The cross-cultural psychology of Internet privacy concern

In a recent cross-cultural study of Facebook users in Japan and the US, I show that Japanese SNS users are more concerned about Internet privacy than American SNS users. And it turns out that because Americans have higher general trust, they less likely to believe that a stranger would take advantage of their private information, should it be leaked online.

In the peer-reviewed article I wrote with Dr. Masaki Yuki and Dr. Naoya Ito (Thomson, Yuki, & Ito, 2015), published recently in a leading academic journal, Computers in Human Behavior, we argue that this kind of trust – general trust – has not been explored before in privacy concern research. Yes, scholars have explored issues related to national privacy regulation and privacy policy visibility, and how they affect consumer trust on the Internet. But we argue that this is trust based on knowledge about the Internet services consumers are giving their data to. In reality, of course, privacy policies change and laws can fail. We have to ask the question: How do people deal with this uncertainty?

This is where we thought the concept of general trust might come into play. That is, the degree to which people have a belief in the goodwill and benevolence of strangers in general. Paradoxically, cross-cultural psychologists have long known that Japanese tend to have lower levels of general trust than Americans. One Japanese social psychologist, Toshio Yamagishi, goes so far to say that the saying Japanese have a default psychology akin to the saying “They that think none ill are soonest beguiled” (Yamagishi, 2011). If this was the case, it is natural expect Japanese SNS users to be more concerned about what a stranger might do with their personal information.

Our hunch played out in the numbers. Survey data from hundreds of users of SNSs such as Facebook in the US and Japan confirmed that Americans were more trusting than Japanese. Furthermore, this cross-cultural difference in general trust explained, to an extent, the US-Japan difference in privacy concern.

Taking the theory deeper: Social ecologies and human behavior

We wanted to take our theory one level deeper, however. We wanted to know what it is about Japanese and US societies that make them so different in general trust. Drawing on concepts from behavioral science and increasingly popular evolutionary psychology, we also collected data that suggests that cultural differences in Internet privacy concern are actually a natural byproduct of psychologies humans have acquired through adaptation to different social environments. That is, us humans tend to adaptively acquire skills and abilities that fit the social environment we’re in – this is called the socio-ecological approach to human behavior – and the ability to trust strangers is an example of one such adaptive skill.

An adaptation to what? Here we turned to Toshio Yamagishi’s existing adaptionist reasoning, and focused on relational mobility, a concept refined over the last few years Masaki Yuki (Yuki et al., 2007). Relational mobility refers to the amount of opportunity and freedom people have in a society to form and sever interpersonal relationships. The concept is easy to grasp if you imagine a busy city. There’s lots of new people arriving, and lots of opportunity to meet new people. This is a basic example of a high relational mobility social environment. American society in general happens to be high in relational mobility. In a society like this, it is adaptive to develop the ability to trust strangers. If you don’t, you might be less willing to interact with strangers, missing out on potentially beneficial new relationships.

Now imagine a small village in medieval times. There’s not much to-ing and fro-ing between villages, and you’ve got a relatively small number of options for relationships. This is a low relational mobility social environment, and Japanese society tends to reflect this characteristic. In a society like this, there’s little need to develop the ability to trust strangers because there’s fewer relational opportunities outside of current committed connections.

In our survey, we asked participants to evaluate relational mobility around them, and we used this information to show a statistical link between country of residence, relational mobility, general trust, and Internet privacy concern. That is, our data showed that SNS users who live in a high relational mobility social environment are more likely to trust strangers, and this general trust in turn reduces privacy concern.

Practical implications – Privacy concern is a big deal

We argue that the research has important implications for Internet platforms and services wishing to go global. Indeed, data protection and informed consent should be the standard. But our findings drive home the fact that the importance of these steps may be more pertinent in some societies than others. If your market is Japan, for example, you will have to work hard to gain – and keep – consumer confidence that personal data will be used only in ways users have agreed to.


Thomson, R., Yuki, M., & Ito, N. (2015). A socio-ecological approach to national differences in online privacy concern: The role of relational mobility and trust. Computers in Human Behavior, 51, Part A, 285–292.

Yamagishi, T. (2011). Trust: The evolutionary game of mind and society. Tokyo; New York: Springer.

Yuki, M., Schug, J., Horikawa, H., Takemura, K., Sato, K., Yokota, K., & Kamaya, K. (2007). Development of a scale to measure perceptions of relational mobility in society. In CERSS Working Paper 75. Center for Experimental Research in Social Sciences, Hokkaido University. Retrieved from

* Feature image by g4ll4is