Sapolsky on Cultures: Collectivist vs Individualistic

Sapolsky on Cultures: Collectivist vs Individualistic March 31, 2019

I am presently getting an awful lot of having read the behemoth that is Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst [UK]. There is a lot to chew on here. I have selected a lengthy excerpt to whet your appetite concerning cultures, both collectivist and individualistic. See what you think (from Chapter 9, I believe).

So the classical definition of culture isn’t specific to humans. – Most cultural anthropologists weren’t thrilled with Goodall’s revolution—great, next the zoologists will report that Rafiki persuaded Simba to become the Lion King— and now often emphasize definitions of culture that cut chimps and other hoi polloi out of the party. There’s a fondness for the thinking of Alfred Kroeber, Clyde Kluckhohn, and Clifford Geertz, three heavyweight social anthropologists who focused on how culture is about ideas and symbols, rather than the mere behaviors in which they instantiate, or material products like flint blades or iPhones. Contemporary anthropologists like Richard Shweder have emphasized a more affective but still human-centric view of culture as being about moral and visceral versions of right and wrong. And of course these views have been critiqued by postmodernists for reasons I can’t begin to follow.

Basically, I don’t want to go anywhere near these debates. For our purposes we’ll rely on an intuitive definition of culture that has been emphasized by Frans de Waal: “culture” is how we do and think about things, transmitted by nongenetic means.

Working with that broad definition, is the most striking thing about the array of human cultures the similarities or the differences? Depends on your taste.

If the similarities seem most interesting, there are plenty—after all, multiple groups of humans independently invented agriculture, writing, pottery, embalming, astronomy, and coinage. At the extreme of similarities are human universals, and numerous scholars have proposed lists of them. One of the lengthiest and most cited comes from the anthropologist Donald Brown.- Here’s a partial list of his proposed cultural universals: the existence of and concern with aesthetics, magic, males and females seen as having different natures, baby talk, gods, induction of altered states, marriage, body adornment, murder, prohibition of some type of murder, kinship terms, numbers, cooking, private sex, names, dance, play, distinctions between right and wrong, nepotism, prohibitions on certain types of sex, empathy, reciprocity, rituals, concepts of fairness, myths about afterlife, music, color terms, prohibitions, gossip, binary sex terms, in-group favoritism, language, humor, lying, symbolism, the linguistic concept of “and,” tools, trade, and toilet training. And that’s a partial list.

For the purposes of this chapter, the staggeringly large cultural differences in how life is experienced, in resources and privileges available, in opportunities and trajectories, are most interesting. Just to start with some breathtaking demographic statistics born of cultural differences: a girl born in Monaco has a ninety-three-year life expectancy; one in Angola, thirty-nine. Latvia has 99.9 percent literacy; Niger, 19 percent. More than 10 percent of children in Afghanistan die in their first year, about 0.2 percent in Iceland. Per-capita GDP is $137,000 in Qatar, $609 in the Central African Republic. A woman in South Sudan is roughly a thousand times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in Estonia. 2

The experience of violence also varies enormously by culture. Someone in Honduras is 450 times more likely to be murdered than someone in Singapore.

65 percent of women experience intimate-partner violence in Central Africa, 16 percent in East Asia. A South African woman is more than one hundred times more likely to be raped than one in Japan. Be a school kid in Romania, Bulgaria, or Ukraine, and you’re about ten times more likely to be chronically bullied than a kid in Sweden, Iceland, or Denmark (stay tuned for a closer look at this).—

Of course, there are the well-known gender-related cultural differences.

There are the Scandinavian countries approaching total gender equality and Rwanda, with 63 percent of its lower-house parliamentary seats filled by women, compared with Saudi Arabia, where women are not allowed outside the house unless accompanied by a male guardian, and Yemen, Qatar, and Tonga, with 0 percent female legislators (and with the United States running around 20 percent).—

Then there’s the Philippines, where 93 percent of people say they feel happy and loved, versus 29 percent of Armenians. In economic games, people in Greece and Oman are more likely to spend resources to punish overly generous players than to punish those who are cheaters, whereas among Australians such “antisocial punishment” is nonexistent. And there are wildly different criteria for prosocial behavior. In a study of employees throughout the world working for the same multinational bank, what was the most important reason cited to help someone? Among Americans it was that the person had previously helped them; for Chinese it was that the person was higher ranking; in Spain, that they were a friend or acquaintance.—

Your life will be unrecognizably different, depending on which culture the stork deposited you into. In wading through this variability, there are some pertinent patterns, contrasts, and dichotomies.


