Jacob Johnson, Claire Kirchoff, Jaela Norman, Tori Smith, Matt Tracey
In modern times, we often seek to reduce the perceived differences between cultures. While this is a noble goal, there are actually several aspects of social psychology that are completely different, oftentimes opposites, in Eastern cultures. In this article, we will provide ten differences between individualistic cultures, oftentimes Western cultures like the U.S. and U.K. that emphasize uniqueness and personal achievement, and collectivistic cultures, usually Eastern cultures like Japan and China that emphasize group responsibility and growth. Many of these differences are related to in-groups, the groups to which we identify as a member, versus out-groups, those which we call the “other” and with whom we do not identify. Other differences are on a much more individualized scale, such as those between personalities. Although we are in many ways akin to our Eastern neighbors, there’s also a few quirky ways in which we are very different.
1. In Western cultures, it’s all about "me"… but in Eastern cultures it’s all about "us"!
Have you ever felt like your feelings were special, that no one else could possibly feel like you felt in that moment? Truth is, most humans (with the exception of psychopaths) feel the same basic emotions. However, Western cultures and Eastern cultures differ in how the emotions are attributed to certain circumstances. This study found that Western, individualistic cultures tend to view and report emotions as more focused on self-enhancement and creating an individual self that is not part of a larger group. Members of individualistic cultures experience the same emotions as everyone else, they might just think that their particular emotion at that particular time is somehow unique and doesn’t apply to anyone else but them. In contrast, those belonging to Eastern, collectivistic cultures tend to use emotions to show interconnectedness within the group. Each member of the group understands the experience of one individual, and respect the emotions of others. Collectivistic cultures view emotions as all-encompassing items of life, which are experienced by all in the group and give each member the ability to feel what others feel.
2. Westerners and Easterners draw lines differently--literally.
Seriously, we do. In this study, researchers found that Japanese students and American students differed in how they drew lines in relation to a square (a “frame”). In the study, the two groups of students (a group from Japan and a group from America) were shown an example frame with a line drawn from the top and extending different lengths into the frame, and then were given a blank frame of the same or different size than the example. For the participants’ task, they were asked to either draw a line of the same length as the first line, no matter the size of the second frame (the absolute task) or to draw a line that was of the same proportion to the new frame as the example, like 2/3 of the frame or 1/2 the frame (the relative task). As it turned out, the Japanese students were significantly better at performing the relative task. Specifically, they were better than the American students at taking the context into account when drawing the line. It’s particularly fascinating, though, that American students living in Japan for as little as 3 months performed more like their Japanese peers than like the American students, and vice versa for Japanese students living in America. Isn’t that wild? Humans adapt to culture pretty quickly, and this study shows that even different cognitive patterns of perception can be adopted when we move from one culture to another. This affects how we see groups, ourselves, even art. Humans are weird.
3. Westerners belong to more groups, but care less about them.
It may at first seem somewhat strange that the average member of an individualistic society actually has a higher number of in-groups than one of a collectivistic society. However, it makes sense if you consider that, in a collectivistic society, individuals identify with more people and form larger groups with more diversity and therefore fewer groups overall. According to this study by Harry Triandis, while members of an individualistic society will likely identify with more in-groups, they also tend to have lower concern for the in-group as well be more distant from these groups. Easterners, on the other hand, tend to identify strongly with their in-groups, show higher concern for the welfare of their groups, and be more tightly connected with the group.
4. Collectivistic people like their neighbors more… but like outsiders less.
Speaking of in- and out-group dynamics, people who identify more strongly with allocentrism - the attitudes associated with collectivistic societies - tend to have more strong feelings both in and out. In a study in Singapore, researchers Lynn Lee and Colleen Ward found that allocentric people had much stronger positive attitudes toward fellow in-group members. These Chinese and Malaysian participants agreed more often and with greater magnitude on statements like “Singapore should be proud of its Chinese/Malay population”. However, the same allocentrics were also more likely to disagree strongly with efforts to foster the growth of other ethnic groups of Singapore. These findings indicate that allocentrics are more likely to have stronger ethnocentrism.
