A new cross-cultural study of social network site (SNS) users in Japan (Facebook and Mixi) and the US (Facebook), shows that Japanese SNS users are more concerned about Internet privacy than American SNS users, and suggests that Americans’ lower sense of concern is due to a higher level of general trust in strangers. That is, Americans are less likely to believe a stranger would take advantage of their private information, should it be leaked online.

The researchers, from the Culture, Social Ecology, and Psychology Lab at Hokkaido University in Japan, argue that this concept of general trust has not been explored before in Internet 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 they argue that the trust talked about in previous research is trust based on knowledge about the Internet services consumers are giving their data to.

“In reality however, no matter how much trust we put in our knowledge of data protection systems, we all know those systems can fail. How do we deal with that uncertainty?”
– Lead author Robert Thomson

In their study published this week in a leading academic journal Computers in Human Behavior (open access article link), the authors argue that this is where the concept of general trust comes into play. That is, the stronger a person’s belief is in the goodwill and benevolence of strangers in general, the less likely a person is to worry about what a stranger might do with leaked information.

Taking the theory deeper, however, the study also suggests that cultural differences in Internet privacy concern are actually a natural byproduct of psychologies humans have acquired through adaptation to different social environments.

Applying existing ideas from behavioral science and increasingly popular evolutionary psychology, the study shows that the concept of relational mobility is a core driver of the observed differences in general trust. “Relational mobility refers to the amount of opportunity and freedom people have in a society to form and sever interpersonal relationships,” explains co-author Dr. Masaki Yuki.

“American society in general happens to be high in relational mobility. As social psychologist Toshio Yamagishi has argued, in a society like that, 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. Japanese society however, is low in relational mobility. There are less relationship opportunities outside of current social circles. Therefore, there’s less need to trust strangers.”

The study analyzed survey responses from hundreds of users of SNSs, such as Facebook, in Japan and the US, and the data confirmed the theory. The researchers 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.

Thomson says the research has important implications for Internet platforms and services wishing to go global. “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.”

For more information, contact Robert Thomson at or +81 (0) 80 4228 6132.


Notes to Editors:

  • PDF version of this press release can be downloaded here.
  • The paper entitled, ‘A socio-ecological approach to national differences in online privacy concern: The role of relational mobility and trust’, is available online in the journal Computers in Human Behavior at
  • The paper is open access until July 12th 2015, when accessed via this link:
  • Lead author Robert Thomson is a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Doctoral Research Fellow, and is due to complete his doctorate at Hokkaido University in Japan (Sapporo City) this year. His research focuses on cross-cultural differences in behavior online. For more information, go to
  • The Culture, Social Ecology, and Psychology Lab is headed by Dr. Masaki Yuki, and explores how the nature of societies (the social ecologies) that surround us affect the way we think, feel, and behave. For more information, go to
  • The Center for Experimental Research in Social Science at Hokkaido University provides an infrastructure for research activities in order to understand “sociality of mind” as a basis of human and social science. For more information, go to


Facebook Open Graph og:image credit: Vie privée by g4ll4is


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