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

100 Things You Should Know About People: #51 — You React To Colors Based On Your Culture

US Map with ColorsMany years ago I worked with a client who had created a color map of the different business regions for their business, showing the total revenue for the quarter for each region. Yellow was for the Eastern part of the US, green for the Central, etc. They had used red for the western states. The VP of Sales gets to the podium and starts his slide show to the financial and accounting staff of the company. Up comes the colored map. A gasp can be heard in the auditorium, and then there is the buzz of urgent conversation. The VP tries to continue his talk, but he has lost everyone’s attention. They are all talking amongst themselves. Finally someone blurts out, “What the heck is going on in the West?!” “What do you mean?”, the VP asks, “Nothing is going on. They had a great quarter”.

What does red mean? — To an accountant or financial person red is a bad thing. It means that they are losing money. The presenter had to explain that they had just picked red as a random color.

Colors have associations and meanings — Red means “in the red” or financial trouble, or it could mean danger. Green means money, or “go”. You want to pick colors carefully since they have these meanings.

Color meanings change by culture — Some colors have similar meanings everywhere, for example, gold stands for success and high quality in most cultures, but most colors have different meanings in different cultures. For example, in the US, white stands for purity and is used at weddings, but in other cultures white is the color used for death and funerals. David McCandless of Informationisbeautiful.net has a color chart that  shows how different colors are viewed by different cultures.

McCandless Color Wheel
McCandless Color Wheel


  • Choose your colors carefully, taking into account the meaning that that color may invoke.
  • Pick a few major cultures/countries that you will be reaching with your design and check them on the cultural color chart from David McCandless to be sure you do not have some unintended color associations for that culture.

What do you think? What color meanings have you found in your work that surprised you?

100 Things You Should Know About People: #26 — Culture shapes our brains

college students
Photo Credit: Katie Ricard

My entire career I’ve been worried about the fact that most psychology research is conducted on 18-24 year old college students. What if the way 18-24 year old college students react, think, and behave is not the same as everyone else? We are drawing conclusions about PEOPLE in general, but only collecting data from a small subset of people whose brains are still changing. It seemed silly that there were rigorous rules about how to conduct scientific studies in psychology, and yet this basic premise about who was being researched and how applicable the research was to different people was ignored. It’s made me secretly skeptical about research. Which is ironic, since I spend a fair amount of time searching out research, thinking about it, interpreting it and writing about it. I guess some research is better than no research?

Does culture shape “basic” cognitive processes?– And now I’ve come across an entirely new reason to be skeptical about the theories we have about how the brain works — cultural effects. In his book, The Geography of Thought, Richard Nisbitt discusses research that shows that how we think — our cognitive processes — are influenced and shaped by culture. For example, if you show people from “the West” (US, Europe) a picture, they focus on a main or dominant foreground object, while people from Asia pay more attention to context and background. Asian people who grow up in the West show the Western pattern, not the Asian pattern, showing that this is based on culture, not genetics.

Is most of our research in psychology based on what “westerners” think? — This has profound implications for some of the theories we have about cognitive processing. We have research about how people think, how many items can be stored in memory, etc. What if these theories about how people think are really theories about how Western people think and are not universal?

Do cultural differences show up in brain activity? — Sharon Begley recently wrote about this in Newsweek. She reports on recent neuroscience research that confirms the cultural effects. “… when shown complex, busy scenes, Asian-Americans and non-Asian–Americans recruited different brain regions. The Asians showed more activity in areas that process figure-ground relations—holistic context—while the Americans showed more activity in regions that recognize objects. To take one recent example, a region behind the forehead called the medial prefrontal cortex supposedly represents the self: it is active when we (“we” being the Americans in the study) think of our own identity and traits. But with Chinese volunteers, the results were strikingly different. The “me” circuit hummed not only when they thought whether a particular adjective described themselves, but also when they considered whether it described their mother.”

Will it ever end? — This is the curse of research. Just when we think we know something, we find out there are more questions than answers!  One trend that should help is that there is more and more research coming out of Asia. If you peruse the psychology scientific journals you will see that more than half of the research that is being published today comes from Asia. Another big chunk comes from Europe, so the psychology research now is not so US centric. This will help, or will it? Will we now have to worry that the results from Asia don’t apply to the West? Should all psychology research be done using different cultures?

What do you think?

For more reading:

Ambady, N., Freeman, J. B., Rule, N. O. (in press). Culture and the neural substrates of behavior, perception, and cognition. In J. Decety & J. Cacioppo (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sharon Begley’s article in Newsweek:  West Brain, East Brain

Click the link below to find out more about The Geography of Thought, by Richard Nisbett (affiliate link):


Did you find this post interesting? If you did, please consider doing one or more of the following:

add your comment
subscribe to the blog via RSS or email
sign up for the Brain Lady newsletter
share this post