A decades-long fight to rid science of a stereotype

A crowd of people cross a crosswalk in Tokyo

Pedestrians on a Tokyo crosswalk (photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash)

David Matsumoto has spent his career pushing back against the “common view” of cultural differences

This story originally appeared on the University’s Bold Thinkers blog, which ran from May 2018 to Nov. 2019.

Flip through an American travel guide about Japan, and you’ll likely encounter this narrative: The Japanese are “collectivist”— concerned mostly with the collective good of society — in stark contrast to the fiercely individualistic and independent American. That difference is conventional wisdom, but the conventional wisdom isn’t always right. And in this case, according to San Francisco State University Professor of Psychology David Matsumoto, it’s a perspective that should only live on in history books.

For decades, Matsumoto’s research has challenged what he calls the “common view” of how cultural differences work: that the characteristics of the culture we live in can be used to describe us as individuals.

The idea that Japanese individuals are more group-oriented has its roots in the 1980s, when economic changes in Japan brought a flow of Japanese graduate students to the U.S. That influx catalyzed an interest in studying the psychological and cultural differences between citizens of the two countries, and in 1991 psychologists at the University of Oregon and University of Michigan published a seminal study for the field. “The premise [of that study] was that the cultural difference between individualism and collectivism permeates individuals,” Matsumoto explained. “So if I’m in that individualistic culture, I have that self-sense. And thus I’m that kind of person.”

Right away, he saw a problem. “I remember thinking at the time, ‘God, that position just pigeonholes people and eliminates all of their individual differences,’” he said.

A few years later, he conducted his own study in which he gave questionnaires assessing individualism to students in Japan. “What we found was that Japanese university students on several measures actually score more individualistic than collectivistic, and Americans tend to score more collectivistic than the Japanese do,” he said. In other words, the results flipped the “common view” on its head.

But stereotypes are hard to uproot, and even after decades of work Matsumoto is still pushing to get other scientists and the public to understand that the “common view” isn’t just wrong, it’s harmful. Just this month, he published an article commenting on a recent study that pulled together evidence showing that we can’t use the cultural differences between countries to describe individuals.

Part of the problem, Matsumoto says, is that researchers are pressured to publish frequently, leading them to publish work that conforms to an accepted narrative. Instead, he says, researchers need to step back and look at the broader implications of their work, including how it might perpetuate stereotypes. “Everyone’s so busy,” he said. “Sometimes that precludes just sitting and thinking about the meaning of what we’re doing.”