As introduced in chapter 7, a large percentage of cross-cultural psychology studies compare collectivist with individualist cultures. This almost always means comparisons between subjects from collectivist East Asian cultures and Americans, coming from that mother of all individualist cultures.* As defined, collectivist cultures are about harmony, interdependence, conformity, and having the needs of the group guiding behavior, whereas individualist cultures are about autonomy, personal achievement, uniqueness, and the needs and rights of the individual. Just to be a wee bit caustic, individualist culture can be summarized by that classic American concept of “looking out for number one”; collectivist culture can be summarized by the archetypical experience of American Peace Corps teachers in such countries— pose your students a math question, and no one will volunteer the correct answer because they don’t want to stand out and shame their classmates.

Individualist/collectivist contrasts are striking. In individualist cultures, people more frequently seek uniqueness and personal accomplishment, use first- person singular pronouns more often, define themselves in terms that are personal (“I’m a contractor”) rather than relational (“I’m a parent”), attribute their successes to intrinsic attributes (“I’m really good at X”) rather than to situational ones (“I was in the right place at the right time”). The past is more likely to be remembered via events (“That’s the summer I learned to swim”) rather than social interactions (“That’s the summer we became friends”). Motivation and satisfaction are gained from self- rather than group-derived effort (reflecting the extent to which American individualism is about noncooperation, rather than nonconformity). Competitive drive is about getting ahead of everyone else. When asked to draw a “sociogram”—a diagram of their social network, with circles representing themselves and their friends, connected by lines—Americans tend to place the circle representing themselves in the middle of the page and make it the largest.—

In contrast, those from collectivist cultures show more social comprehension; some reports suggest that they are better at Theory of Mind tasks, more accurate in understanding someone else’s perspective—with “perspective” ranging from the other person’s abstract thoughts to how objects appear from where she is sitting. There is more blame of the group when someone violates a norm due to peer pressure, and a greater tendency to give situational explanations for behavior. Competitive drive is about not falling behind everyone else. And when drawing sociograms, the circle representing “yourself” is far from the center, and far from the biggest.

Naturally, these cultural differences have biological correlates. For example, subjects from individualist cultures strongly activate the (emotional) mPFC when looking at a picture of themselves, compared to looking at a picture of a relative or friend; in contrast, the activation is far less for East Asian subjects.* Another example is a favorite demonstration of mine of cross-cultural differences in psychological stress—when asked in free recall, Americans are more likely than East Asians to remember times in which they influenced someone; conversely, East Asians are more likely to remember times when someone influenced them. Force Americans to talk at length about a time someone influenced them, or force East Asians to detail their influencing someone, and both secrete glucocorticoids from the stressfulness of having to recount this discomfiting event. And work by my Stanford colleagues and friends Jeanne Tsai and Brian Knutson shows that mesolimbic dopamine systems activate in European Americans when looking at excited facial expressions; in Chinese, when looking at calm expressions.

As we will see in chapter 13, these cultural differences produce different moral systems. In the most traditional of collectivist societies, conformity and morality are virtually synonymous and norm enforcement is more about shame (“What will people think if I did that?”) than guilt (“How could I live with myself?”). Collectivist cultures foster more utilitarian and consequentialist moral stances (for example, a greater willingness for an innocent person to be jailed in order to prevent a riot). The tremendous collectivist emphasis on the group produces a greater degree of in-group bias than among individualist culture members. In one study, for example, Korean and European American subjects observed pictures of either in- or out-group members in pain. All subjects reported more subjective empathy and showed more activation of Theory of Mind brain regions (i.e., the temporoparietal junction) when observing in-group members, but the bias was significantly greater among Korean subjects. In addition, subjects from both individualist and collectivist cultures denigrate out¬ group members, but only the former inflate assessments of their own group. In other words, East Asians, unlike Americans, don’t have to puff up their own group to view others as inferior. –

