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Individualistic vs. Collectivistic Cultures

Cultures are dynamic manifestations of a society’s value choices. They reflect a society’s preferences and approaches to problem-solving together with its citizen’s source of inspiration and motivation.

In the world of psychology, cultures are often classified into two camps. Firstly, there are those cultures that are innately collectivist. Secondly, there are those cultures that are that are inclined to be more individualist in their philosophy.

The Individualist – Collectivist Divide

Individualist cultures, usually represented by Western cultures such as Western Europe and the United States, stress individual fulfilment without regard for their potential impact on collective group goals. This produces a robust framework of competition within a society.

Collectivist cultures, often represented as being typified by Eastern philosophies such as those propounded by Japan, China and Korea place their social elevates unifying structures such as organisations, family or the state and their goals above individual needs, wants or desires.

These collectivism and individualism instincts while deeply pervasive within cultures are rarely debated or questioned. People unconsciously adopt their culture’s default values without any great scrutiny.

In the United States many social and organisational systems ranging from ‘self-serve, all-you-can-eat’ buffet menus to corporate structures, job remuneration models to iconic cowboy movie motifs mirror the profoundly entrenched notion of individualism within that society.

Both collectivist and individualistic cultures come with their own intrinsic strengths and their inherent weaknesses. Those living in individualist cultures, particularly the less well-off are prone to isolation and loneliness, while members of collectivist cultures can have a strongly held dread of rejection.

Authority figures that advocate collectivist philosophies in their youth are often discriminated against by sources of direct foreign investment capital, which emanates from individualistic fund managers and private equity sources.

By comparison, the rise of China’s newly assertive foreign investment strategy has opened up a potential new source of capital, which carries none of the preferences for individual-oriented values that accompany Western capital.

‘Individualistic Doers’ are typically defined as being highly independent and quite self-assured, internally motivated people. Traits associated with them include being quiet and realistic, highly rational and low key people. Their stereotypes depict them as strongly cultivating an aura of individualism and enjoying the opportunity to apply their skills and experience to fresh horizons.

However, those same people are also seen as being impulsive or spontaneous individuals who prefer to allow their inspiration free reign.

cultural influences

Individualistic vs. Collectivistic

The difference usually cited by social anthropologists and psychologists between collectivism and individualism is in what each ideology considers as important: the individual or the group.

If the terms capitalism, liberalism, socialism, social democrats, communism, conservatism, Maoism, Marxist, Stalinism, Nazism, Neo-Cons and Alt-Right were insufficiently confusing for people in attempting to differentiate between different brands of political ideology, we now have to contend with where collectivism and individualism fit on the social spectrum.

This approach is akin to asking an individual his or her political orientation and then commenting on their resulting choice as being either good or bad depending upon the context of the decision.

It is easier for an individual to profess be a moderate or a liberal rather than to select from one of the many complex competing political ideologies, some of which differs only in their nuances.

However, the individualism versus collectivism debate is not that simple in its nature. However, differentiating between individualism and collectivism cultural preferences is comparatively simple to comprehend and comparatively straightforward to differentiate between the two cultural strands by comparison with threading the needle between competing brands of political ideology. The words, collectivism and individualism, themselves bring their meaning to life.

Collectivist Culture

In collectivist cultures, it is the group in its differing forms rather than an individual who sits at the epicentre of all social, political and economic issues and concerns. Those proponents of this form of ideology advocate it on the basis that the interests and claims on resources of groups or indeed even the state itself in the case of China and Japan supersede those of competing claims by the individual.

Thus, a society itself forming a cohesive super group is considered to be superior to an individual. It is treated as some sort of overreaching organic structure standing over and above the roles and needs of the individuals that comprise it.

Collectivism believes in the subjugation of the needs and desires of the individual to that of the collective group. This group may take the form of a tribe, extended family, society, party or even a nation-state.

The individual is expected to sacrifice for the collective good of the group. The proponents of collectivism typically consider their stand to be morally superior to those of individualists as they are thinking of the collective good of the entire group or the society rather than elevating the needs of individuals in a society.

