Individualism and Collectivism
Dharm P. S. Bhawuk, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Bhawuk@hawaii.edu
The constructs of individualism and collectivism have been used in the social sciences from the
beginning of research. However, the constructs gained popularity in the 1980s, and they
continue to draw the attention of social scientists in all disciplines even today. A theoretical
framework using the independent and interdependent concepts of selves at its core is presented to
explain the differences between these constructs. Because of differences in concepts of selves,
people treat their ingroup and outgroup differently, they act differently in the society by
following their attitude or conforming to social norms, and they engage in a different pattern of
social exchange with other individuals. These differences and their implications for intercultural
communication are discussed.
The constructs of individualism and collectivism have had a significant impact on social science
research over the last 100 years. A search using Google Scholar shows that the number of
scholarly citations for individualism and collectivism has steadily increased over the years, and
the constructs continue to be popular in use by social scientists. Individualism and collectivism
are used to describe cultures, whereas at the individual or personality level the corresponding
constructs are idiocentrism and allocentrism. Research using factor analysis presents
individualism and collectivism, as well as idiocentrism and allocentrism, as orthogonal or
independent factors. However, these constructs may not be independent of each other, since at
the individual or personality level people are found to be both idiocentric and allocentric to some
degree. Also, at the cultural level it is difficult to find a pure individualist or collectivist culture,
since often cultures are found to have elements of both these constructs. Much work has been
done on the measurement and further refinement of these constructs, and many scales are
available to measure these constructs. It should be noted that individualism and collectivism are
not the opposite of each other, just like women are not the opposite of men; they are
complementary constructs, and understanding one helps understand the other.
Research on individualism and collectivism started by contrasting them as opposite of
each other, often written together and separated by a hyphen, as “individualism-collectivism,”
but these constructs were refined into finer dimensions. The four defining attributes of
individualism and collectivism and the typology of vertical and horizontal individualism and
collectivism present such refinements addressing the criticism that these are catchall concepts.
Individualism has four universal defining attributes that contrast with those of collectivism.
Individualists have an independent concept of self, they have their goals independent from their
ingroups, their social behaviors are attitude-, values-, and belief-driven, and they emphasize
rationality in evaluating and choosing their social relationships. On the other hand, collectivists
have an interdependent concept of self, their goals are compatible with ingroups, their social
behaviors are norm driven, and they are relational in their social exchange with other people
(Triandis, 1995). These four defining attributes are synthesized in a theoretical framework in
which concept of self is at the center, and the three other attributes are captured in the interaction
of self with group, society, and other individuals (see Figure 1). Independent concept of self is
not the opposite of interdependent concept of self, but simply different from it and has many
<Insert Figure 1>
In individualist cultures people view themselves as having an independent concept of
self, whereas in collectivist cultures people view themselves as having an interdependent concept
of self. Individualists’ concept of self does not include other people, i.e., the self is independent
of others, whereas collectivists’ concept of self includes other people, namely, members of
family, friends, and people from the work place. People in Western cultures (e.g., the U.S., Great
Britain, Australia, New Zealand, etc.) have an independent concept of self, and they feel a more
pronounced social distance between themselves and others, including their immediate family.
People in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and so forth have an interdependent concept of self, and
social distance between an individual and his or her parents, spouse, siblings, children, friends,
neighbors, supervisor, subordinate, and so forth is small (see Figure 2).
The concept of self can be viewed as digital (for individualists) or analogue (for
collectivists). Individualists view themselves in a much more definitive way—“This is me, but
that is not me.” For example, they are likely not to think of their parents, spouse, children, even
the closest members of the nucleus family, as a part of themselves. There is no overlap between
their selves and others’. In other words, their view of themselves is digital. On the other hand,
collectivists view people in their family (e.g., parents, spouse, children, siblings, and so forth), as
a continuation of their selves. For example, a mother or father is likely to think of a child as a
part of his or her self, and even adult children who have their own children constitute part of
their self. Similar closeness is felt for other relatives, friends, and coworkers. Thus, they have
an analogue self.
