Individualistic Culture and Behavior

Culture is one factor that can influence how people think and behave. Cross-cultural psychologists often categorize cultures into two main types: individualistic culture and collectivist culture.

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

Why are some cultures individualistic?

In an individualistic culture, 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. Collectivist culture stresses the importance of the group and social cooperation.

Individualist culture emphasizes:

  • Autonomy
  • Independence
  • Self-sufficiency
  • Uniqueness
  • Personal achievement
  • Individual liberties and rights
  • Self-direction

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 themselves without depending on others for assistance. Those in collectivist cultures may instead stress sharing the burden of care with the group as a whole.

Individualistic Culture and 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 on culture? Research conducted by Ma and Schoenemann found that 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.

Pros and Cons of Individualist Culture

Individualist culture can have both strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, this type of culture tends to promote strong self-esteem, confidence, and self-sufficiency. Research has found that people from individualistic cultures tend to exhibit greater well-being.

However, individualist culture can also have downsides. People from such cultures tend to experience greater stress, have less social support, and have less prosocial behavior. People from these cultures are not only less likely to help others; they are also less likely to ask for help when they need it.

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.

While individualistic culture can promote high self-confidence and individual ambition, it may also lead to a higher risk of conflict and lack of cooperation among group members. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of an individualistic culture can help psychologists develop treatments and programs that are suited to the people who live in that culture.

4 Sources
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. Grossmann I, Santos HC. Individualistic cultures. In: Zeigler-Hill V, Shackelford TK, eds. Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing; 2020:2238-2241. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-24612-3_2024

  2. 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

  3. Okely JA, Weiss A, Gale CR. The interaction between individualism and wellbeing in predicting mortality: Survey of Health Ageing and Retirement in EuropeJ Behav Med. 2018;41(1):1-11. doi:10.1007/s10865-017-9871-x

  4. Scott G, Ciarrochi J, Deane FP. Disadvantages of being an individualist in an individualistic culture: Idiocentrism, emotional competence, stress, and mental health. Australian Psychologist. 2004;39(2):143-154. doi:10.1080/00050060410001701861

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."