For example, consider the institution of marriage the bedrock of many societies. With a collectivist perspective of marriage as a social unit, the two people forming in it, the husband and wife, are considered to be a group.

Their individual identities are subsumed in their union as the marriage and the subsequent family group is considered to be more critical than the two people who initially form the marriage. In this context, collectivism actively shapes expectation within the marriage and external perceptions of it.

collectivist culture

Collectivist Traits

Members of these societies are encouraged to actively participate in their broader society. They are expected to always place the interests of the group ahead of their own, to do what is best for their society as a whole rather than what is best for themselves.

The rights of their family unit, community and their wider society supersede an individual’s personal aspirations. Principals are perceived as promoting unity, fraternity and selflessness.

Co-operating within a group dynamic and the ability work seamlessly with others is considered to be the norm as everyone is expected to support each other, whether as a family, a community or a nation rather than as a lone individual. Strength is seen as lying with existing as a strong, cohesive, unified group.

Personality Types

The stereotype of a ‘good person’ within collectivist cultures is that of an honest, trustworthy and generous person, sensitive to the needs of the group. These are all characteristics that are helpful to people working collectively in groups to reduce conflict or instances of inter-group strife.

However, collectivist cultures also typically have a ‘community leader’ concept, which is less obvious in more individualist oriented cultures.

Individualistic Culture

The primary focus of the conceptual framework in individualism is centred on the individual. In a discussion of political ideologies, the classical form of liberalism comes closest to representing this strain of thought as the individual identity is taken as the central organizing unit of productivity.

It is not that an individual is differentiated from their overarching society in any substantial way. However, an individualist, even while operating within the conventional norms of that society considers his or her own personal interests first.

This doctrine evokes a strong belief that society is ultimately constructed of individuals who choose and act based primarily on their own individual needs and preferences.

The foundation of individualism lies in an individual’s moral right to pursue one’s own path to happiness. However, this approach does not necessarily contradict collectivism as individualism believes it is necessary for individuals to preserve and defend those institutions that lie at the heart of their society and that have been created to protect one’s right to the pursuit of happiness.

Consider the issue of race, which is afflicting Europe and the United States. Racism is an example of collectivism where the attributes of an individual predominantly their skin colour and racial stereotypes of a particular ethnic group are attributed to members of the entire group.

Within that society, there are families who consider their race to be superior to that of their neighbours who may be drawn from different racial origins. This family group forbids their children to be friendly and play with their neighbours’ children.

However, one child refuses to accept that their neighbours are inferior solely because of their skin colour. That child becomes friendly with the neighbours. This is an example of how individualism succeeds over collectivism. The individual within the group takes his or how own decisions and is not dominated by the views of the broader social group.

individualistic culture

Individualist Traits

The ‘I aspect of personal identity emphasises individual oriented goals, initiatives and concepts and measures of accomplishment. The rights of individuals are prioritized ahead of the interests of the broader society. Rules within an individualist society attempt are designed to cement the position of the individual and their right to self-determination over the collective.

Independence is cherished. Significantly less emphasis is devoted to helping other members of society or a local community compared to the norm in a collectivist culture. Dependence or being reliant on others is often perceived as being weak or ignoble.

Individuals are motivated to go it alone, to be self-reliant and to continually strive to be personally successful.

Personality Types

In contrast to a collective society, a ‘good person’ is defined in an individualist culture as being more personally assertive and strong. These are seen as dominant characteristics helpful in competing successfully.

There is also more diversity of archetypes in individualistic societies. The idea of the ‘artistic type’ or ‘bohemian’ is rarely encountered in collectivist cultures, as they would not be considered to be contributing sufficiently to their group or society as a whole.

Individualistic Countries

Countries typically defined as being classic individualistic countries include Western societies such as the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

To a greater or lesser degree, other countries evidencing individualistic cultures include Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Spain and Switzerland.

Outliers, which display a blend of individualistic and collective instincts, include Israel and South Africa.

