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.
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.