Conceptualizing cultural differences: individualism and collectivism

The concept of individualism vs. collectivism is a simplified dimension with which to describe certain social patterns relating to how groups live their lives socially; whether they on a deep level think more as individuals or collectively as members of groups when compared to other individuals or groups. The concept, an integral part of Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory, while limited by its generalized and decidedly descriptive nature, can be useful if applied correctly in crude cross-cultural comparisons. Importantly, the concept cannot explain why certain groups behave in certain ways, but can nonetheless function as a shortcut with which to conceptualize greatly generalized social patterns.

Individualism, as the name indeed suggests, describes group behavior with exhibits characteristics where the individual self is prioritized in contrast to a social institution such as a family, workplace or society when compared to groups who are more collectivistic. In more individualistic cultures, like the United States, it is commonplace to see individuals value personal goals to a higher degree and strive to fulfill such ambitions even if they do not necessarily equate to working toward what is best for that individual’s related social institutions as wholes. One must be careful here, however, since this does not necessarily imply that a social institution, like a family, should be expected to be less prioritized by an individualistic individual vis-a-vis a more collectivistic individual. An individualist may, from an intrinsic personal interest in his or her family, prioritize the family just as much or more than a collectivist; the difference lies rather in the function from which that prioritization is derived. In more individualistic cultures divorces are often more common, as marriage decisions tend to come from factors related to personal well-being rather than the long-term interests of the family as a social institution. A collectivist, conversely, would be expected to be more likely to endure a troublesome marriage as long as it was deemed to provide a net benefit to the family as a whole. We should remind ourselves, again, that these are just crude concepts that can be applied in oversimplified descriptions of broad social phenomena–it would be naive to attempt to divide people into individualists or collectivists. That being stated, we can see how, on a broad level, United States is often considered to have stronger individualistic tendencies than East Asian cultures, which are often associated with collectivism.

Collectivism, in contrast to individualism, describes the tendency to behave in a way where the social institution or group, such as a family, workplace or even entire society, is prioritized relatively higher than the individual self when compared to a more individualistic group. Collectivists are likely to more often value highly what is best for the social institutions that he or she belongs to over personal ambitions and goals when compared to an individual who is more individualistic. In this sense, it is more common for a collectivist to sacrifice own ambitions for the sake of a group’s best. For a collectivist, it is often a sense of duty, rather than personal interest, that is a driver. An overworked collectivist parent, for example, may work hard to serve his or her family since it is a duty as a parent in a family as a social institution, and relatively less due to a function of his immediate interest or love for his family, which would be more common in the case of the individualist. A traditional example of collectivism is often drawn from East Asian “Confucian” cultures.

An old thought-example situation I use to explain individualism vs. collectivism intuitively goes as thus: Imagine that you are waiting for your friend, with whom you are supposed to go on a trip by taking the bus. The bus arrives, but your friend has not yet arrived, but you expect him or her to arrive within a minute. Since the next bus will not arrive until much later, you, as an individualist–worried about having to wait long for the next bus, and worse yet, letting your friend wait–try to reason with the driver to wait for just a few moments until your friend arrives. If you are an archetypal collectivist, on the other hand, this would be unthinkable; the bus driver, the other passengers on the bus, and potential passengers waiting at the next bus stop take priority–there is no way your immediate personal interest to have yourself and your friend avoid waiting can take precedence. As a collectivist, thus, you wait for the next bus.

Again, as a concluding note, we must take great care not too overapply the individualism vs. collectivism dichotomy in our understanding of people and cultures. It should not be abused as means with which to explain or predict behaviors, as this might lead to misconceptions about the characteristics of individuals or groups. In short, it can only be useful in describing phenomena on a broad level, phenomena which arise from social, economic and other conditions, and the concept should thus not be used as a substitute for these when making explanations.

NOTE: This post was revised on December 27, 2015 to emphasize the descriptive nature of the concept and how it necessarily oversimplifies broad behavioral phenomena.



  1. Megan

    July 17, 2013 @ 8:42 pm


    I just wanted to let you know that was a very well explained article. Very nicely done.

  2. On Grad School, Grace, & Growing Up | A Happy Medium

    September 5, 2013 @ 1:14 am


    […] to settle near home sometimes seems strange to people used to the American ideal of individualism, but in almost every other country, settling near family is normal. It is not a sign of weakness […]

  3. Usama Wahid

    October 18, 2013 @ 11:59 am


    was looking to understand the characteristic of Hofstede Cultural Model, Thank You very much for such a nice explain.

  4. Joel

    January 12, 2014 @ 8:20 pm


    An amusing oxymoron to me: collectivistic individual.

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    February 2, 2014 @ 5:23 pm


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  6. Daniel jnr Okoye

    March 16, 2014 @ 11:20 am


    Good day sir,I am an undergraduate psychology student at Nnamdi azikiwe university,awka anambra state Nigeria .please I want you to elaborate more on the consequences of individualistic and collectivistic culture.thank you.

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    April 22, 2014 @ 7:30 pm


    […] final cultural dimension to consider involves whether the welfare of the individual or the welfare of the group is valued more in a society. In individualistic cultures, the goals of individuals are valued more […]

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    June 12, 2014 @ 1:56 pm


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  9. Judy

    October 27, 2014 @ 9:25 pm


    This information helps a lot. Very thorough.

  10. Charm

    November 3, 2014 @ 11:25 pm


    Thank you very much for posting this. I am a DC student in HS taking an intro to psych class and this is the easiest explanation I have found to understand. It’s been very helpful for me.

  11. Chris Fuller

    December 19, 2014 @ 8:11 pm


    The antiquation of individualism within the workplace.

    The Business owner preaches a strong believe in individualism, with an unbridled distain for any thought process comprising of collectivism. The owner has all the rights, and power under a system that perpetuates individuals standing alone rather than in a group. To understand this thought process we should first explore the use of the word often used in Conservative circles while trying to promote Individualism. The word is Freedom, and more often than not it is used in a way that perpetuates an individual’s right to control the business, without any outside influence (Government),or inside influence (Employee/workers). The problem with the word Freedom is summed up pretty well with this quote form President Grover Cleveland whom famously said “One man’s Freedom is another man’s shackles”. What this means is that while the business owner clearly would have more freedom under Individual control, the worker would lose any Freedom to be heard in the work place if left to the vises of the owner’s “freedom”.

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