Collectivism vs. Individualism: Similarities and Differences

individualism and collectivism definitions, explained below

The difference between individualism and collectivism is that individualism prioritizes personal rights and freedoms, while collectivism prioritizes group harmony and coherence.

This difference can be felt across entire cultures and even the politics of a society. Whereas an individualist society might more highly value autonomy and free expression, it often also lacks social supports for people in need.

By contrast, collectivist cultures often prioritize the needs of the group, but individual expression and autonomy is suppressed (Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeier, 2002).

This article will highlight the definitions, similarities, and differences between these two socio-cultural orientations.

Collectivism vs Individualism

1. Individualism

Individualism is a cultural worldview and political ideology that emphasizes personal rights, freedoms, and individual achievement (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).

Individualistic societies value independence, personal autonomy, and self-expression. Individuals are encouraged to stand out, express their personal opinions, and pursue their personal goals (Potter, 2019). The roots of individualism can be found in enlightenment philosophy from characters like John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith.

From the individualistic perspective, the individual (i.e. the ‘self’) is perceived as an autonomous entity with natural rights and freedoms (Triandis, 2018).

Strengths of IndividualismWeaknesses of Individualism
Freedom and Autonomy: Individualism promotes personal freedom and autonomy, where individuals are encouraged to pursue their own path in life (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).Social Isolation: Individualism means that societies tend not to feel the need to look after one another to the same extent as collectivist cultures. This lead to social isolation for vulnerable and marginalized people (Triandis, 2018).
Innovation and Creativity: Individualistic societies tend to embrace and celebrate innovation and creativity. Independent thinking and a unique identity are encouraged (Oyserman et al., 2002).Inequality: Individualism celebrates success and wealth, but this can also lead to social and economic inequality as it embraces competition and self-interest over collective welfare (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).
Personal Growth and Self-Reliance: Personal achievements tend to be celebrated and encouraged. Individuals are lauded for their achievements and their successes are rewarded (Triandis, 2018).Lack of Support: In highly individualistic societies, there might be a lack of social support such as a social safety net, universal welfare system, etc. (Oyserman et al., 2002).
Direct Communication: Individualistic cultures tend to be low-context in communication styles, meaning they typically favor direct communication, which tends to be very efficient for productivity and problem-solving in workplace cultures (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).Potential for Conflict: The emphasis on personal rights and freedoms and less focus on conformity means interpersonal clashes are less taboo (Triandis, 2018).

2. Collectivism

Collectivism is a worldview that places high importance on the group or community as a whole. It tends to prioritize collective goals and responsibilities at the expense of individual rights and freedoms (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).

In collectivist societies, the group (often, the family) is very important. Individuals therefore tend to identify strongly with their in-group, such as family or tribe, and tend to value cooperation and social harmony over self-interest.

As a result, individuality and standing out from the crowd is often frowned upon.

From this worldview, the self is often conceptualized in relation to others rather than as an autonomous being (Triandis, 2018).

Strengths of CollectivismWeaknesses of Collectivism
Group Cohesion and Support: Collectivism has a strong focus on group bonds and mutual support among the group’s community members (Triandis, 2018).Suppression of Individuality: Unfortunately, collectivism tends to suppress expressions of individuality, where it’s often frowned upon or seen as abnormal (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).
Collective Welfare: Collective welfare is prioritized highly, and the individual is expected to have a responsibility to the group. This tends to reduce social and economic inequalities (Oyserman et al., 2002).Resistance to Change: Collectivist societies may be more resistant to change than individualistic societies because change is seen as having the potential to upend the balance of group harmony (Triandis, 2018).
Conflict Avoidance: Collectivist cultures tend to avoid conflict, instead choosing to prioritize the group’s harmony. This often leads to non-confrontational conflict resolution strategies and the use of implied disciplinary strategies such as social shaming (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).Groupthink: When a society highly values consensus, it can fall into groupthink, where people are expected to accept the dominant viewpoint uncritically (Oyserman et al., 2002).
Respect for Traditions: Collectivist cultures have strong respect for their elders and the traditions that have served them well for generations, providing a sense of continuity and predictability (Triandis, 2018).Pressure to Conform: People in these societies can feel intense pressure to conform, including from their parents, which potentially leads people to feeling lack of personal fulfillment in their lives (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).

