Individualist or Collectivist? How Culture Influences Behavior
January 30, 2015
Young people from diverse culture backgrounds looking happy and connectedPhoto Credit: Festival Ambulante

If someone asked you to finish the sentence, “I am ________”, what sorts of things would you include in your responses?

Would you focus on your personality traits? Your job title? Or your relationships to others? Psychologists have found that someone’s cultural background can affect what sorts of things they choose to write down in an exercise like this. Although there are many ways we can define culture, one of the cultural differences most studied by psychologists has been the difference between individualistic and collectivistic cultures. Today, I’ll review what psychologists have learned about how individualism and collectivism affect the way we see ourselves, and I’ll explain how these differences play out in our relationships.

How does culture affect the way we see ourselves? The researchers Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama have studied how an individual’s cultural background affects how they view themselves. People from individualistic cultures are more likely to have an independent view of themselves (they see themselves as separate from others, define themselves based on their personal traits, and see their characteristics as relatively stable and unchanging). On the other hand, people from collectivistic cultures are more likely to have an interdependent view of themselves (they see themselves as connected to others, define themselves in terms of relationships with others, and see their characteristics as more likely to change across different contexts). Going back to the example I began this post with, people from individualistic cultures are more likely to mention personal traits when finishing the sentence “I am…”, while people from collectivistic cultures are more likely to list relationships and group memberships.

While individualism/collectivism can be measured in any culture, much of the research so far has been conducted on East Asian and Western cultures. Researchers have found that Western cultures tend to be more individualistic while East Asian cultures tend to be more collectivistic. However, it’s important to remember that many factors can influence individualism/collectivism, so individuals within a culture can also differ in their levels of independence/interdependence. Individualism and collectivism can even be affected by the situational context. For example, one study found that individuals from two cultural backgrounds became more individualistic when shown images relating to an individualistic culture and more collectivistic when shown images relating to a collectivistic culture. In other words, as humans, we switch between cultural frames depending on the context.

How does culture impact relationships? In individualistic cultures, relationships are often seen as voluntary, and it’s not uncommon to choose to end relationships that are not beneficial. On the other hand, relationships in collectivistic cultures are often seen as more stable and permanent. Additionally, researchers have hypothesized that, in collectivistic cultures, there is a greater obligation to not be a burden on close others. And as I’ve written about previously when discussing attachment style, parent-child relationships can differ from culture to culture. It’s important to recognize that what’s “normal” in a relationship isn’t the same everywhere: there is no one particular type of relationship that works best in all cultures.

How does culture affect social support? When we’re under stress, our cultural background may impact the type of social support we seek out and benefit from most. Research has found that East Asians and Asian Americans are less likely than European Americans to talk about an event that they are stressed by (although this difference was smaller for Asian Americans who were born in the United States). Psychologists have suggested that East Asians are less likely to talk about a stressful event because doing so can present a challenge to relationships in collectivistic cultures. Instead, individuals from East Asian cultures are more likely to seek out implicit social support, which involves spending time with close others without actually talking about a stressor.

One study of European Americans and Asian Americans asked participants to write about a group they were close to (implicit social support) or to write a letter asking for social support. Participants were told that, after writing, they were going to have to give a speech (a task that often makes research participants produce high levels of the stress hormone cortisol). European Americans had lower cortisol levels if they wrote a letter asking for support, while Asian Americans had lower cortisol levels if they wrote about a group they were close to. In other words, what this study shows is that cultural background can influence the type of social support that we benefit from when we’re facing a stressful event.

What can cultural psychology tell us about psychology research? Most social psychologists have conducted their studies on participants from Western countries. However, Western research participants aren’t representative of the world as a whole: many psychology findings don’t look the same when we do include participants from other cultures. So when reading about psychology research, it’s important to consider the cultural background of the research participants—and if the research used primarily Western participants, to think about how collectivistic research participants might have responded differently.

How does this affect you? Cultural psychology has a number of take-home lessons. For example, therapists should be aware that cultural background can impact how comfortable someone feels opening up to others about personal problems. It can also help us to prevent misunderstandings that can arise from the fact that people from different cultures may have different assumptions about relationships. Additionally, when deciding how best to help a friend who is under stress, considering culture may be important for understanding where they are coming from and how best to support them. It’s important to remember that cultural psychology doesn’t allow us to know a given person’s level of individualism/collectivism (after all, there can be collectivistic Westerners and individualistic East Asians). However, cultural psychology suggests that thinking about individualism and collectivism can help us to better understand ourselves and our relationships. Moreover, cultural psychology has a larger lesson: our way of thinking about ourselves and the world around us is only one of many.

Additional Reading:

Adam Cohen: Many Forms of Culture

Hazel Markus & Shinobu Kitayama: Culture & the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation

Steven Heine: Cultural Psychology (in the Handbook of Social Psychology)

Ying-yi Hong, Michael Morris, Chi-yue Chiu, & Verónica Benet-Martínez: Multicultural Minds: A Dynamic Constructivist Approach to Culture and Cognition

Heejung Kim, David Sherman, & Shelley Taylor: Culture and Social Support

Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, & Ara Norenzayan: Most People are Not WEIRD

About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper is a PhD candidate in Social Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology.  Her research interests include positive emotions, close relationships, coping, and health.  Outside of the research lab, Elizabeth can often be found going to yoga class, teaching her puppy new tricks, and working on her creative writing.

  1. The part about “implicit social support” is fascinating and it’s great to finally have a concept to describe something I’ve observed. A branch of my is Korean and just being together, I’ve noticed, signals that everything is ok. But another branch of my family teaches the importance of directly addressing a stressor by talking about it explicitly and “working it out” – this is what I learned growing up. I used to assume it was always wrong to not directly talk about a stressor, but I’ve come to find that is not necessarily the case. Often it’s better to just be together.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience! I definitely agree, sometimes just spending time with others can be one of the best kinds of social support.

  3. Lily said on May 24, 2016

    Hi, I really enjoyed your blog post, it was very helpful in learning more about individualist and collectivists.

  4. Very interesting topic.
    I have recently faced this problem with my Japanese friends, while I’m from middle east.
    Honestly I still having a hard time accepting their culture. What they normally do is considered passive or hypocrite in my culture’s standards.

    So I would like to ask, where to draw the line?
    Since their behaviors are mostly based on their cultural backgrounds, then that doesn’t not make them bad people. But still the same behavior is not accepted for me.
    How do one get in terms with the differences?
    and is it ok if I cant accept these differences?

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to share your experiences.  Even if you don’t end up agreeing with your friends on everything, it’s important to respect differences and try to understand where they’re coming from.  Sometimes it can be helpful to talk over these issues in a respectful, compassionate way, in order to learn more about their perspective and share what your experience has been.  You may end up deciding to “agree to disagree,” but the key is to make sure that you discuss these issues in a friendly and respectful way.

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