Understanding Collectivist Cultures

How Culture Can Influence Behavior

collectivistic culture traits

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Collectivistic cultures emphasize the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of each individual. In such cultures, relationships with other members of the group and the interconnectedness between people play a central role in each person's identity. Cultures in Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa tend to be more collectivistic.

Collectivistic Culture Traits

A few common traits of collectivistic cultures include:

  • Social rules focus on promoting selflessness and putting the community needs ahead of individual needs
  • Working as a group and supporting others is essential
  • People are encouraged to do what's best for society
  • Families and communities have a central role
  • Greater emphasis on common goals over individual pursuits

In collectivistic cultures, people are considered "good" if they are generous, helpful, dependable, and attentive to the needs of others. This contrasts with individualistic cultures that often place a greater emphasis on characteristics such as assertiveness and independence.

A few countries that are considered collectivistic include Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Venezuela, Guatemala, Indonesia, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, and India.

How Collectivist Cultures Differ

Collectivist cultures are usually contrasted with individualistic cultures. Collectivism stresses the importance of the community, while individualism is focused on the rights and concerns of each person. Where unity and selflessness are valued traits in collectivist cultures, independence and personal identity are highly stressed in individualistic cultures.

These cultural differences are pervasive and can influence many aspects of how society functions. How people shop, dress, learn and conduct business can all be influenced by whether they are from a collectivist or individualist culture.

For example, workers who live in a collectivist culture might strive to sacrifice their own happiness for the greater good of the group. Those from individualistic cultures, on the other hand, may feel that their own well-being and goals carry greater weight.

Influence on Behavior

Cross-cultural psychologists study how these cultural difference impact various aspects of behavior.

Self-Perceptions

Culture influences how people behave, as well as their self-concept. Those in individualistic cultures might describe themselves in terms of personality traits and characteristics, e.g., "I am smart, funny, athletic, and kind." Those from collectivist cultures would more likely describe themselves in terms of their social relationships and roles, e.g., "I am a good son, brother, and friend."

Relationships

Research in 2017 found that collectivist cultures are also associated with low relational mobility, a term to describe how many opportunities individuals in a society have in forming relationships with people of their choosing.

Low relational mobility means that the relationships people have are stable, strong, and long-lasting. These relationships are usually formed due to factors such as family and geographical area rather than personal choice.

In a collectivist culture, it's difficult to build relationships with new people, partly because it's generally more difficult to meet them. Strangers are more likely to remain strangers to those from a collectivistic culture than they would be to people from individualistic cultures.

Maintaining harmony within interpersonal relationships is of utmost importance in a collectivistic culture. This is likely because these relationships are so long-lasting and extremely difficult to change, so failing to keep the peace can mean long-term unhappiness for everyone involved.

Paradoxically, this means that people in individualistic cultures devote more effort and energy toward actively maintaining close relationships, often through increased self-disclosure and greater intimacy. This can be explained by the fact that unlike collectivist cultures where stable relationships are more expected, relationships in individualistic cultures tend to be more fraught and fragile, so people must make a greater effort to maintain these relationships.

Conformity

Cultural differences also influence the motivation to either stand out or fit in with the rest of the group. In one experiment, participants from American and Japanese cultures were asked to select a pen. Most of the pens were the same color, with a few options in different colors. Most American participants chose the rarer colored pens. The Japanese participants, on the other hand, were much more likely to choose the most common colored pen, even though they preferred the minority pens.

Another reason for this may have been because, coming from a collectivistic culture, the Japanese participants instinctively valued interpersonal harmony above personal preference and thus chose the unoffensive behavior of leaving the rarer pens for others who might want them.

Social Anxiety

Research in 2010 has shown that collectivistic cultures are more accepting of socially reticent behaviors and displayed higher levels of social anxiety in comparison to individualistic cultures.

However, the research also found that it may not be collectivist values alone that contribute to social anxiety and acceptance of social reticence. Latin American countries, for example, display lower levels of social anxiety than do East Asian countries. Researchers suggest that this may be due to an emphasis on group harmony and a higher value on qualities such as sociability—factors that may help decrease social anxiety—in Latin American cultures.

Social Support

When people in collectivist cultures are faced with stress, they are less likely than those in individualistic cultures to talk about their problems with loved ones. Research from 2010 suggests that people from collectivist cultures are more reluctant to discuss stressors with people they are close to out of concern for potentially negative relational consequences. Instead, people often seek out what is known as implicit social support, which involves spending time with supportive people without actually addressing the source of the stress.

Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  1. Lu C, Wan C. Cultural Self-Awareness as Awareness of Culture's Influence on the Self: Implications for Cultural Identification and Well-Being. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2018;44(6):823-837. doi:10.1177/0146167217752117

  2. Kito M, Yuki M, Thomson R. Relational mobility and close relationships: A socioecological approach to explain cross-cultural differencesPersonal Relationships. 2017;24(1):114-130. doi:10.1111/pere.12174.

  3. Yamagishi T, Hashimoto H, Schug J. Preferences Versus Strategies as Explanations for Culture-Specific BehaviorPsychological Science. 2008;19(6):579-584. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02126.x.

  4. Schreier S-S, Heinrichs N, Alden L, et al. Social anxiety and social norms in individualistic and collectivistic countriesDepression and Anxiety. 2010;27(12):1128-1134. doi:10.1002/da.20746.

  5. Schreier S-S, Heinrichs N, Alden L, et al. Social anxiety and social norms in individualistic and collectivistic countriesDepression and Anxiety. 2010;27(12):1128-1134. doi:10.1002/da.20746.