Understanding Collectivist Cultures

How Culture Can Influence Behavior

collectivistic culture traits
Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2018.

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

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 From Individualist Cultures

Collectivist cultures are usually contrasted with individualistic cultures. Where collectivism stresses the importance of the community, 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 a greater weight.

How Collectivist Cultures Influence Behavior

Cross-cultural psychologists study how these cultural difference impact various aspects of behavior. Studies suggest that 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."

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 that to not keep peace can mean unhappiness for everyone involved.

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.

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