Episode 12: Individualist Societies vs. Collectivist Societies

Okay this one is a tough one. It’s kind of complicated, but it’s worth it, trust me. We mostly talk about how humans work biologically and in which ways that influences our decisions. That is somewhat the field of the behavioral science. But beyond biology that is consistent across all humans there are also cultural and societal differences, along with age and gender, and so on, that also have an impact.

I don’t want to leave these out! Today’s topic explores whether there are cultural and societal differences in decision making through a paper on individualistic societies verses collectivism societies.

Cialdini, Wosinska, Barrett, Butner and Gornik-Durose wrote a paper in 1999 entitled Compliance with a Request in Two Cultures. They compared social decision making between the United States and Poland with the emphasis on examining what they call “social proof”; or the idea that you examine the behavior of others, especially similar others, to determine the appropriate behavior for yourself.

Individualistic societies tend to define the self as autonomous and independent from groups.

Collectivistic societies tend to define the self more in terms of group membership.

The theory is that you can invoke behavior (in their study they used whether you’d go out of your way to help someone else) by using different strategies in different societies. It makes sense that different societies would respond differently to requests for help depending on how the request was presented.

But you still have to study it! Okay so here’s the experiment they set up. This was a 2 x 3 x 2 conditional study. Lots of conditions so it’s a little complicated. The bottom line is that participants were asked to do a task and answer a survey.

The first 2 conditions were Poland vs. the United States. They did the Study in both places to see if there was a difference.

The next 3 conditions were using different degrees of social influence: either high, medium, or low.

To measure the intensity of social influence, participants indicated their willingness to comply three different times. Once when all other classmates had agreed to take the questionnaire (high social), once when half agreed (medium social), and once when no one else agreed (low social).

The last 2 conditions used the survey answers.

Half the participants were told to do the survey while considering their peers (group focus), and half were told to only consider themselves (individualism focus).

Again, it was a 2 x 3 x 2 conditional experiment by using the categories Poland vs. US, the amount of social pressure or influence used, and social influence vs. individualism.

What the researchers found was that there were similar effects. When there was more social influence (everyone else around had taken the survey), people were more willing to also take the survey. That’s not surprising and we’ll get into a lot more research about social pressure later.

What was interesting is that the strength of the impact differed. Social pressure was more effective in Poland, and using individualism was more effective in the US. This is most likely because the US has more individualism and Poland more collectivism generally, in their society.

Also, the effect on collectivists could be canceled by a making the person focus on themselves, rather than the group. To quote from the paper:

“In sum, the predicted tendency of collectivists to be more willing than individualists to perform a collaborative task was canceled by a prior focus on oneself rather than on one’s group as a standard for decision.”

Now one small caveat, the study is from 1999, when Poland was much closer to the USSR than it is today. Regardless, the main point is that society matters. It’s often hard to measure, but there are interregional differences that do make a difference.

In practical takeaways then, don’t assume that just because a strategy works in Chicago that it will be as effective in other cultures. There often will be overlap, but sometimes not.

Specifically, if you are trying to use social pressure to drive action, use social pressures more often and with a higher priority in societies that are more collectivism and group focused (like Eastern Europe or Japan). If you want people to succumb to social pressure, make sure their focus is not on themselves as it can cancel the push to do a collective task.

If you want people to reject social pressure, try and direct their focus onto themselves as a person before they are exposed to the social pressure. It can negate the effect.

In societies that are more individualistic like the US, you can drive action more through a story of self-consistency than group action. Social pressure is still effective, but it is not as effective.

Again, the impact of the effects will change based on the specific circumstances.

So try it out! Let me know how it goes. This is a pretty nuanced subject so hopefully it was decently explained.


Cialdini, R. B., Wosinska, W., Barrett, D. W., Butner, J., & Gornik-Durose, M. (1999). Compliance with a Request in Two Cultures: The Differential Influence of Social Proof and Commitment/Consistency on Collectivists and Individualists. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin25(10), 1242-1253. doi:10.1177/0146167299258006

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