Technologies make our lives easier, more comfortable, and more interesting. New technologies, however, can also pose risks and dangers. Which of these two sides of technological innovation do we perceive as more important? The answer to this question is heavily influenced by culture, as our study “Opinions on Technology: A Cultural Divide between East Asia and Germany?” shows: while East Asians perceive technology more as an opportunity, in Germany people tend to see the risks first.
In our survey among more than 700 respondents from five different countries, we selected three very distinct technologies to elicit public opinions:
- mobile phone payment
- nuclear power
- autonomous driving
The difference between East Asians and Germans were similar for all three technologies: Germans perceived more risks, saw fewer benefits and were overall more critical towards these technologies. Important to note is that this discrepancy did not result from ignorance on benefits or risks, as the respondents were directly asked to state their opinions about a number of explicitly mentioned benefits and risks, each with a short explanation. The difference is particularly surprising in nuclear power where Japanese who were affected by the Fukushima disaster in 2013 were less critical about nuclear power plants than Germans, as well as in regards to autonomous driving where Germany with its car companies is a forerunner in innovation. Still, acceptance in Germany is significantly lower than in all East Asian states in our sample (China, Vietnam, Japan, and Taiwan).
Our culture influences the way we perceive technology
A typical explanation for the difference is risk perception, i.e., censorship in China leads to a media bias that suppresses reports about potential technological risks. This explanation, however, is difficult to sustain, given the fact that risk perception on technologies, e.g., in Taiwan, a democratic and open society, is very similar to China.
Gender plays a role when it comes to the perception of technologies – but not everywhere
Not only culture, but also gender, plays a role when it comes to attitudes towards technologies. While in East Asia differences between men and women regarding technology perception are small or insignificant, the differences in Germany are huge: in fact, German men do not see more risks or less benefits to technologies than East Asians, and the cultural difference can solely be attributed to German women. This is a striking result of our study that raises many open questions and, we hope, opens the way towards a critical discussion about what gender stereotypes lead German women to such a technology-aversion.
Technologies and state-control
Should technologies be tightly controlled by the state? We asked this question in the context of social media. In this case, the answers did not depend on gender, and varied less by culture, but depended strongly on the political system in question: respondents in the non-democratic states (China and Vietnam) were much more positive about state-control than those in democratic states (Taiwan and Japan). It seems that open media makes people aware of the shortcomings of state control and the benefits of an open society with fewer regulations.
What can we learn from all of this?
First and foremost we learn that we should abolish the narrative that positive attitudes towards new technologies simply reflect the naivety of an uninformed public of non-democratic states like China. This argument consciously disregards people in democracies like Taiwan or Japan who simply do not agree with our negative attitudes towards technologies. A modest self-reflection on whether our worries about technologies are perhaps sometimes blown out of proportion and ultimately harmful to our economy and our social welfare would be in place. Also, the narrative of a cultural desire for more state control which is often proclaimed by Chinese officials is mostly fictitious: where East Asians are free, the wish for state-control is basically as small as it is, e.g., in Germany. Only in non-democratic countries like China or Vietnam is state-control favoured. The most likely cause for this mindset seems to be self-evident.
Second, steps should be taken to actively reduce the enormous gender gap in Germany regarding the perception of technology. If German women have a significantly worse impression of technologies than men, this may lead to a number of negative consequences, e.g., regarding job choices or the adoption of welfare-increasing technologies. These gender differences, as the example of East Asia shows, are by no means natural or instinctual, but rather very much a social construct. Education must detect its causes and develop methods to change the situation. Focusing on gender-inclusive language, however, is perhaps irrelevant to this problem, as, e.g., use of gender in language is also considered problematic in Vietnamese and Japanese, but does not seem to lead to noticeable gender differences in technology perception in these countries.
- People in Germany are a lot more sceptic towards technology than people in East Asia. People’s optimism in Asia is not related to whether they live in an authoritarian or democratic state.
- Gender might influence people’s perception of technology. Women in Germany see far more risks and fewer benefits from the use of technology than men. The gender gap must be closed in Germany in order to give women the same opportunities.
- Whether or not people believe technology should be under strong governmental control is dependent upon the political system under which they live rather than their gender or culture. People in non-democratic states like China or Vietnam are decisively more positive about state-control in this regard.
- Rieger, M. O./Wang, M./Massloch, M./Reinhardt, D. (2021): “Opinions on technology: a cultural divide between East Asia and Germany?”, Review of Behavioral Economics, in press.
Professor Dr. Mei Wang
Professor Mei Wang is an expert on behavioral and cultural finance at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. Her studies focus on the impacts of culture on individual preferences, decisions, and markets.