<Insert Figure 2>
The boundary of independent self is sharply and rigidly defined (shown by solid line),
whereas interdependent self has a less rigid and amorphous boundary (shown by a dashed line).
This is a consequence of the holistic view of the world held by people in collectivist cultures. In
this view, the self is thought to be of the same substance as other things in nature, and cannot be
separated from the rest of nature. Therefore, the relationship between the self and other people
or elements in nature is much closer, and people not only share interdependence but also feel an
emotional attachment to members of their extended family and friends. On the other hand,
people in individualist cultures usually view the self as independent of other elements of nature.
An individualistic person, therefore, takes more control over elements of nature or situations
around himself or herself, and feels less emotional attachment to others.
Collectivists share material resources as well as nonmaterial resource like time, affection,
fun, etc. with people they share their selves with. This resource sharing is a characteristic of
interdependent concept of self as well as a socialization mechanism that bolsters interdependence
among a group of people. Interdependence is reflected in the correspondence of one’s own
outcomes, both positive and negative, with the outcomes of others, and the feeling of
involvement in other’s lives. Festivals are often social occasions that offer the opportunities for
people to get involved in each other’s lives and also to help each other out by sharing resources
they have. A myriad of communication principles are guided by the interdependent concept of
self as it provides a cognitive framework. The resource sharing behavior also provides a
behavioral framework guiding people’s daily behavior toward each other through the regular
exchange of resources and celebration of family events and achievements of each other.
People in China, India, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, and so forth, for example, are likely to
have an interdependent concept of self, where the self is shared with many members of the
extended family, family friends, and others. Analyzing the words used for relationships, we find
that in most Indian language we have single words not only for members of the nucleus family,
i.e., father, mother, brother, and sister, but also for members of the extended family. Paternal
grandfather (dada), maternal grandfather (nana), paternal grandmother (dadee), maternal
grandmother (nanee), maternal uncle (mama), paternal uncle (chacha), maternal aunt (masi),
paternal aunt (bua, foofee), and so forth. Having a single word indicates the value attached to the
concept in the culture, and clearly, the extended family is quite important in India, thus
presenting face validity that people in India have the interdependent concept of self. The kinship
terms often differentiate on both sides of the family, and also mark age and gender explicitly.
This is true for other Asian and African languages also.
The solid line around the interdependent self in Figure 2 schematically captures the idea
that it is difficult to get to know collectivists because their interpersonal needs are met by the
people with whom they share the self. But if one were to succeed in breaking that hard shell, one
becomes a part of the collective. Therefore, collectivists can be likened to a coconut, hard from
outside and soft inside. On the other hand, individualists have a softer boundary around their
self, which makes them approachable and friendly. However, there is only so close one can get
to an individualist. It is almost like there is a concrete barrier that cannot be broached. Behind
this barrier people hide their proverbial skeletons. Thus, individualists are likened to peaches,
soft from the outside but hard on the inside. This schematic helps understand why individualists
are extremely friendly to talk to in a cocktail party, which should not be misconstrued as
friendship. On the other hand, collectivists may not be as easy to be friends with, despite their
high sociability, but once a relationship is established they are found to go out of their way to be
The second defining attribute focuses on the relationship between self and groups of
people. Those with the independent concept of self, develop ties with other people to satisfy
their own needs, rather than to serve the needs of a particular group of people. However, those
with interdependent concept of self, try to satisfy their own needs as well as those of the
members of the collective included in the self. For example, both American and Japanese
children are found to be motivated to learn when they are individually rewarded for learning;
however, unlike the American children, the Japanese students are motivated to learn even when
their teacher is rewarded. The Japanese children are socialized to observe and respond to others’
feelings early on. So a mother may say “I am happy” or “I am sad” to provide positive or
negative reinforcement rather than directly saying “You are right” or “You are wrong.” Thus,
difference in concept of self leads to difference in how people relate to their ingroup or outgroup.
