Why should people in one part of the globe have developed collectivist cultures, while others went individualist? The key is how culture is shaped by the way people traditionally made a living, which in turn is shaped by ecology. In East Asia it' s all about rice. Rice requires massive amounts of communal work. Not just backbreaking planting and harvesting, which are done in rotation because the entire village is needed to harvest each family ' s rice.

- Robert M. Sapolsky -



One typical trait of high-context, polychronic societies is a collectivist orientation, while low-context, monochronic societies tend to be individualistic in nature.

In individualistic societies, that include Scandinavian countries, most English and German speaking countries:

- focus is on personal priorities and self-realization: people value freedom and individual achievements (individualistic cultures are usually “doing” cultures: they’re structured, they prioritize task outcomes over relationships, they stress the importance of getting things done and being productive);

- self-concepts are based on personal traits rather than social roles ("I am kind" vs "I am a good son" typical of collectivist societies);

- independence and self-reliance are important. People are expected to take care of themselves and a few loved ones, and to take responsibility for their own achievements and failures (individualistic societies are generally guilt-based);

- confrontation is accepted, people are encouraged to express their opinions and to be assertive;

- work is often seen as a key factor to happiness in terms of pleasant feelings, satisfying judgements, self-validation;

- happiness is reserved for those who are successful or perceive themselves as such;

- the main tool of social control is guilt, “a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience. A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by confessing the misdeed and making restitution. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behaviour, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions. Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order" (Paul Hiebert).

[Note: guilt cultures are also knows as dignity cultures].

In collectivist societies, that include most Latin-American, Southern European, Asian and African countries, tribal communities around the world:

- the group takes care of individuals, individuals are loyal to the group (family, extended family, tribe, organization, etc.). “WE” is prioritized over “I”: the well-being of group is more important than individual pursuits;

- people strive to preserve harmony and to respect hierarchy within the community;

- everyone is likely to practice self-control, since they are fully aware of the impact their words and actions have on others;

- self-concepts are based on social roles rather that personal traits ("I am a good son" vs "I am kind");

- selflessness and conformity are highly valued, individual achievements are often portrayed as a result of external circumstances rather than personal merit;

- non-verbal communication is often aimed at preventing "loss of face" (public humiliation) from happening;

- the main tool of social control is shame, “a reaction to other people's criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame-oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one. Personal desires are sunk in the collective expectation. Those who fail will often turn their aggression against themselves instead of using violence against others. By punishing themselves they maintain their self-respect before others, for shame cannot be relieved, as guilt can be, by confession and atonement. Shame is removed and honour restored only when a person does what the society expects of him or her in the situation" (Paul Hiebert).

The Globe study (House & Javidan, 2004) makes a clear distinction between Institutional and In-group Collectivism:

In-group Collectivism is “the degree to which individuals express pride, loyalty, and cohesiveness in their organizations or families”. Societies that score high on In-group Collectivism and (relatively) low on Institutional collectivism can be found in Latin America, in Eastern Europe, in Sub-Saharan Africa, in the Middle East, in Latin Europe

In-group Collectivism and (relatively) low on Institutional collectivism


Institutional Collectivism is “the degree to which organizational and societal institutional practices encourage and reward collective distribution of resources and collective action”. Nordic countries (Nordic cluster) are an example of societies that score high on Institutional Collectivism and low on In-group collectivism.

Nordic countries (Nordic cluster) are an example of societies that score high on Institutional Collectivism


Collectivist cultures:

The Sub-Saharan Africa Cluster

The Middle East Cluster

The Latin Europe Cluster

The Eastern Europe Cluster

The Latin America Cluster

The Southern Asia Cluster

The Confucian Asia Cluster


Individualistic cultures:

The Anglo Cluster

The Nordic Cluster

The Germanic Europe Cluster


Articles expanding on the topics of guilt and shame, and investigating the implications of collectivism and individualism on workplace dynamics, are available at the following links:


- Social Connections, Harmony, Consensus: Confucian Beliefs and Business Culture in China, Japan and Korea.

- I/II: "Why Do We Work So Hard?” Motivation and Reward Across Different Cultures

- I/II: “Why Do We Work So Hard?” Introduction to Guilt and Shame Cultures

- Giving and Losing "face": Honour, Social Reputation and Networking in Asian Countries

- National Culture, International Business Strategy, and Common Misunderstandings Between the East and The West

- Shame Honor and Two Different Flavors of Collectivism

- Forgiveness in Individualistic and Collectivist Cultures

- The Impact of Cultural Differences On Visual Perception

- Challenges and Misconceptions in Intercultural Negotiations

- Narcissism and Competitive Communication in Individualistic Cultures




Hofstede, Geert (2001). Culture's Consequences: comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA

Hostede, Geert H. (1997). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill

Ye D, Ng YK, Lian Y. Culture and Happiness. Soc Indic Res. 2014;123(2):519-547

Diener, E., & Diener, M. (1995). Cross-cultural correlates of life satisfaction and self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 653-663

Lu, L. (2001). Understanding Happiness: A Look into the Chinese Folk Psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies 2(4), p. 407-432. DOI: 10.1023/A:1013944228205

Oishi S., & Diener E. (2001). Goals, culture, and subjective well-being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 1674-1682

Hiebert, Paul G. (1985). Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House

House, R., Hanges, P., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P. and Gupta, V., 2004. Culture, leadership, and organizations. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications

Uskul, A. K., Oyserman, D., & Schwarz, N. (2010). "Cultural emphasis on honor, modesty, or self-enhancement: Implications for the survey-response process". In J. A. Harkness, M. Braun, B. Edwards, T. P. Johnson, L. Lyberg, P. P. Mohler, B.-E. Pennell, & T. W. Smith (Eds.), Wiley series in survey methodology. Survey methods in multinational, multiregional, and multicultural contexts (p. 191–201). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470609927.ch11

Disclosure: This section contains affiliate links. If you were to buy any of the books listed here, I would earn a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


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