Re-thinking how we think about conformity

In this post, I recount part of my journey into the nitty-gritty of cross-cultural differences in behavior. More specifically, I discuss the link between skateboarding across the USA, attractive Japanese women in tights, and the paradoxical nuances in conformity between cultures.

I’m from New Zealand but I’ve lived in Japan for 8 years now. In the past, however, I cycled and skateboarded 25,000km (16,000 miles) around the world through 30 countries. The cycling part – 13,000km across the Eurasian continent – was purely for adventure’s sake. The skateboarding – 12,000km across Europe, the USA and China – apart from being a categorically stupid idea, was driven in part by a desire to explore my physical limits, and also driven by the fact no one had skated that far before: my 12,159km (7,555 mile) Guinness World Record still stands 5 years later.

There is a point to this story, quite distinct from shameless self-promotion (a topic I’ll explore in more detail here on the In-Mind blog in the future). The point I wish to make involves cultural differences in preferences for thermal tights. Whether one is cycling in -20 degrees on the high plateaus of eastern Turkey, or skateboarding on ice-covered roads in mid-winter Texas, thermal tights become a curious obsession. For me, this necessitated visits to outdoor clothing stores in a few different countries, including the US and Japan. And this led to a startling discovery: American people can be more conformist than Japanese people.

Anyone who has visited a Japanese outdoor store will understand: Japanese people love to wear the most outrageous, patterned, colored, and textured tights ever to grace a human leg. The choice in tights at outdoor stores is overwhelming. Even to the extent that an entire outdoor sub-culture has emerged in Japan: the fashionable Japanese Yama-girl. Just to be sure, this trend generalizes to rain jackets, and, if I was to jump contexts, choice in pens, pencils, and other stationary items. The point I wish to make here is my observations indicate Japanese demand ways to express their uniqueness.

This tendency of the Japanese to shun conformity is most stark when compared to the comparative drabness of an outdoor store in the West. Before spending any time in a Japanese outdoor clothing store, I was familiar with offerings in the West. Thermal tights came in black, blue, grey, and on occasion striped with a few primary colors. If you liked to stand out, you bought the bold pink tights (and got laughed at by your friends). See the comparison yourself: Do a Google image search for tights in Japanese ( and in English (

But wait, hasn’t empirical research in cross-cultural psychology shown over and again a preference for conformity in Japan? The answer is, of course, yes (e.g., Kim & Markus, 1999). Indeed, what am I to make of the existence of Japanese sayings such as “the nail which sticks out gets hammered down?”

This is where I believe my encounter with the socio-ecological approach to human behavior (see Oishi & Graham, 2010) goes some way to explaining the paradox. According to this approach, people’s behavior is a response to the physical and social environment they find themselves in. Toshio Yamagishi demonstrated this nicely: By giving people in the US and Japan a choice between a unique or normal pen, Yamagishi showed that Japanese actually prefer a unique pen, just as much as Americans. However, he also showed that when the situation was socially ambiguous – that is, when people didn’t know if they were the first or last to choose - Japanese people’s default reaction was to choose the normal pen, despite their preference for the unique pen. In similarly ambiguous situations, Americans would usually choose the unique pen (Yamagishi, Hashimoto, & Schug, 2008; online summary here).

So why did the Japanese choose the normal pen in the ambiguous situation? Yamagishi argued this was due to the relatively ‘closed’ nature of Japanese social relations. Japan is characterized by a relative dearth of opportunity to select and/or cut off personal relationships. In such a society, it is in people’s interest to make sure they don’t ruffle feathers; if someone is offended that they didn’t get to indulge in their preference, you’ll either be stuck with a disharmonious relationship, or worse, get yourself rejected and faced with the daunting task of finding new friends. In an open society like the US, it’s easier to make new friends, so rejection is not as big a deal.

In short, in strictly personal domains in Japan, there’s no incentive to conform, thus uniqueness flourishes. In situations where social relations are involved, however, conformity becomes a default strategy to maintain harmony and better ensure relational success.

Bringing this discussion back to attractive Japanese women in tights, surely this goes some way to explain Japan’s delightful range of color and pattern choice when it comes to outdoor thermal tights: Japanese love expressing their personality and uniqueness, but not if doing so risks impeding upon someone else’s ability to express their uniqueness. While this doesn’t account for the depressingly drab array of thermal tight choice in the US, or New Zealand for that matter, thinking about cultural differences in behavior from a socio-ecological perspective has deepened my understanding of the vast variance in behavior I continue to experience both at home and abroad.


Kim, H., & Markus, H. R. (1999). Deviance or uniqueness, harmony or conformity? A cultural analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(4), 785–800.

Oishi, S., & Graham, J. (2010). Social ecology: Lost and found in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(4), 356–377.

Yamagishi, T., Hashimoto, H., & Schug, J. (2008). Preferences versus strategies as explanations for culture-specific behavior. Psychological Science, 19(6), 579–584.