1. Defining Individualism
Individualist societies are one’s which places more value on the interest of an individual as opposed to a group or collective. This leads to a wide variety of social differences.
Compared to individualist societies, collectivist one’s place less value on things like privacy and much more value on conformity. Collectivist societies also tend to exhibit much higher levels of ingroup-outgroup bias.
People from collectivist societies are much more likely to feel shame, rather than guilt, when they do something wrong. This, and their high levels of conformity, lead to higher levels of social sensitivity in collectivist societies (Chaio and Blinzinsky 2009)
These cultural differences also manifest politically, with individualist cultures having political systems in which individual rights and freedom are more heavily emphasized.
2. Individualism and Social Cohesion
Some people mistakenly believe that individualism is anti-social. This is not true. In collectivist cultures, people are born into social groups which, in virtue of their ethnicity/class/tribe/clan/extended family, etc., they have a strong obligation to be loyal to. By contrast, in individualist societies our innate obligations rarely extend beyond the nuclear family.
Of course, this does not mean that we only interact with our nuclear family. Rather, it means that we form so called “voluntary organisations” or social groups which we voluntarily enter into based on a perceived commonality in interest. The organizations that people in collectivist cultures are bound too are distinct from this because they are not voluntarily entered into and there is often no shared group interest other than the power and safety that comes from being in a group. (Kin selection aside)
In fact, individuals who have more individualist mindsets tend to have more friends and to trust people more than collectivist minded people. Similarly, the more individualist the culture of a state or nation is the higher its level of social cohesion tends to be, and this remains true even after controlling for differences in regional wealth.
3. Individualism and National Wealth
Individualism is also related to national wealth: richer nations are more individualistic.
This association is also true when only comparing nations within the same continent, as well as when comparing different regions of Italy, and it does not go away after controlling for national differences in social cohesion and ethnic composition (Gordonichenko and Ronald 2012)
Some have theorized that individualism may cause nations to be richer by increasing innovation. Collectivism may discourage innovation with its emphasis on conformity and lack of focus on individual success.
Gordonichenko and Ronald (2012) measured innovation by comparing nation’s patents per person, the size of the advanced technology industry in a nation, the share of GDP taken up by royalty and licensing fees, and the number of citations in scientific and technical journals a nation produces. They found that more individualistic nations tended to have higher levels of innovation. By several of these measures the association was quite large: individualism explained over 40% of national variation in several innovation metrics.
Goncalo and Staw (2005) looked at this question by attempting to experimentally manipulative how individualistic or collectivist people felt and then seeing if this impacted how creative they were.
In this study, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was primed for individualism by being asked questions about what set them apart from others. Another group was primed for collectivism by being asked questions about how they were similar to others. Each group was then either told to generate creative or practical solutions to a hypothetical problem. The creativity of the solutions was measured in three ways:
- How many ideas were generated
- 3rd party ratings of how divergent, or different, the ideas were
- 3rd part ratings of the creativity of the ideas.
The results depended on whether participants were told to be creative or practical.When told to be creative, the group primed for individualism produced more ideas, and more creative ideas, than the group primed for collectivism did.
When told to be practical, the collectivist primed group generated more ideas than the group primed for individualism. However, the difference in the creativity of the ideas produced by each group was statistically insignificant.
The authors of the study concluded: “These results suggest that individualistic values may be beneficial, especially when creativity is a salient goal”.
Research on immigrants also support the connection between individualism, innovation, and wealth. Specifically, the more individualistic a U.S immigrant’s nation of origin is the wealthier they tend to be and the more likely they are to have a career involved with scientific research (Gordonichenko and Ronald, 2012; Hasen, 2013).
4. Individualism and Happiness
Individualism also correlates with national happiness and this remains true after controlling for national wealth (Deiner et al., 1995).
In fact, individualism is more strongly related to national well being than national wealth is (Fisher and Boer, 2011).
At the individual level, the relationship depends on what kind of country you are in. Individualism is associated with being happier than average in individualist nations like the U.S., while individualistic individuals in more collectivist nations tend to be less happy. (Ogihara and Uchida, 2014; Rego and Cunha, 2009)
5. Population Differences in Individualism
Here is how different nations score on the most widely used measure of individualism in the form of a heat map:
The blogger “HBD Chick” has tabulated the scores by nation and made a heat map specific to Europe:
Unsurprisingly, Whites are more individualist than non-Whites, and Anglos are more individualist than non-Anglos.
