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Personality and Culture: Individualism Versus Collectivism

RUNNING HEAD: Personality and Culture


Personality Culture ResearchPersonality and culture are inherently intertwined in ways that are as yet poorly understood, but at the same time the national culture of an individual does not determine everything about the individuals personality. One way this can be observed is the individualism versus collectivism framework, which describes a cultural predisposition to individualism or collectivism. The application of personality theories to this issue can help to determine the application of culture to personality in this respect.

Individualism versus collectivism is one of the basic differences that have been described in varying national cultures. The individualism-collectivism framework, which describes factors such as how a culture views personal traits like independence, personal achievement, group, team and familial connections, egalitarian relationships and role flexibility, personal ownership of private property and the concept of personal space, and the human separation from the natural world, is often used to describe personality traits and differences between individuals of varying cultures (Hofstede, 2001). However, the connection between the individualism-collectivism framework and personality cannot be considered to be a simple connection; as noted by McCrae and Allik, this framework is often used to describe individual personality differences that are not in fact persistent across cultures, and may not be as uniform as the individualism-collectivism model would indicate. In short, personality may be influenced by the cultural factors at work, but there is no guarantee that the personality traits described by the individualism-collectivism framework will only, or even primarily, be influenced by cultural aspects. Common personal experiences may indicate that this is the case. For example, there are persistent personality differences between siblings in areas described by the individualism-collectivism framework, despite the fact that these siblings were usually raised not only in the same culture, but also in the same household. As such, it is not possible to attribute all of the factors described within the individualism-collectivism framework only to the cultural influence described. However, neither can it be said that the individual development of the personality is completely free of cultural influence, and as such it is necessary to consider this influence when considering the individual development of the personality. Consideration of the issue of the individualism-collectivism cultural framework in comparison to personality theories, including those of Erickson and Jung, creates a balance between the cultural individualism-collectivism framework and the personality theory that can describe the creation of the individual personality within this culture.

Individualism and collectivism are cultural traits that describe the common attitude toward the individual as compared to the group (Kim & Hakkoe, 1994). A canonical comparison of individualism and collectivism on the cultural scale are the United States, which ranks as a highly individualist society, and Japan, which ranks as a highly collectivist society. These societies are remarkably different in many ways. The United States culture traditionally focuses on individual achievement and income levels, focuses on the small family group or the individual, praises and promotes free thinking and individual self-expression and values individual choices that can be made, and sees the human experience as separate from the natural world, setting humans above the natural world at most times (Hofstede, 2001). In contrast, Japanese society focuses on the group achievement above the individual achievement (to the point that a common saying in Japan is “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down”), emphasizes the common good and familial connections, does not promote free thinking or personal expression, does not encourage free-form artistic techniques but instead relies heavily on ritualized forms and structures, and places relatively little emphasis on personal choice or freedom of choice (Hofstede, 2001). One surprising contrast is in the different emphasis on the natural world; in Shinto, Japans native religion, which is followed alongside many other religions such as Buddhism and Christianity by the majority of Japanese, is an animistic religion which sees the natural world not as separate from humanity, but as the same as it. In Shinto, humans are part of the natural world and are not set apart from the natural world but are instead part of it, and are not set apart by having a soul (Hofstede, 2001). This contrasts sharply with the holdings of Christianity, the most common religion in the United States, which holds that only humans have souls, and as such are unique and special in the natural world.

The individualism-collectivism framework is commonly used to describe personality characteristics, habits and traits that arise from cultures in which certain individualist or collectivist traits occur. However, these traits do not occur to exclusion within these cultures, making it unlikely that the traits are wholly attributable to the cultural context (McCrae & Allik, 2002). For example, in Japan it is a cultural norm that individuals will take care of their parents in old age, reflecting the collectivist stance on elder care; in the United States, it is a cultural norm that elders will take care of themselves, or in the worst case will hire someone to do so in an assisted living facility or nursing home. However, there are still Americans who take care of their elder parents in preference to sending them to a hired care facility, and there are also Japanese elders who prefer to continue to live on their own despite their childrens cultural requirement for offering care (Hofstede, 2001). This inconsistency between individual preference and cultural individualism-collectivism ranking highlights the potential difficulty with using the individualism-collectivism framework to explain all variances between individuals of different cultures. Instead, individual personality development and characteristics is also at play in these characteristics. Even though a culture may be described as a whole using the individualism-collectivism framework, there is some danger in applying these principles directly to the perceived personality of the individual, and it may even lead to excessive stereotyping and misunderstanding of individual personality and characteristics. Instead, understanding of the individualism-collectivism framework can be combined with theories of personality in order to allow a deeper understanding of personality development. Two such theories, those of Erikson and Jung, can be used in conjunction with the individualism-collectivism cultural-level personality framework in order to better understand the potential impacts of culture on personality.

