The Psychology of Collectivist vs Individualistic Cultures

5 min
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Culture influences how we think, behave, and interact with others in everyday life. In cross-cultural psychology, psychologists often conduct research examining one of the core dimensions of cultural variability: collectivism and individualism. 

What exactly are collectivist and individualistic cultures? And what are the differences between these two cultural dimensions? 

Read on to learn more about the psychology behind collectivism and individualism, and discover how cultures influence our everyday behaviors. 

What is Culture?

One of the most widely-accepted definitions of culture originated from Greert Hofstede, Dutch social psychologist. In his most famous book, Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Hofstede described culture as collective mental programming and a “software of the mind” that guides individuals in their everyday interactions. Hofstede further suggested that culture distinguishes a group from others, making each group unique. 

After being inspired by Hofstede, more psychologists began to explore the pool of cross-cultural psychology. More recently, Shiraev and Levy, two cross-cultural psychologists, defined culture as “attitudes,” “behaviors,” and “symbols” shared by a large group of people and passed down through generations. 

Hofstede proposed five cultural dimensions 一 and one of these cultural dimensions is collectivism versus individualism. We will explore the two cultural dimensions in this article. 

What is Collectivism? 

Collectivism is defined as cultures that value the needs of a group over those of an individual. In a collectivist culture, people’s identity is determined by the characteristics of the collective groups to which they belong, instead of those of an individual. For example, adults raised in a collectivist culture may prioritize the needs of the family over their own life goals. Moreover, as collectivism generally emphasizes social aspects, achieving and maintaining group harmony in collectivist cultures is crucial. 

Examples of collectivist cultures include:

  • China
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Indonesia
  • Brazil

What is Individualism? 

In direct contrast to collectivism, individualism is defined as a culture that values an individual's needs over a group or a community. In an individualistic culture, people are defined as individuals and by personal characteristics. As such, individualistic cultures value individual choices and achievements more than collectivism. Individualistic cultures view each person as unique. For this reason, individualism emphasizes competitiveness and self-sufficiency. 

Examples of individualistic cultures include:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • New Zealand

What are the differences between Collectivism and Individualism? 

There are various differences between collectivist and individualistic cultures. To better understand the idea, the following table compares some key characteristics of these two cultural dimensions:

The Psychology of Collectivist vs Individualistic Cultures - Table

How do Collectivist vs Individualistic Cultures influence human behavior?

Whether you are born and raised in a collectivist or an individualistic culture, various research suggests that culture plays a significant role in our everyday lives 一 and that it can affect our behavior without us realizing it. Below are some psychological studies that explain how collectivist versus individualistic culture may influence us:

1. Emotions 

Did you know that culture can influence the emotions we experience? Psychologists investigating the differences in emotions between different cultures have found that they can affect everything from our sense of self-worth to how much we focus on our personal goals.

In one study, researchers surveyed 86 people from an individualistic country (Dutch) and 171 respondents from collectivist countries (Surinamese, Turkish). The results revealed that participants' emotions from the collectivist culture were more related to their perceived worth in society. In addition, their feelings were primarily influenced by their relationships with other people, such as family or friends. On the other hand, the emotions of individualistic respondents focused more on their subjective feelings of themselves and their personal goals in life. As a result, the study suggests that culture plays a significant role in emotions. For instance, culture can affect our feelings, and the way we experience emotions may also be contributing to our cultural background. 

2. Career Decisions

Culture can also affect how we make decisions about our careers. Researchers reviewed and explored existing studies about the effect of collectivist versus individualistic cultures on youths’ career choices. Similarly to emotions, the results showed that individuals from collectivist cultures tend to conform their choices to family expectations when deciding on a career path. What’s more, the more one’s job aligns with family expectations, the higher self-confidence and self-efficacy they experience at work. 

In contrast, findings show that people from individualistic cultures consider their interests and hobbies more when it comes to their career choices. They are also more independent and self-motivated compared to those from collectivist cultures. As cultures can determine how much we care about the expectations of others, they can play a powerful role in our career choices. 

3. Coping Styles

What do you usually do when you feel stressed? Studies have pointed out that cultures can also influence our coping styles. Coping styles are strategies and methods one uses to maintain healthy psychological well-being when dealing with stressful situations. One research study examined how international students from Asian (a collectivist culture) and Anglo-Australian (individualistic culture) backgrounds use coping strategies differently when living in an unfamiliar country. 

Surprisingly, the key findings were that Asian students tend to use collectivist coping strategies, such as seeking social support from friends or relying on religious beliefs. Anglo-Australian students, however, are more likely to adopt individualistic coping styles such as making plans and using actions to relieve stress. These findings suggest that culture can influence how we cope with stress. 

4. Power and Status 

Collectivist and individualistic cultures define powerful people by different standards. Psychologists reviewed existing research and investigated how power and status are conceptualized differently in collectivist and individualistic cultures. The results suggest that in collectivist cultures, people conceptualize power through social aspects. For instance, people who adhere to social norms and demonstrate warmth and friendliness to others tend to gain more power and respect. 

On the contrary, individualistic cultures tend to conceptualize power through personal aspects. As such, unique, independent, and people who are not afraid to violate norms are viewed as being more powerful. In general, collectivist cultures feel happier when they have socialized power, whereas individualistic cultures are happier when they have personal power. 

Conclusion: The Role of Culture

Culture plays a significant role in our everyday lives, as it affects how we think, behave, and interact with people around us. In addition to his theories on collectivism versus individualism, Hofstede also proposed the consideration of four other cultural dimensions: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity versus femininity, and long-term orientation. Therefore, it should be noted that there are various other ways to study a culture. Regardless of how we may categorize it, culture provides essential social and economic advantages, and it is a reflection of a community or nation.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, Cross-Cultural Psychology, Emotions in collectivist and individualist contexts, A Systematic Review of Factors That Influence Youths Career Choices—the Role of Culture, Individualism—Collectivism, Coping Styles, and Stress in International and Anglo-Australian Students: A Comparative Study

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