Individualism vs. collectivism

The concept of individualism vs. collectivism deals with how individuals fundamentally 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, can be applied when comparing cultural trends between cultures, in corporate culture contexts and when comparing individuals’ way of thinking socially.

Individualism, as the name indeed suggests, describes the human characteristic of on a deep level thinking in a way where the individual self is prioritized rather than a social institution such as a family, workplace or society when compared to an individual who is more collectivistic. It is typical of an individual who is relatively individualistic to prioritize individual ambitions to a higher degree and strive to fulfill such ambitions even if it not necessarily equates working toward what is best for his or her related social institutions as wholes. For instance, it is logical to assume that one who is more individualistic would be more likely to engage in a divorce when compared to a collectivistic individual, since the individual is likely to value personal well-being higher. A more collectivistic individual would conversely naturally be more inclined toward enduring the marriage for the sake of the family as a social institution. This obviously becomes most evident in families with young children where a divorce might result in negative consequences for a child’s upbringing. The United States is one of the best examples of a country with culture in which individuals often are regarded more individualistic.

Collectivism, in contrast to individualism, describes the human characteristic of on a deep level thinking in a way where the social institution or group, such as a family, workplace or even entire society, is prioritized higher than the individual self when compared to an individual who is more individualistic. Collectivistic individuals 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 an individual who is more collectivistic to sacrifice own ambitions for the sake of a group’s best. Naturally, a more collectivistic individual would often be more inclined to pursue work over study when his or her family is in a financially difficult situation, turning the prospect of studying less desirable as costly studies could turn troublesome for the family as a social institution since it adds risks to an already difficult situation. On the contrary, a more individualistic individual would be more likely to consider personal implications of studying or working to a greater extent and not actively look for the potential risks to the family just as much. Japanese culture provides a traditional example of what often is considered as being linked to high collectivism.

The degree of individualism vs. collectivism in a society typically plays a large role in how the society works both fundamentally and superficially on most levels. With an understanding of the concept of individualism vs. collectivism as a cultural dimension, understanding cultural differences and even individual differences can be facilitated to a great extent. Different kinds of behaviors; from how families live socially to why people in some countries honk more often can be explained in part by considering effects of cultural differences in individualism and collectivism. Even mundane situations such as how likely someone is to ask a bus driver to wait for an acquaintance who is late for the bus can be effectively connected to individualism vs. collectivism; naturally someone more collectivistic would be less likely to ask the driver to wait since he or she would likely prioritize the other passengers of the bus as a form of social institution higher. A more individualistic person, on the other hand, would be more likely to be more concerned of his or her personal company, the acquaintance who would otherwise have to wait for the next bus.

It is important when discussing any cultural dimension to not think of the opposing ends of the dimension, in this case individualism and collectivism, as a dichotomy; in reality the dimension represents a gradient on which all individuals are more or less individualistic and collectivistic, but not solely one or the other. Furthermore, it is crucial that one understands that personal differences in regard to individualism and collectivism represent not superficial differences in behavior but rather fundamental differences in human personality normally developed subconsciously as a part of an individual’s cultural upbringing. For this reason, judging an individual’s degree of individualism vs. collectivism by observing behavior is difficult and often impossible since the behavior not necessarily reflects the fundamental nature of that individual’s personality. One should be cautious not to confuse far more superficial behaviors such as selfishness or selflessness with individualism and collectivism which in stark contrast as previously mentioned relates to far deeper levels of an individual’s personality. For example, an individual can to a great degree decide whether to act selfishly or not, however being more or less individualistic is something he or she is naturally by his or her upbringing.

Visit Hofstede’s website to find out more about cultural dimensions and to find where various countries lie generally on the spectra of cultural dimensions based on statistical surveys  .

Oscar A. Rudenstam


  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


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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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