Differences between individualist and group-oriented societies

Cultural Insights — By on August 12, 2008 at 4:11 pm

David Brooks usually focuses on politics from a conservative perspective in his NY Times op-ed column, but every once in a while he has a piece that delves into culture in some form or other. That is what he does in today’s column, which looks at some of the differences between individualist and group-oriented societies.

This is one of the key differences between countries and cultural regions around the globe. Brooks uses the topic as a pivot to discuss the rise of China and the possibility that its goal of a “harmonious collective” could rival the more individualist “American Dream” as an economic vision for developing societies. Still, it’s nice to see topics like this getting some play in the national press.

Here is an excerpt from Brooks’ piece:

The world can be divided in many ways — rich and poor, democratic and authoritarian — but one of the most striking is the divide between the societies with an individualist mentality and the ones with a collectivist mentality.

This is a divide that goes deeper than economics into the way people perceive the world. If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.

These sorts of experiments have been done over and over again, and the results reveal the same underlying pattern. Americans usually see individuals; Chinese and other Asians see contexts…

You can create a global continuum with the most individualistic societies — like the United States or Britain — on one end, and the most collectivist societies — like China or Japan — on the other.

The individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first. People in these societies tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort. People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty. They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts.

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