Collectivism and individualism

May 3, 2024 — May 3, 2024

making things
Figure 1

An axis against which we measure cultures. Collectivism is, loosely, here individuals prioritize the goals and needs of the group (such as a family, community, or nation) over their own personal goals. People in collectivist cultures tend to emphasize strong familial ties, group loyalty, and group cohesion. They often value conformity, cooperation, and interdependence, notionally.

Collectivism is often contrasted with individualism, which prioritises personal goals and independence over the goals of the group. People in individualistic cultures value autonomy, personal achievement, and individual rights. They are encouraged to express their own opinions and pursue their own interests. Success is often defined in terms of personal attainment and individual merit.

The distinction is often used to explain differences between cultures, especially in the East (more collectivism) and West (mor individualist)

Talheim and co-workers have written at length (Liu et al. 2019; Thomas Talhelm and Oishi 2018; T. Talhelm et al. 2014; Thomas Talhelm and Dong 2024) on the definition collectivism:

The emerging picture of collectivism is less warm and fuzzy, more nuanced and complicated. […] For example, my recent research has found that people in collectivistic cultures are more likely to agree that “We should keep our aging parents with us at home.” […]

And although people living in collectivistic cultures report less intimacy with their friends, they are also more likely to think that they should stick together through tough times (Liu et al. 2019). When I asked people to imagine a friend advising them to break up with a new boyfriend, Americans tended to say they’d find more supportive friends. In China, people tended to think these friends were being supportive. Collectivism often values things other than warmth and feeling good.

1 Rice theory of collectivism

Under Talheim’s definition, collectivism is generated by rice agriculture, not just nation-of-origin (Thomas Talhelm and Oishi 2018; T. Talhelm et al. 2014; Thomas Talhelm and Dong 2024).

Figure 2: From Liu et al. (2019); living somewhere high in collectivism (which is associated with rice agriculture) is also associated with suspicion regarding other people in the in-group. Suggestive moral: people who need to work together to survive, learn to stay together using mistrust and coercion.

2 References

Ehrlich, and Levin. 2005. “The Evolution of Norms.” PloS Biology.
Gordon. 2014. The Ecology of Collective Behavior.” PLoS Biol.
Liu, Morris, Talhelm, et al. 2019. Ingroup Vigilance in Collectivistic Cultures.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Oyserman, Coon, and Kemmelmeier. 2002. Rethinking Individualism and Collectivism: Evaluation of Theoretical Assumptions and Meta-Analyses. Psychological Bulletin.
Rao. 2005. Symbolic Public Goods and the Coordination of Collective Action: A Comparison of Local Development in India and Indonesia.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper.
Schimmack, Oishi, and Diener. 2005. Individualism: A Valid and Important Dimension of Cultural Differences Between Nations.” Personality and Social Psychology Review.
Talhelm, Thomas, and Dong. 2024. People Quasi-Randomly Assigned to Farm Rice Are More Collectivistic Than People Assigned to Farm Wheat.” Nature Communications.
Talhelm, Thomas, and Oishi. 2018. How Rice Farming Shaped Culture in Southern China.” In Socio-Economic Environment and Human Psychology: Social, Ecological, and Cultural Perspectives.
Talhelm, T., Zhang, Oishi, et al. 2014. Large-Scale Psychological Differences Within China Explained by Rice Versus Wheat Agriculture.” Science.