Collectivism

The Basic Idea

Have you ever considered joining the army? To some, enlisting might seem dangerous and senseless. After all, you’re putting your life in danger. To others, putting their life on the line is an opportunity to do good for the greater group. This type of mindset aligns with collectivism.

Collectivism is a worldview where people tend to see themselves as part of a larger group rather than focus on their individuality. As a result, they value behavior that emphasizes unity. Individual goals and needs are subsided for the good of the greater whole, as they are seen to matter less than the objectives of a group.

Individuals who demonstrate collectivist attitudes will tie their identity to groups. This kind of behavior doesn’t have to be as drastic as joining the army – people exhibit minor forms of collectivism on a daily basis. Wearing a team’s jersey and using the pronoun ‘we’ when talking about the team demonstrates that someone has tied their identity to a larger collective. We can also see a collective mindset in people who tie their identity to the college or university they attend, wearing sweatshirts with the logo or introducing themselves as an alumnus from that university.

Other common attributes of collectivist worldviews include exhibiting group loyalty, making decisions based on what is best for the group, working collaboratively, and strongly focusing on one’s relationships.

Collectivism is a cultural pattern found especially in East Asia, Latin America, and Africa. It is usually contrasted with individualism found in the West, e.g., in Western and Northern Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Any typology is an oversimplification. Societies are not purely individualist or collectivist, but some mixture of the two. The construct is widely used by those interested in studying cultural differences. It is also used to describe the values of individuals in these differing societies.

– Psychologist Harry Triandis, in his paper “Collectivism and Individualism: Cultural and Psychological Concerns”>2

History

One of the first discussions of collectivism in the West occurred in 1762, in Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book, Du contrat social. He described individuals as having a social contract with society, which when abided by, would help society run smoothly. He believed that if people considered the collective interest of the group, there would be fewer wars and conflicts.

Rousseau’s predecessor, British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, agreed. He believed we were greedy and evil by nature, which caused us to behave in violent ways. He thought if people gave up some of their self-interests, a more peaceful society would exist. Hobbes suggested that a common power was needed to make people accountable for their actions and become interested in the collective. In his most well-known book, Leviathan, he wrote “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man. 3

Collectivism became more popular in the 19th century when German philosopher Karl Marx began to write about it. The principle idea of Marxism is that societies develop through class conflict. He thought that when workers began to realize that they were being exploited by the higher classes, they would revolt. He believed collectivism was a more positive form of social organization, as it would not just be the needs of the higher classes that were met, but the needs of the whole group. Selfishness would be diminished in favor of group happiness. Marx emphasized collective interest, economic equality, and public ownership as proponents of collectivism.3

From Marxist ideas of collectivism branched out other theories of socialism in the 19th century. Socialist theories all emphasize that things should be regulated and controlled by the collective. These theories include communism, democratic socialism, and utopian socialism.3

While collectivism’s roots are within the field of political science, it has since been incorporated into behavioral science as a way to understand different mindsets and worldviews. In 1980, Geert Hofstede, a Dutch social psychologist, officially introduced the term collectivism to the psychological world. He hypothesized that a society’s culture influences the values of its members. He designed a survey to test what kind of attitudes and responses belonged under collectivism.2

When it comes to collectivism, behavioral science focuses on the traits exhibited with people with collectivist attitudes, which include:

  • Low Relational Mobility – describe a feeling of group unity, people with collectivist attitudes might find it harder to form numerous personal relationships of their own choosing, as instead, they are bound and loyal to relationships based on preexisting factors like family or geographical area.
  • Conformity – due to a desire to be part of a collective group, collectivist attitudes cause individuals to behave in ways similar to their peers instead of trying to stand out.
  • Privacy – since individuals with collectivist attitudes don’t like to make things about themselves, they are more reluctant to share personal problems with their friends.
  • Cooperation – since collectivism values what is best for the group, people are willing to help others to achieve this. 1

Consequences

Collectivism contrasts individualism, where the rights of the individual are emphasized. Commonly, when we talk about collectivism and individualism, we talk about cultures being one or the other. Western countries like the U.S. and Canada tend to be more individualistic cultures, where freedom is highlighted and individuals are encouraged to follow their personal dreams. On the other side, non-Western countries like China and Japan are usually more collectivist, and individuals are encouraged to do what’s best for their country.5

The cultural differences mean that individuals from different countries often have different priorities and values. People from individualistic cultures are more likely to push back against government control, whereas individuals from collectivist cultures conform to the government’s rules and laws. One’s cultural orientation not only impacts how people behave but also how they understand themselves. People from individualistic cultures are more likely to describe their personality or personal characteristics (e.g., I am funny, or I am blonde), whereas people from collectivist cultures describe themselves in terms of their relationship or their social roles (e.g., I am a mother).1

Controversies

There is debate whether collectivism is a positive or negative form of social organization. There are aspects of collectivism which can be positive, such as taking care of all people in a society, especially those that need help. But it can also mean that people treat out-groups negatively because they are too focused on the priorities of their own group. Collectivism can make individuals more family-oriented, but can also make people feel pressured to abide by their parents’ wishes for them instead of pursuing their own path.

Other people criticize the fact that we have too often differentiated countries solely based on collectivism and individualism and ignored other important differences. Cultures vary in their gender-role differentiation, power-distance (the relationship between higher ranking and lower-ranking individuals), and the degree of uncertainty avoidance (avoiding decisions whose outcomes are unknown, called the ambiguity effect). Yet, these avenues have not been researched as much as the collectivist/individualist divide, which causes some to believe it is a reductive way of understanding culture.6

Collectivism & Response to the Pandemic

As COVID-19 began to take its hold on the world, we saw very different responses and outcomes unfold globally. Some regions seemed to be able to control the spread, while other countries failed to enforce restrictions to prevent cases from rising. While there are many variables that impact a country’s response to the pandemic, one important one is whether a culture is collectivist or individualist.