In both data-sets, the U.S. comes out as the most individualist country on earth. It’s interesting to consider that this is likely, in part, because of the kinds of people who moved to the U.S. historically.
People who had strong collectivist sensibilities were probably a lot less likely than average to leave their extended families and nation to go to the U.S., a nation with abnormally high levels of cultural and ethnic diversity, and so the United States is probably largely comprised of the descendants of abnormally individualistic English, Irish, Scottish, Germans, Swedes, ect.
6. Population Differences in Individualism-related Genes
If you look at mainstream behavioral genetics research, you will find that basically all individual differences are partly explained by genetic differences between people (Polderman et al 2015). This is true not only for basic psychological differences, but also differences in psychological features such as personality and political beliefs (Bouchard 2004).
Given this, it is plausible that population differences in individualism are party explained by genes. In fact, the contrary position, that they are entirely due to the environment, is extremely unlikely to be true.
Consider the psychological factors which underlie how individualist someone is: social sensitivity, in group/out group preference, selfishness, etc. Each of these features is sure to have impacted how many offspring people had, whether directly or by impacting how successful they were, in the past. Given this, variation in these treats would be subject to natural selection.
The only way that natural selection could allow each of these traits to evolve to the exact same level in all the populations around the world is if varying levels of the trait had the exact same results in every population offspring wise. If there was even a minute difference, populations would have evolved different mean values of these traits.
For instance, if pre-historic Asian societies valued conformity more than prehistoric European societies do (as they do today) then individuals high in conformity may have had more children, on average, than highly conformist Europeans. Even if this was only slightly true, say a difference of .01 offspring per person per generation, this would lead to substantial population differences over the tens of thousands of years that human populations have evolved somewhat separately.
Formally, the difference, in offspring, the possessing one value of a trait instead of another leads to is called a selection coefficient. Selection coefficients are altered between populations not only be culture but also by climate, diet, terrain, and other features of the ecosystem. The egalitarian, then, must show that the widely different environments and cultures that human populations evolved in lead to identical selection coefficients for every psychological trait underlying individualism. Of course, the position is intuitively implausible, and there is virtually no evidence in its favor.
But enough theory. In the past several years, researchers have found that population differences in gene variants associated with increased social sensitivity, a key feature of a collectivist culture, also predict population differences in individualism.
Moreover, Gordonichenko and Ronald (2012) confirmed that the more genetically distant a population is from the United Kingdom, the second most individualistic country in the world, the more collectivist they tend to be (1).
There is currently no way to estimate exactly how much of national differences in individualism is explained by genetics. However, the evidence we do have, and basic evolutionary theory, clearly suggests the answer is greater than zero.
7. The Pathogen Theory
Fincher et al (2008) developed the hypothesis that collectivism was more adaptive in some populations because it protected against the spread of dangerous pathogens. They argued that collectivism protected against pathogen spreading in two ways:
- By increasing conformity in cultures that had established traditions which inhibited pathogen spreading (specific ways of cooking, cleaning, and so on)
- By making people xenophobic and therefore less likely to be around foreigners carrying new pathogens.
In support of this theory, it was found that four different measures of collectivism correlate with a region’s (estimated) historical and current pathogen prevalence. Impressively, historical pathogen levels were better than current pathogen levels at predicting collectivism. This is easy to explain on their evolutionary hypothesis but very hard to explain otherwise.
This relationship persisted after controlling for national differences in wealth and income inequality.
Moreover, Chaio and Blinzinsky (2009) found that one of the alleles known to predict national variation in collectivism also correlates with historic, but not contemporary, national differences in pathogen rates. Again, this is easy to place with the pathogen theory, but very hard to explain without it.
This theory is far from proven, but it has made some impressive first steps. In the coming years, we can expect to know evermore about the factors, both evolutionary and environmental, which explain why some populations are more collectivist than others.
- As the authors note, genetic distance also correlates with cultural distance. This evidence is not proof that genetic distance has a causal impact on culture, but it is what the hereditarian view would predict and, therefore, relevant evidence.