5. Westerners want justice… Easterners want peace!
A study by Ohbuchi, Fukushima, and Tedeschi identified differences in the way that individualistic societies differed from collectivistic societies in terms of conflict resolution. They researched college-age individuals in both the United States and Japan and found that there was quite a difference in how each group dealt with a conflict. In the individualistic society (United States), individuals were more likely to demonstrate assertive tactics and were interested in attaining justice. Meanwhile, in the collectivist society (Japan), individuals were more likely to demonstrate avoidance tactics and they wanted to ensure they maintained good relations with an individual rather than doing whatever it takes for justice.
6. Westerners are social butterflies. Easterners, not so much.
Research conducted by Sinha found that those within individualistic cultures had greater skills in entering and leaving new social groups. Meanwhile, people in collectivist cultures tend to have fewer skills in making new friends. This is most likely due to the way that both cultures view friends, as individualistic cultures have many more friends than collectivistic cultures. Collectivistic cultures tend to value friendships much more than individualistic cultures; therefore, they probably take longer to become attached and give them their trust.
7. Westerners seem to have higher self-esteem... On the surface.
Did you know that those living in a more individualistic culture tend to view themselves as independent, distinct, and autonomous, while those living in more collectivistic cultures view themselves as a part of an interdependent social network? Based on findings from 1999 surveys, the self-esteem of those from an individualistic society tend to range from medium to high. Most people living in places such as the United States, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, and Australia strive to be different and seen as their own person. In comparison to the self-esteem of someone from an individualistic culture, the self-esteem of collectivist individuals can sometimes be quite self-critical, and they may speak about themselves in self-deprecating terms. However, this effect only occurs when directly asking the collectivistic individuals to describe themselves. If instead researchers use a little sneakiness and assess implicit associations - those that occur below a conscious level - collectivistic individuals still associate with more positive attributes. So, they don't truly think they are any worse than anyone in the Western world would, but they believe they must portray themselves as though they are. Perhaps this, too, is due to an emphasis on the importance of the group as opposed to the individual.
8. Easterners have a flat approach to their art.
It has been found that artwork varies from Eastern to Western cultures. In a study assessing cultural differences in artistic expression, it was found that the horizon lines in paintings and drawings are much higher in Eastern art than horizon lines in Western art. Why would that matter? Well, it seems that it is important for the Eastern Asian artist to include all the necessary contextualized information in the field. Additionally, Asian art appears to be more flat than Western art, which tends to have more physical depth and operate in three-dimensional space. The differences here come from the relative lack of Western influence on art in Eastern cultures. There is a long tradition of two-dimensional art in East Asian countries that has influenced artists to interpret and elaborate the artistic conventions of their own cultures. Western cultures, on the other hand, have more experience with three-dimensional art (think of the works of the Renaissance and Greek and Roman statues), and thus Western artists continue that tradition. Moreover, the context of the art has more weight in collectivistic cultures, while the subject tends to be the focus of art in individualistic cultures.
9. Goals are achieved in vastly different ways!
Believe it or not, there is actually a distinct difference between even the personalities of Eastern and Western cultures. According to Triandis' research, people who belong to a Western, individualist culture are typically independent from their own in-groups and tend to be a a lot more self-directed. They strive to achieve their own goals before looking into goals of their group, and they usually act with their own individual attitudes instead of behaving solely related to their group's social norms. In other words, their personality is a pretty individual thing… How shocking. The Eastern, collectivist cultures are the opposite of that, as you might imagine. They’re interdependent within their groups and focus more on the goals of that given group rather than any kind of personal goals. Their behavior is much more alike, following the group’s social norms, and there is a bigger emphasis on community. So, to boil this one down as well, this culture likes to do things and act certain ways together… collectively.
10. Kids are taught starkly different things.
We've already learned that there is a stark difference in personality traits, so would it be safe to say that these two groups raise their children just a bit differently as well? Thanks to Harry Triandis, we know the answer. In the collectivist cultures, kids learn early on to be obedient and have a pretty big emphasis on conformity, which makes sense considering the whole culture tends to take a “We’re all in this together” stance. There's also a lot of stress on security and reliability, pretty important things for grooming an interdependent child. On the flip side, individualist cultures raise their kids to be independent and self reliant, tying in pretty well with the priority that most people give to their personal goals. They also want their kids to be explorative and creative - which, not surprisingly, is pretty individualistic.