Collectivists define ingroups and outgroups quite sharply compared to individualists.
An aspect of this interdependent self is people’s concern about how their decisions would
affect others in their collectivity, which often leads to people sacrificing something, such as an
activity that they find interesting, some food item they really enjoy, or some product they really
like, to accommodate the need of a member of the collective. For example, parents may sacrifice
a promotion or opportunity to travel so that their children’s academic needs are not
compromised, and adult children may do the same to take care of elderly parents. Similarly,
spouses may sacrifice for each other. Such sacrifices often remain implicit, and people avoid
saying it loud. It is considered a part of one’s duty toward the collective. Not surprisingly,
making personal sacrifice for family and friends is a theme for successful films in collectivist
cultures like India, Korea, Japan, and China, to name a few.
Closely associated with this concern for others is the process of how people set goals for
themselves. Collectivists are found to subordinate their individual goals to the goals of a
collective, whereas individualists pursue the goals that are dear to them, and even change their
ingroups to achieve those goals. Divorce results many times, for individualists, because people
are not willing to compromise their careers, whereas collectivists often sacrifice career goals to
take care of their family needs (ingroup goals) and derive satisfaction in doing so. The reason
for giving priority to the ingroup goals is the narrowness of the perceived boundary between the
individual and the others or the smaller social distance between self and others. These aspects of
goal setting and making sacrifices are related to collectivists’ perception of common fate with
their family, kin, friends, and coworkers. When the relationship is valued in itself, the
relationship becomes a superordinate goal, and it makes sense for collectivists to sacrifice other
When a certain group of people is accepted as trustworthy, collectivists cooperate with
these people, are willing to make self-sacrifices to be part of this group, and are less likely to
indulge in social loafing. However, they are likely to indulge in exploitative exchange with
people who are from the community of outgroups. Individualists, on the other hand, do not
make such strong distinctions between ingroups and outgroups. When asked to negotiate with a
friend versus a stranger, collectivists were found to make a special concession to their friends as
opposed to strangers (see Triandis, 1995). Individualists, on the other hand, made no such
differentiation between friends and strangers. For this reason, in collectivist cultures like China,
Japan, India, and Korea people approach others through a common friend for getting a good
bargain or a good service.
The interaction between self and groups also has important implications for reward
allocation. Individualists use the equity rule in reward allocation, whereas collectivists use the
equality rule for ingroup members, but the equity rule for outgroup members. For example, it is
found that allocentric Koreans favor ingroups over outgroups more than idiocentric Koreans. It
is also found that in reward allocation situations, allocentrics prefer the equitable (i.e., to each
according to his or her contribution) division of rewards for outgroup members with whom they
expect to have no interaction in the future, but not so for ingroup members with whom they
expect to interact more frequently. Equality is preferred for ingroup members by collectivists.
However, individualists prefer equitable division for both ingroups and outgroups (see Triandis
& Bhawuk, 1997 for a review).
The third defining attribute focuses on how the individual interacts with the society at
large. Those with independent concept of self, do what they like to do, i.e., they pursue their
individual desires, attitudes, values, and beliefs. Since this works for everybody with an
independent concept of self, people in individualistic cultures value doing their own thing.
However, people with an interdependent concept of self inherit many relationships and learn to
live with these interdependencies. Part of managing the interdependencies is to act properly in
all kinds of social settings, which requires that people follow the norm rather strictly not to upset
the nexus of social expectations. It is for this reason that Rama, a popular deity and a cultural
role model for Indian men, always acted properly and is called maryada purushottam (or an
exemplar par excellence).
