Lifting the Curtain: Backstage Cognition, Frontstage Behavior, and the Interpersonal Transmission of Culture

Lifting the Curtain: Backstage Cognition, Frontstage Behavior, and the Interpersonal Transmission of Culture

By Richard Lu, Jennifer A. Chatman, Amir Goldberg, Sameer B. Srivastava
October 23,2017Working Paper No. 3603

From the schoolyard to the boardroom, the pressures of cultural assimilation pervade all walks of social life. Yet people vary in the capacity to fit in culturally, and their fit can wax and wane over time. We examine how individual cognition and social influence produce variation and change in cultural fit. We do so by lifting the curtain between the backstage (cognition) and frontstage (behavior) of cultural fit. We theorize that the backstage comprises two analytically distinct dimensions—perceptual accuracy and value congruence—and that the former matters for normative compliance on the frontstage, whereas the latter does not. We further propose that a person’s behavior and perceptual accuracy are both influenced by observations of others’ behavior, whereas value congruence is less susceptible to peer influence. Drawing on email and survey data from a mid-sized technology firm, we use the tools of computational linguistics and machine learning to develop longitudinal measures of frontstage and backstage cultural fit. We also take advantage of a reorganization that produced quasi-exogenous shifts in employees’ peer groups to identify the causal impact of social influence.