Interestingly, some eastern European countries transitioning from a collective orientation under communist rule have adopted increasingly individualistic societal values. These countries include Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.

individualistic countries

Collectivist Culture Countries

Countries typically defined as being classic collectivist countries include Eastern societies such as China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

African and Middle Eastern countries displaying similar collectivist characteristics include Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Uganda and Zambia.

Western European countries with more collectivist inclinations include Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Portugal and Sweden.

Eastern Europe countries sharing strong collectivist leanings include Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine, while Latin American and Caribbean countries with similar value sets cover Argentina, Brazil, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

Similarly, many native Polynesian countries are organised along collectivist cultural lines.

Note: Attribution is our internal procedure for framing our understanding of the motivations and deeds of others founded on often meagre observational information. As this process is imprecise, the potential exists for significant large errors to creep into our views on causality and effect.

Individualistic cultures exhibit a strong preference in favour of ascribing one person’s conduct to the individual make-up of that individual, rather than to the social environment surrounding that individual. This is referred to as an underlying attribution misconception.

Members of collectivist cultures display attribution error bias to a smaller extent.

Cultural Influences

So, how does our culture shape the way we perceive ourselves? Those people originating from individualistic cultures appear more likely to have a perception of themselves as being independent of others. Moreover, they see their personal traits as comparatively stable and enduring.

By contrast, people from collectivistic cultures are far more likely to carry with them an interdependent perspective of themselves, which is defined in terms of their relationships and view their characteristics as more likely to change and evolve as their context evolves.

However, many factors can influence the evolution of the individualism and collectivism social construct Hence, individuals within a culture may differ in their degree of independence and interdependence.

Moreover, humans switch between cultural frames of reference depending on the prevailing context at the time.

How Does Culture Shape Relationships?

Within individualistic cultures, relationships are often seen as voluntary and determined by the individuals in the relationship. Hence, it is not uncommon for relationships that are not beneficial to end.

By comparison, relationships in more collectivistic cultures are more often perceived to be more stable and permanent. In some collectivistic cultures, there is a greater perceived obligation to not be a burden to others.

Parent-child relationships can differ significantly from culture to culture and what is considered “normal” in a relationship in one culture isn’t shared in other cultures.

There is no one-size-fits-all type of relationship that is either enduring or more rewarding across all cultures.

How Does Culture Determine Social Support Structures?

When we experience stress, our cultural background may determine the type of social support structures and resources we have access to and are likely to seek out.

Researchers suggest that members of East Asian societies are far less likely to discuss a stressful event as doing so may pose a challenge to relationships in collectivistic cultures.

Rather, members of East Asian cultures are more likely to seek implicit social support, which involves spending time with close others without actually discussing the stressor factor.

collectivist culture countries

How Could This Impact You?

Cultural psychology brings with it a number of take-home lessons. Professionals and managers should be aware that an individual’s cultural background can impact how comfortable that person may feel about discussing issues or problems or in opening up to others about personal problems.

Cultural background can also help us to prevent misunderstandings arising from the differences people from varying cultures may have about arriving at assumptions about relationships.

Similarly, when determining how best to assist a friend who is in a stressful situation, considering their culture may be critical in understanding their interpretation of the situation and how best to support them.

It is also important to note that cultural psychology does not enable us to understand a person’s level of individualism/collectivism. However, thinking about individualism and collectivism can help us to arrive at more informed insights into our relationships and ourselves.

Value Of The Individual Or The Group

  • Individualism places the individual above the social imperative of groups
  • Collectivism places the interests of the groups above those of the individual

Value Of The Individual Or The Group In Decision Making

In individualism, the individual makes the majority of decisions. He or she may listen to and consult with others, but the final decision is his or hers alone as are the consequences of those decisions.

In collectivism, the group takes decisions together. Even though some individuals may not agree, a majority in the group arrives at the decision.

Final Observation

In many democracies and even in certain socialist countries, the right to life, the right to individual freedoms and the right to free speech, are manifestations of individualism. The enduring viability of democracy as a social structure demonstrates that individualism is not entirely antithetical to collectivism. Societies and states, where individual independence is preached and practised, are in many cases, the very same societies where men and women are found to be compassionate and caring about their broader society.

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