One reason for the collectivists’ desire to conform results from their need to pay attention
to what their extended family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors have to say about what they do
and how they do it. A sense of duty guides them towards social norms both in the workplace and
interpersonal relationships. Individualists, on the other hand, are more concerned about their
personal attitudes, beliefs, and values. Often, in individualist cultures there are fewer norms
about social and workplace behaviors, whereas in collectivist cultures there are many clear
norms. It should be noted that it is not true that in individualist cultures there are no norms, or
that in collectivist cultures people do not do what they like to do. Though there are exceptions,
in individualistic cultures there are fewer norms, and those that exist are not severely imposed; in
contrast, in collectivist cultures, not only are norms tightly monitored and imposed but also anti-
normative behaviors are often hidden from the public eye.
Collectivists’ willingness to accept the opinions and views of others, in other words, their
willingness to conform, leads to their concern for face saving or gaining the approval of the
collective. Face saving is an important construct that guides all communications in collectivist
cultures. However, in the individualistic cultures, people are not guided by face saving; it is
more important for people to speak their mind and tell the other person directly how they feel
rather than hide their feelings to make the other person comfortable.
The fourth defining attribute focuses on the nature of social exchange between self and
others. In individualist cultures, social exchange is based on the principle of rationality and
equal exchange. People form new relationships to meet their changing needs based on cost
benefit analysis. On the other hand, in collectivist cultures, where relationships are inherited,
people nurture relationships with unequal social exchanges over a long period of time. They
view all relationships as long-term in nature and maintain them even when they are not cost
Psychologists contrast exchange and communal relationships. In an exchange
relationship, people give a gift or provide a service to another person with the expectation that
the other person will return a gift or service of about equal value within a short period of time.
People keep a mental record of exchange of benefits and try to maintain a balanced account, in
an accounting sense.
In a communal relationship, people do not keep an account of the exchanges taking place
between them; one person may give a gift of much higher value than the other person and the
two people may still maintain their relationship. In other words, it is the relationship that is
valued and not the exchanges that go on between people when they are in communal
relationships. In collectivist cultures, people are found to maintain relationships that they have
inherited from their grandparents. In this type of relationship people feel an “equality of affect.”
In other words, when one feels up the other also feels up, and when one feels down the other also
feels down. It is related to the notion of having a common fate.
These four characteristics capture a general concern for each other for the collectivists,
which is more complex than affection or worrying about each other. There is a sense of oneness
with each other, which leads to keeping other people’s needs and interests in mind when
interacting with each other. Collectivism recognizes the group as the basic social unit, whereas
individualism views individuals as the locus of social being. Therefore, individualists like to
take care of their own interests and progress through life by moving from one temporary
relationship to another by transacting material and nonmaterial resources that serve the
individual interests of all parties involved.
Individualism and collectivism are of two types, vertical and horizontal, depending on
whether people view their selves as “same as” or “different from” others. In vertical collectivism
(VC) and individualism (VI), people view their selves as different from the selves of others;
India and China provide examples of vertical collectivism, whereas the U.S. and France
exemplify vertical individualism. In horizontal collectivism (HC) and individualism (HI), people
view their selves as equal to the selves of others; the Israeli Kibbutz and Eskimo cultures provide
examples of horizontal collectivism, whereas Sweden and Australia approach horizontal
Vertical and horizontal individualism and collectivism patterns fit well conceptually with
other culture theories. For example, communal sharing, market pricing, equality matching, and
authority ranking are the four basic forms of social behavior found in every culture. These four
basic behaviors correspond to collectivism, individualism, horizontal, and vertical dimensions:
Vertical individualism corresponds to market pricing and authority ranking, vertical collectivism
corresponds to communal sharing and authority ranking, horizontal individualism corresponds to
equality matching and market pricing, and horizontal collectivism corresponds to equality
matching and communal sharing. The four defining attributes and the vertical/horizontal
typology of individualism and collectivism together provide a valuable framework for
understanding social behavior.
