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Individualism, Collectivism, Why Some Cultures Are Coping with COVID-19 Better Than Others, and How We Can Learn and Survive the Pandemic
The middle of a pandemic is possibly not the best time to pull out cultural psychology texts, but an understanding of cultural values towards agency and adaptation may shed light on how people are coping (or not coping) with the current coronavirus situation, and how people can make things easier on themselves.
It was in high school that I first learned about individualism versus collectivism, yet it is still very relevant, and continues to be a topic of great significance even in university and beyond. Thousands of psychological and sociological studies have been done on individualism vs collectivism. It is arguably one of the best evidenced and fundamental theories of cultural psychology.
To put it in quick terms: America is the most individualist country in the world. China and Japan are close cousins for being some of the most collectivist.
Individualist countries (and citizens) value individuality, personal agency and choice, and the power to shape your own life and reality.
Collectivist countries on the other hand value the collective, community wellbeing, even with significant self sacrifice, and place much less value on personal agency, and much more on adaptation to others and to reality.
Neither type of culture is inherently better than the other. But one type is uniquely more suited to adapting to a worldwide pandemic, and that’s collectivism.
Politics aside, learning values from cultures different from our own, and understanding that some of our turmoil and pain from lack of agency and freedom during this time (for a distinctively altruistic purpose) is not permanent nor necessarily untouchable, can help us all adapt quicker, and thereby get back to a normal life faster, with a lot less loss of life and less possibility of completely collapsing healthcare systems.
Individualist cultures have the hardest time with personal freedom and choice taken away from them. They would always rather have the freedom to make their own choices, and even see life as ridden with more opportunities to make choices than more collectivist cultures. Regardless of whether or not the consequences are better or worse, individualists much rather have the agency to choose themselves – even if it leads to bad consequences.
This not only hints at why America is so divided on political issues like Medicare For All (one of the prevailing arguments against it is “but I want to be able to choose what kind of healthcare I get”), but why even small curves of freedom (aka, shutting down schools and extracurriculars), feel much more painful and impossible to individualist cultures than collective ones. Americans may find it not too hard to be ordered to stay indoors for a week, but by week 2 or 3, they’re much more likely to grow antsy and say “fuck it,” effectively breaking quarantine.
Collective ones are much more comfortable with some choices and freedoms being taken away as long as it’s for the collective good. Wuhan was able to be completely shut down not only because of the power of the government there but also because people understood and valued the greater group wellbeing despite personal liberties being more or less removed completely.
Whilst that’s an extreme case, and possibly mocked by Americans for being “like mindless sheep,” a little shifting of mindset to prioritizing collective health over individual choice may help people adapt, and also save lives.
The extreme fundamental difference between individualist views on agency and choice versus collectivist views on them underlies the continued bemusement of Americans at concepts like arranged marriages (even though, interestingly enough, they statistically succeed more than chosen marriages), Asian parents choosing career paths for their children, and more.
But in times of crisis we all have a little something to learn from each other. And if you’re willing to be more selfless than usual, for a much longer period of time than usual, for your local healthcare, for your local elderly and immunocompromised population, I promise we will all collectively be better off.
Another fascinating dimension of difference between individualist cultures and collectivist ones are their attitudes towards reality: or rather, whether their instinct is to change reality to mould to what they want, or to adapt their own attitudes and self to reality.
The difference is startling. Studies have shown again and again that individualist cultures are far more ready to exert influence on their surroundings to change them to what they want them to be – and this includes other people (aka arguing with others, standing up, taking leadership roles).
Alternately, collectivist cultures across the board are far more able and willing to adapt to surroundings and others to keep the peace – after all, when you value the collective peace and wellbeing over your own individual one, it is far easier to be willing to change your own mindset and behaviours rather than to change others.
This dimension of difference also underlines why individualist countries might have a collectively harder time following social distancing and quarantine rules, especially for an extended period of time. It simply isn’t a natural instinct for them to adapt rather than to try and be proactive and act upon their newfound reality.
Unfortunately, the virus does not care. For once we’re faced with something we can’t change or control, and we need to adapt or face the consequences. And whilst consequences can be as mild as you just needing to spend more time alone for a while, they can be as severe as healthcare system collapse and personal illness and death.
I’m already anticipating the gut reaction backlash against writing this in that Americans especially might jump on my back for trying to indoctrinate “communist values” or whatever, or somehow insinuating that we all need to be like mindless robots now. But that isn’t the case, and your gut reaction backlash really underscores how unconscious and deeply entrenched these cultural differences around the world are.
I’m not saying one type of culture is better than the other, nor am I saying Americans should now be collectivist (because that is never happening regardless).
Your liberties and long held values are facing pressure and stress, and that’s understandable. You don’t need to turn into a fierce leftist to learn from other cultures in times of unprecedented crisis, especially because adaptation and valuing the collective, greater good in community health is going to help you and your loved ones too. It is painful to have deeply entrenched ways of life and values be upturned. But these are unprecedented times and there is no time to experiment – it is time to adapt and survive, or refuse to adapt and bear the consequences – and the consequences won’t just affect you. It will affect your community.
A few months or a year may feel like a lifetime in times of crisis. But in reality, it is a very short period of time in the grand scheme, and a time for resilience, adaptation, and altruism. When your character is being tested for the greater good, sometimes it hurts for a while. But I promise in hindsight that if we do it right, we’ll look back on this time with pride and not with regret and sadness.