Jackson G. Lu, professor of Work and Organization studies at MIT in the U.S., Peter Jin, professor of Psychology and Behavioral Science a Zhejian University in China, and Alexander S. English, professor of International Studies University in Shanghai, theorized that the reason behind the vast regional differences of pandemic responses could be explained by the difference between individualistic and collectivist cultures.7

Lu, Jin and English believed that individuals from collectivist cultures, which emphasize the overall wellbeing of the society, were more likely to wear masks in the early stages of COVID-19. While wearing a mask might impede one’s personal freedom or comfort, it helps protect other people. They confirmed their hypothesis after examining individuals from 29 different countries that found that mask usage was much higher in collectivist cultures. They also analyzed data from 50 different U.S. states and found that mask usage was higher in collectivist states than individualistic states. It is not just that countries respond differently to crises, but the collectivist nature of a culture that determined whether individuals would forego individual comfort for the good of society.7

The difference in mindset helps to explain why China, a collectivist culture, was able to quickly stop the spread through drastic precautions and safety measures that individuals complied with. Alternatively, the U.S., an individualistic culture, was reluctant to mandate COVID-19 measures because it prides itself on individual freedom.7

Unfortunately, in the case of the pandemic, the stronghold of freedom may have been the U.S.’s downfall. As the President of the Association for Psychological Science said, “it appears as though many Americans have maximized their psychological welfare by not covering their mouths. This behavior, however, has come at a grave cost for the collective. Each individual is protected as long as many others in the community wear masks. If a majority choose not to wear a mask, then you may not be protected even if you wear a mask. Unfortunately, again and again, many Americans prioritized their personal convenience or preference while ignoring the collective consequences of doing so.7

Other studies confirm Lu, Jin and English’s results. Research conducted at the University of Kent similarly found that people who adopt a collectivist mindset were more likely to comply with COVID-19 guidelines, including hygiene practices and social distancing.8

Climate Action and Collectivism

Collectivism impacts how willing people are to partake in activism or enact social change. Climate change is a daunting reality of the modern-day, yet many people fail to take the necessary steps to change their behavior to reduce carbon emissions and help save the planet. Even though climate change does, and will continue, to negatively impact us all, why does it seem like some people don’t care?

One theory is that people do not believe that their behavior directly contributes to climate change. They believe if they behave in climate-friendly ways, there will be little to no effect. This line of thinking shows that people believe their individual behavior is separate from wider group behavior, which is akin to individualistic thinking. Chinese psychologist Peng Xiang and his colleagues conducted a study to test whether individualistic and collectivist attitudes could predict how much individuals were willing to partake in climate-friendly behavior, based on previous research that showed that cultural orientation was a factor in attitudinal response to climate change.9

Xiang hypothesized that since individualism is connected to an attitude of the independent self, people with individualistic orientation are less likely to believe their actions will impact the climate and therefore are more prone to climate inaction. By surveying almost 200 undergraduate students, Xiang and his team found that their hypothesis was correct.9

Individuals with an individualistic orientation more often reported that climate change was intractable. A previous study that Xiang conducted showed that when people believe climate change is intractable, they are less likely to engage in climate-friendly behavior. Thus, Xiang concluded that collectivism positively affects the likelihood of climate-friendly behavior, while individualism negatively impacts it.9

Related TDL Content

TDL Brief: Listening to Experts

If you are interested in the relationship between collectivism and the pandemic, you can read more about how culture impacts one’s relationship with the government and other figures of authority in this TDL Brief. We examine how people feel like their freedom is threatened when they are being pushed to get a vaccine, how individuals from collectivist cultures find it easier to follow government-imposed rules because they are used to it, as well as other reasons why people hesitate to listen to experts.

How Culture Affects The Way We Work

While we might believe that our own personality or characteristics are the biggest driver of our behavior, we are very influenced by the culture we come from. From our culture, we learn a set of concepts and values that guide us in life and can influence our thinking patterns. In this article, our contributor Art Markman, explores how people from collectivist and individualistic cultures tend to have very different working styles. People from individualistic cultures tend to dissect problems into their specific parts, while people from collectivist cultures take a bigger picture approach to solving problems.

Sources

  1. Cherry, K. (2021, April 30). Understanding Collectivist Cultures. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-collectivistic-cultures-2794962
  2. Talhelm, T. (2019, October 29). Why Your Understanding of Collectivism Is Probably Wrong. Association for Psychological Science. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/why-your-understanding-of-collectivism-is-probably-wrong
  3. Collectivism. (n.d.). History Crunch. Retrieved September 10, 2021, from https://www.historycrunch.com/collectivism-overview.html#/
  4. Talhelm, T. (2019, October 29). Why Your Understanding of Collectivism Is Probably Wrong. Association for Psychological Science. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/why-your-understanding-of-collectivism-is-probably-wrong
  5. Country Comparison. (2020, August 12). Hofstede Insights. https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/canada,japan,the-usa/
  6. Fatehi, K., Priestley, J. L., & Taasoobshirazi, G. (2020). The expanded view of individualism and collectivism: One, two, or four dimensions? International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 20(1), 7-24. https://doi.org/10.1177/1470595820913077
  7. Lu, J. G., Jin, P., & English, A. S. (2021). Collectivism predicts mask use during COVID-19. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(23), e2021793118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2021793118
  8. Collectivism drives efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19. (2021, September 10). ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/06/200629120140.htm
  9. Xiang, P., Zhang, H., Geng, L., Zhou, K., & Wu, Y. (2019). Individualist–collectivist differences in climate change inaction: The role of perceived intractability. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00187

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