories of actions, both in American society in general and in the specific fields of psychology and economics. Extensive research over the past century has examined how people make choices, but the question of whether and when an action counts as a choice remains unstudied. While most scientists assume that whether an action counts as a choice is based upon the objective availability of multiple options, the present research tests whether what counts as a choice is also a matter of construal, a construal that is shaped by cultural models of agency. Studies 1 to 6 find that people in U.S. American contexts, where the disjoint model of agency is prevalent, are more likely than those in Indian contexts, where the conjoint model of agency is prevalent, to construe behaviors as choices. In Study 1, Americans reported making significantly more choices during the day than did Indians. In Studies 2 and 3, after the experimenter subtly induced participants to engage in the same series of behaviors, Americans were again more likely than Indians to construe their actions as choices. In Study 4, while watching a video of an actor spending time in his apartment, Americans identified the actor as making significantly more choices than did Indians. In Studies 5a and 5b, Americans were even more likely and Indians were even less likely to construe more important real life decisions as choices. In Study 6, Indians also showed a greater tendency to construe actions as choices when these actions involved responding to other people than when they did not, but Americans were equally likely to construe personal and interpersonal actions as choices. These findings show that whether people construe actions as choices is significantly shaped by sociocultural systems of meanings and practices. Studies 7 to 12 examined some of the positive and negative consequences of construing actions as choices in American contexts. Based upon the idea that choice and control are key components of the disjoint model of agency, these studies tested whether inducing Americans to construe actions as choices makes them more likely to make personal, interpersonal, and societal decisions under the assumption of personal control. Studies 7 and 8 found that inducing Americans to construe another person's actions as choices led them to make more risk-seeking and ambiguity-seeking decisions, which have been associated in previous research with increased perceived control. Studies 9 and 10 found that inducing Americans to construe another person's actions as choices led them to blame victims of negative life outcomes for making bad choices, reflecting the assumption that people have control over their actions and outcomes. Finally, Studies 11 and 12 found that inducing Americans to construe another person's actions as choices led them to oppose social policies benefiting society at the cost of individual liberty, but to support social policies enhancing individual freedom. Together, these studies document that whether an action counts as a choice is a matter of construal to a significant extent, and whether people construe actions as choices has profound psychological consequences, both positive and negative. The findings suggest that the existing societal trend of framing more and more issues as matters of choice is unlikely to have universally positive consequences, and might also have a variety of unanticipated negative consequences.