What is fascinating is the direction that some of these differences take, as shown in approaches pioneered by one of the giants in this field, Richard Nisbett of the University of Michigan. Westerners problem-solve in a more linear fashion, with more reliance on linguistic rather than spatial coding. When asked to explain the movement of a ball, East Asians are more likely to invoke relational explanations built around the interactions of the ball with its environment—friction—while Westerners focus on intrinsic properties like weight and density. Westerners are more accurate at estimating length in absolute terms (“How long is that line?”) while East Asians are better with relational estimates (“How much longer is this line than that?”). Or how’s this one: Consider a monkey, a bear, and a banana. Which two go together? Westerners think categorically and choose the monkey and bear—they’re both animals. East Asians think relationally and link the monkey and banana—if you’re thinking of a monkey, also think of food it will need.—

Remarkably, the cultural differences extend to sensory processing, where Westerners process information in a more focused manner, East Asians in a more holistic one.— Show a picture of a person standing in the middle of a complex scene; East Asians will be more accurate at remembering the scene, the context, while Westerners remember the person in the middle. Remarkably, this is even observed on the level of eye tracking—typically Westerners’ eyes first look at a picture’s center, while East Asians scan the overall scene. Moreover, force Westerners to focus on the holistic context of a picture, or East Asians on the central subject, and the frontal cortex works harder, activating more.

As covered in chapter 7, cultural values are first inculcated early in life. So it’s no surprise that culture shapes our attitudes about success, morality, happiness, love, and so on. But what is startling to me is how these cultural differences also shape where your eyes focus on a picture or how you think about monkeys and bananas or the physics of a ball’s trajectory. Culture’s impact is enormous.

Naturally, there are various caveats concerning collectivist/individualist comparisons:

• The most obvious is the perpetual “on the average”—there are plenty of Westerners, for example, who are more collectivist than plenty of East Asians. In general, people who are most individualist by various personality measures are most individualist in neuroimaging studies. –

• Cultures change over time. For example, levels of conformity in East Asian cultures are declining (one study, for example, shows increased rates of babies in Japan receiving unique names). Moreover, one’s degree of inculcation into one’s culture can be altered rapidly. For example, priming someone beforehand with individualist or collectivist cultural cues shifts how holistically he processes a picture. This is especially true for bicultural individuals.-

• We will soon see about some genetic differences between collectivist and individualist populations. There is nothing resembling genetic destiny about this—the best evidence for this conclusion comes from one of the control groups in many of these studies, namely East Asian Americans. In general, it takes about a generation for the descendants of East Asian immigrants to America to be as individualist as European Americans.-

• Obviously, “East Asians” and “Westerners” are not monolithic entities. Just ask someone from Beijing versus the Tibetan steppes. Or stick three people from Berkeley, Brooklyn, and Biloxi in a stalled elevator for a few hours and see what happens. As we will see, there is striking variation within cultures.

Why should people in one part of the globe have developed collectivist cultures, while others went individualist? The United States is the individualism poster child for at least two reasons. First there’s immigration. Currently, 12 percent of Americans are immigrants, another 12 percent are (like me) children of immigrants, and everyone else except for the 0.9 percent pure Native Americans descend from people who emigrated within the last five hundred years.— And who were the immigrants? Those in the settled world who were cranks, malcontents, restless, heretical, black sheep, hyperactive, hypomanic, misanthropic, itchy, unconventional, yearning to be free, yearning to be rich, yearning to be out of their damn boring repressive little hamlet, yearning. Couple that with the second reason—for the majority of its colonial and independent history, America has had a moving frontier luring those whose extreme prickly optimism made merely booking passage to the New World insufficiently novel— and you’ve got America the individualistic.

Why has East Asia provided textbook examples of collectivism?— The key is how culture is shaped by the way people traditionally made a living, which in turn is shaped by ecology. And in East Asia it’s all about rice. Rice, which was domesticated there roughly ten thousand years ago, requires massive amounts of communal work. Not just backbreaking planting and harvesting, which are done in rotation because the entire village is needed to harvest each family’s rice.* Collective labor is first needed to transform the ecosystem—terracing mountains and building and maintaining irrigation systems for controlled flooding of paddies. And there’s the issue of dividing up water fairly—in Bali, religious authority regulates water access, symbolized by iconic water temples. How’s this for amazing—the Dujiuangyan irrigation system irrigates more than five thousand square kilometers of rice farms near Changdu, China, and it is more than two thousand years old. The roots of collectivism, like those of rice, run deep in East Asia.*

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