Eriksons theory of personality was built on Freuds structural model of personality, and maintains many of the characteristics of this model (Ewen, 2003). However, Erikson rejected the concept that personality was set in early childhood, instead taking the path of defining personality as a constantly evolving characteristic. Erikson based this in two fundamental observations: first, as one ages, the individual experience becomes larger and has the potential to impact the individual, and second, that repeated experiences of failure or success have the potential to impact the personality (Ewen, 2003). Eriksons model progresses through eight separate stages, which persist across a life time (although individual experience of these stages may vary depending on the individuals personality development). These include hope (roughly corresponding to infancy), will (toddlerhood), purpose (kindergarten), competence (mid-childhood), fidelity (puberty and teenagerhood), love (early adulthood), caring (mid-adulthood), and wisdom (old age) (Ewen, 2003). Because the experience of individuals is cumulative, it is seen that the individual may not be fully formed or described by the fidelity stage (at which Freudian personality development ceases). Instead, it continues throughout the lifetime of the individual, even though it is possible that the individual may become set in a given stage and not progress further in some cases.

The connection between Eriksons model and the individualism-collectivism framework is not immediately obvious when one considers an individual that remains within the same culture for their entire lifetime. However, the connection becomes obvious when one considers an individual that is moved outside their birth culture, for either a short period (such as during early adulthood, as often happens during the university years) or long-term or permanently, such as through immigration. For example, an individual that moves to a new country in early adulthood will be exposed to a new culture and new experiences. Under Freudian personality model or when considering only the cultural context of the individualism-collectivism framework, there would be no change in the individuals personality, because their personality would already be set. However, using Eriksons model the new cultural influences would be integrated into the individuals personality as it continued to grow. This seems to be more consistent with personal observations, as individuals that have immigrated here do not always maintain the values and individualism-collectivism orientations of their home countries; more often, from observation, it seems that the individuals may integrate components of both their native cultures and the culture into which they have been transplanted into their personality, regardless of the time at which they migrated into the new culture. As such, it can be seen that both individual personality and cultural context may play a role in the development of personality in this instance. This transition may be most effective in early adulthood, at which time the ritualization component of the personality, which describes the interaction of individual and society, is based in affiliation and acceptance rather than rigidly structured; the more set ideals of the individual within the later stages of personality development such as caring and wisdom may be more set and not as flexible, and thus the assimilation of new cultural norms in regard to individualism-collectivism orientation may not be as robust or as persistent. However, this does not mean that individuals within a later stage of life will be incapable of assimilating new cultural roles.

A second theory of personality was that described by Jung. Jung described personality as a set of dichotomies rather than as the type of evolutionary process described by Erikson (Jung, 1976). Jungs theory was based on a combination of conscious and unconscious choices that were made by the individual, and the ideas of equivalence and entropy as well as opposites. Jungs principle of equivalence stated that an increase in effort or energy in one area will naturally decrease the energy devoted to another area – for example, introversion and extroversion exist in a balance in which the individual can only devote so much energy to the pairing, so more energy devoted to extroversion will reduce the amount of energy devoted to introversion (Jung, 1976). The principle of entropy states that the personality will seek a balance between these two factors. Finally, the principle of opposites proposed a number of “opposite pairs”, which through the tension caused by balancing them formed the basis of the individual personality (Jung, 1976). These pairs included characteristics like think-feel, animal-spiritual, masculine-feminine and extrovert-introvert (Jung, 1976). These pairs form the basis of many of the characteristics embodied in the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory, a commonly used personality test that quantifies the connections and balance between these characteristics.

The applicability of the individualism-collectivism framework to Jungs theory of personality falls into he assertion that personality is formed by a combination of conscious and unconscious factors. In this case, the influence of culture and its set characteristics of individualism or collectivism would be considered as one of the unconscious influences on personality that lead to the formation of personality. However, the outcomes of changes in personality due to changes in these cultural influences is not entirely clear. Jung acknowledged that personality was liable to change in adulthood; by admitting the potential for conscious control over personality, his theory stipulated that adult change in personality could occur (Jung, 1976). This is in contrast to theoreticians who hold that childhood is the only time in which personality can be developed. However, would a change in cultural context, such as a move from one culture to another, be counted as a conscious change or unconscious change? It is clear that most cultural context shifts are the result of conscious choices on the part of the adult individual; however, what is not clear is whether most individuals are conscious that the change in cultural context could result in changes in individual personality due to changes in the cultural expectations and norms to which they will be exposed.

The individualism-collectivism framework is more useful in describing cultural tendencies as a whole than describing individual characteristics and personality traits. However, this does not mean that the influence of the individualist or collectivist orientation of an individuals native or adopted culture can be completely ruled out in formation and influence of personality and changes in personality that occur in adulthood. Instead, it should be acknowledged that the interplay between culture and personality is more complicated than is commonly accepted. It is clear that personality may be affected even in adulthood by changes in cultural expectations, including the individualism-collectivism orientation; however, it is also clear that this is far from the only determining factor, which should be considered.


Ewen, R. B. (2003). An introduction to theories of personality. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum

Hofstede, G. H. (2001). Culture's consequences. Berkeley , CA: SAGE Publications.

Jung, C. J. (1976). The portable Jung. (J. Campbell, Ed.) New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Kim, U., & Hakkoe, H. Individualism and collectivism: Theory, method and applications. Berkeley, CA: SAGE Publications.

McCrae, R., & Allik, K. (2002). The five-factor model of perosnality across cultures. New York, NY: Springer.

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