Individualistic Cultures and Behavior

Culture is one factor that can have an influence on how people think and behave. One factor that cross-cultural psychologists often study involves the differences and similarities between individualistic cultures and collectivist cultures.

Individualistic cultures are those that stress the needs of the individual over the needs of the group as a whole. In this type of culture, people are seen as independent and autonomous. Social behavior tends to be dictated by the attitudes and preferences of individuals. Cultures in North America and Western Europe tend to be individualistic.

traits of individualistic cultures
Illustration by JR Bee, Verywell

Individualistic Culture Traits

Chances are you have probably heard the terms individualistic and collectivist cultures before, often in the context of noting behavior and attitude differences between the two types of societies. So what exactly makes individualistic cultures different from collectivist ones?

A few common characteristics of individualistic cultures include:

  • Being dependent upon others is often considered shameful or embarrassing
  • Independence is highly valued
  • Individual rights take center stage
  • People often place a greater emphasis on standing out and being unique
  • People tend to be self-reliant
  • The rights of individuals tend to take a higher precedence

In individualistic cultures, people are considered "good" if they are strong, self-reliant, assertive, and independent. This contrasts with collectivist cultures where characteristics like being self-sacrificing, dependable, generous, and helpful to others are of greater importance.

A few countries that are considered individualistic cultures include the United States, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, and Australia.

Individualistic vs. Collectivist Cultures

Individualist cultures are frequently compared and contrasted with more collectivist cultures. Where collectivism stresses the importance of the group and social cooperation, individualism prizes things such as:

  • Autonomy
  • Independence
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Uniqueness

Where people in collectivist cultures might be more likely to turn to family and friends for support during difficult times, those living in individualist cultures are more likely to go it alone.

Individualistic cultures stress that people should be able to solve problems or accomplish goals on their own without having to rely on assistance from others. People are often expected to "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" when they encounter setbacks.

This tendency to focus on personal identity and autonomy is a pervasive part of a culture that can have a profound influence on how a society functions. For example, workers in an individualist culture are more likely to value their own well-being over the good of the group.

Contrast this with a collectivist culture where people might sacrifice their own comfort for the greater good of everyone else. Such differences can influence nearly every aspect of behavior ranging from the career a person chooses, the products they buy, and the social issues that they care about.

Approaches to health care, for example, are influenced by these tendencies. Individualist cultures stress the importance of each person taking care of his or her self without depending on others for assistance. Those in collectivist cultures may instead stress sharing the burden of care with the group as a whole.

Effects on Behavior

The effect that culture has on individual behavior is a major topic of interest in the field of cross-cultural psychology. Cross-cultural psychologists study how different cultural factors influence individual behavior. They often focus on things that are universal among different cultures of the world, as well as differences among societies.

One interesting phenomenon that cross-cultural psychologists have observed is how people from individualist cultures describe themselves compared to how those from collectivist cultures describe themselves.

People from individualist societies have self-concepts that are more focused on independence rather than interdependence. As a result, they tend to describe themselves in terms of their unique personal characteristics and traits.

A person from an individualistic culture might say "I am analytical, sarcastic, and athletic." This can be contrasted with self-descriptions from people living in collectivist societies, who would be more likely to say something like, "I am a good husband and loyal friend."

Just how much do these self-descriptions vary depending upon culture? Research conducted by Ma and Schoenemann found that while 60% of Kenyans (a collectivist culture) described themselves in terms of their roles within groups while 48% of Americans (an individualist culture) used personal characteristics to describe themselves.

A Word From Verywell

Psychologists have become more aware of the powerful influence that culture can have on individual and group behavior. In order to understand just how strong these influences can be, it is essential to look at both the similarities and differences between collectivist and individualist cultures.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Ma V, Schoeneman TJ. Individualism Versus Collectivism: A Comparison of Kenyan and American Self-Concepts. Basic Appl Soc Psych. 1997;19(2):261-273. doi:10.1207/s15324834basp1902_7

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.