Individualism is a common term in the counseling and psychological literature used to describe certain cultures and specific individual attributes valued in these cultures. The term individualism is often used in contrast to collectivism. Both terms describe a cultural syndrome that reflects shared attitudes, beliefs, norms, and values that are found among individuals who live in specific geographical regions and speak a particular language during a specific historical period. Individualistic cultures, such as the mainstream European and North American cultures, place a high value on individuals being independent and self-sufficient. In contrast, collectivistic cultures, more often found in Asia and South America, focus on relational harmony and collective values. Of all the variations that exist among cultures, the individualistic-collectivistic cultural syndrome appears to be the underlying structure of such difference and thus may be the most important. These differences do not only impact the individual but also have a broader impact on, for example, economic, historical, and political systems and structures.
European political philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries, including John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Alexis Tocqueville, provided some of the foundation for the contemporary conceptions of individualism and collectivism by debating ideas about individual freedom versus the collective right within the state. Significant historical events such as the 1775 American and 1789 French Revolutions, both emphasizing equality and liberty, brought attention to the idea of individual freedom. Additionally, many of the early U.S. citizens who had fled Europe because of religious and political oppression were influenced by ideals expressed in the French Revolution. These ideals also came to shape the U.S. Constitution and its focus on protecting individual rights and also the U.S. culture at large.
In many parts of the world, there appears to be a movement toward individualism from collectivism, with prosperity playing a key role. As individuals become more financially well off, they become increasingly independent from their ingroup (e.g., family, tribe, nation), which is a sign of individualism. It is further argued that the more complex a culture is, the more likely it is to be individualistic. Indices of complexity include product per capita, personal computers per capita, the size of cities, and percentage of the population that is urban. Additionally, increased social and geographic mobility, exposure to mass media from individualistic countries, small families (small families tend to raise their children with a more individualistic mind-set) are all believed to contribute to individualism. Raising children to be self-reliant and independent, in turn, supports individualism at a cultural level.
Variations and Types
Whereas some suggest that individualism and collectivism are dichotomous variables representing opposites on a bipolar continuum, others argue that they can coexist and that individuals can present with aspects of both individualism and collectivism. Harry C. Triandis suggested that there may be different dimensions of individualism and collectivism, such as that American individualism differs from Swedish individualism, and the collectivism of Israeli kibbutzim is different from that of Korean collectivism.
Trying to uncover variations among the individualism-collectivism construct, Triandis and Michele Gelfand identified four types of individualist-collectivist patterns (horizontal individualism, vertical individualism, horizontal collectivism, and vertical collectivism). Horizontal patterns entail the self being different from others, emphasizing hierarchy, whereas vertical patterns assume that the self is similar to others, emphasizing equality. Countries such as Australia value equality, and others, such as the United States and India, value hierarchy. More specifically, horizontal individualists are characterized by self-reliance with a desire to be unique but not distinguished. Vertical individualists are also self-reliant but with a desire to be distinguished, and they do this through individual competition with others. On the other hand, vertical collectivists are willing to sacrifice their own goals for those of the group, and they only value competition when it is between their ingroup and other groups.
Whereas the term individualism is proposed to represent the general attributes of a given culture, the term idiocentrism is to be used when describing or measuring individual-level orientations of individualism. Such use of terminology helps clarify the differences between the individual and the cultural level of analysis and allows for examination of idiocentric individuals in a collectivist culture (and for allocentric individuals in an individualistic culture). At this point, however, the literature has not been consistent in its use of the terms individualism and idiocentrism.
According to Triandis, individualism and collectivism vary in four main areas: (1) self (independent vs. interdependent), (2) goals (goal priority based on self vs. group), (3) relationships (rationality vs. relatedness), and (4) social behaviors (determined by attitudes vs. norms). Specifically, in cultures that emphasize individualism, people tend to be independent and autonomous from their ingroups. In these cultures, there is value placed on the development of the self and on individuals’ abilities and skills. Internal attributes, including thoughts and emotions, help organize persons’ behaviors and meaning making. In these cultures, individuals’ goals are prioritized over those of the group, and their behavior is guided based on individual attitudes rather than on the norms of the ingroup. Generally, the more individualistic the culture is, the stronger the emphasis on the independent self.
Since the 1980s, individualism and collectivism have been of interest to scholars and researchers. Empirical data have consistently shown that there is substantial variation within cultures regarding behavior and psychological processes, and most of this research has focused on identifying the attributes of individualism and collectivism. The first empirical study that identified the factors of individualism versus collectivism was published in 1980 by Geert Hofstede, who examined IBM employees in 53 countries. In this study, the United States was identified as the most individualistic country.
In 2002, Daphna Oyserman, Heather M. Coon, and Markus Kemmelmeier published the first meta-analytic study of individualism and collectivism. The results showed that European Americans scored higher on individualism than individuals from countries such as Japan, Korea, Hong King, India, Taiwan, and Poland. The study also showed some unexpected results, such that there was no difference in individualism between European Americans and Indonesians, and that European Americans scored lower on individualism than individuals in Puerto Rico but higher in collectivism than people in Japan. Comparison of racial and ethnic groups within the United States showed that European Americans reported higher scores on individualism than Asian Americans but lower than African Americans. These results suggest that individualism, as well as collectivism, does not fully follow the expected patterns and that additional studies are needed to further understand cultural differences among cultures, countries, and continents. Specifically, more data are needed from certain continents such as Africa, in which only a few populations have been examined in terms of individualism-collectivism.
Mental Health, Illness, and Treatment
In individualistic cultures, individual maturity and mental health are associated with competence, ego strength, responsibility, and autonomy. Success is viewed as an individual accomplishment gained through ability and effort. Similarly, mental illness and failures are also seen as due to ability and effort and located within the individual. Compared with collectivistic cultures, higher rates of loneliness, depression, suicide, and marital dissatisfaction are found in individualistic countries. The role of counselors such as psychodynamic and person-centered counselors (whose theories were developed in Europe and North America) is to help clients to act on their own behalf via the use of insight and self-exploration. Clients are viewed as responsible for their own actions and decisions, and interventions are focused on fixing clients’ internal deficiencies.
In the past decades, many scholars have pointed out biases and limitations of Westernized, traditional, and individualistic approaches to mental health and treatment. One common criticism is that the European American White male has been used as the norm for assessing behavior, resulting in a focus on individuation and separation as developmental processes and the view of autonomous behavior as healthy and desirable. Consequently, such views of development and counseling may be limited and biased for women and individuals of other cultural backgrounds.
- Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Oyserman, D., Coon, H. M., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2002). Rethinking individualism and collectivism: Evaluation of theoretical assumptions and meta-analyses. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 3-72.
- Triandis, H. C. (1993). Collectivism and individualism as cultural syndromes. Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal of Comparative Social Science, 27, 155-180.
- Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism and collectivism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Triandis, H. C. (2001). Individualism-collectivism and personality. Journal of Personality, 69, 907-924.
- Triandis, H. C., & Gelfand, M. J. (1998). Converging measurement of horizontal and vertical individualism and collectivism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 118-128.