Individualism and collectivism explains differences in communication that is also
captured by the conceptualization of high-context and low-context cultures; collectivist cultures
are high-context and individualist cultures are low-context. Context is important in
communication in collectivist cultures, which captures not only the hierarchy and relationships in
which people are embedded, but also other nuances of social settings. A collectivist would rather
make up an excuse or tell a lie than directly say no to an ingroup member’s request. They would
use silence or not come to the meeting to communicate a negative outcome. Not being present or
not saying anything in a meeting is a part of the context that others use to understand the
message. However, people in individualist cultures say what is on their mind directly, to make
sure that both parties understand it clearly. Interestingly, for the collectivists the indirect method
is as clear as the direct communication is for the individualists.
This framework of individualism and collectivism is also useful in explaining why people
make different attributions in similar situations. A major source of misunderstanding in human
relationships is that two individuals do not perceive similar causes for a specific behavior. For
example, if an employee is late for work he or she may perceive that missing the bus was the
cause of lateness, whereas his or her supervisor may perceive laziness as the cause of lateness.
Isomorphic attribution refers to a sojourner making approximately the same judgment about the
cause of a behavior as do people in the host culture. When people make isomorphic attributions,
they do not impose their own cultural perspective in deciding about the cause of a particular
behavior. Instead, they use the perspective of the host culture in analyzing the behavior. Making
non-isomorphic attributions means that the same behavior is seen as having very different
Collectivists tend to attribute other events external to an individual as the cause of an
outcome more frequently than do individualists. Individualists attribute traits internal to an
individual as the cause of an outcome more frequently than do collectivists. As a result,
individualists make the “fundamental attribution error” of over-stressing internal relative to
external causes of behavior more frequently than collectivists. For example, we might ask:
“Why did he fail?” The individualists are more likely to answer, “He does not have the ability”
rather than “his co-workers did not give him clear instructions.” The collectivists are more likely
to see the environment as the cause of a behavior. Success is attributed to the help of others
among collectivists and to one’s own ability among individualists. Failure is attributed to lack of
effort among collectivists but to task difficulty or bad luck among individualists.
Collectivists do not view performance as the product of ability and effort, which is
common among individualists. Collectivists view performance as the aggregate of ability and
effort. In short, since individualists see performance as a personal quality, if the person has no
ability or expends no effort they see no performance; the collectivists see performance as a group
quality, and thus it is possible to succeed if one member of the group has ability and the others
expend much effort. Effort is a quality that can be changed by the individual, while ability is less
changeable. Thus, it is much better to make effort attributions, as people can be trained to make
such attributions to improve their performance.
The four defining attributes have received less research attention than the vertical and
horizontal typology primarily due to the lack of measurement scales for each of the four defining
attributes. Development of measurement scales for each of the defining attributes will help
individualism to move away from the catch-all construct, which is one of the long standing
criticisms of the constructs. This may also help further clarify the relationship between these
constructs and other theories and facilitate effective intercultural communication.
SEE ALSO: Acculturation Strategy; Communication Modes, Asian; Concept of Self in Japan and
the United States; Cultural Diversity in Organizations; Cultural Value Dimensions; High- and
Low-Context Cultures; Intercultural Friendship; Social Identity Theory
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Brief Author Biography
Dharm P. S. Bhawuk (Ph. D. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) is a professor of
management and culture and community psychology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He
is author of the book Spirituality and Indian Psychology: Lessons from the Bhagavad-
Gita (Springer, 2011) and co-editor of the book Asian Contributions to Cross-Cultural
Psychology (Sage, 1996). He has co-edited special issues of journals on globalization and
diversity and Indian psychology. He has more than 60 publications, and has made more than 160
presentations at international conferences and universities. He is a Founding Fellow of the
International Academy for Intercultural Research.
Keywords: concept of self, ingroup versus outgroup, communal and exchange relationships,
norm versus attitude
Figure 1: Individualism and collectivism: The four defining attributes
Adapted from Bhawuk (1995).!
Figure 2: Independent and interdependent concepts of self
Adapted from Bhawuk (1995).