Similarities Between Collectivism and Individualism

While individualism and collectivism are fundamentally philosophically different, both worldviews at their core concern themselves with upholding certain social norms and values (Oyserman et al., 2002).

For example, both perspectives uphold a sense of duty and responsibility, although this is directed somewhat differently. Collectivists uphold the idea that you have a responsibility to look after your community, while individualist uphold that you have responsibility to look after yourself.

Additionally, both individualism and collectivism can help to foster a strong sense of belonging to a culture or group, giving people the social connections that we desire as human beings (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).

Societal OrderIndividualism believes in social order, but advocates that it should be upon the individual to take care of themselves and follow the social rules.Collectivism advocates for social order as well, but does this by more overtly pressuring people into conforming to the group’s norms.
Duty and ResponsibilityIndividualists hold that we have a duty and responsibility to look after ourselves – we are responsible for our own lives and actions.Collectivism holds that we have a duty and responsibility as well, but it is to the group first and foremost, and our actions should always keep in mind the collective goals of the group over individual desires.
Sense of BelongingIndividuals are encouraged to stand out and express their uniqueness through their fashion and behaviors, while belonging to a society that values such uniqueness.Individuals are encouraged to find belonging through association with the group’s norms. By fitting in, you find belongingness.
Influence on BehaviorPersonal goals and desires motivate behavior.Group norms and values shape behavior.

Differences Between Collectivism and Individualism

There are certainly more differences than similarities between collectivism and individualism. The key area of contention centers on whether the individual or the group holds higher priority (Oyserman et al., 2002).

Whereas individualism values personal autonomy, freedom, and self-expression, collectivism endorses values directed at harmony, interdependence, and shared responsibilities (Cohen, Wu & Miller, 2016).

PriorityIndividualism prioritizes personal freedom as a core cultural and political virtue.Collectivism prioritizes conformity and acting in the best interests of group harmony as a high virtue.
Self-ConceptThe self is viewed as an independent entity with natural rights and freedoms.The self is seen as relational and always having to orient its thoughts toward the group context.
Decision-MakingPersonal goals tend to guide the individual’s decisions and interests, and this is encouraged by the group.A desire for group consensus and placating the needs and desires of the community most highly influences a person’s decisions.
Communication SyleLow context, meaning people are direct and blunt in what they say.High context, meaning people are often indirect and rely on contextual cues to communicate.
AchievementPersonal achievement is celebrated as a virtue and success.Group success is more important than the individual, and self-adulation is frowned upon.

Case Studies

Individualism in the United States

The United States is often cited as an epitome of individualistic culture (Potter, 2019).

This individualistic ethos emerged from the very early days of the nation, which was settled and built upon enlightenment principles and desire for freedom from tyranny. This is reflected in the country’s constitution, which heavily emphasizes personal freedoms and rights and the pursuit of (personal) happiness.

To a greater extent than most other democracies (that often have strong safety nets), American society encourages self-reliance and competition, often referred to by the term ‘rugged individualism’. Personal achievement is celebrated and encouraged, with wealthy people idolized (Takano, & Osaka, 2018).

The entrepreneurial spirit and the “American Dream” further embody the individualistic values, wherein there is a dominant cultural belief that anyone can succeed so long as they work hard enough to push through the barriers they face in their lives (Potter, 2019; Triandis, 2018).

While many of these values have underpinned America’s amazing success story, it’s also seen as a reason why American society has a great deal of social inequality.

See More Examples of Individualistic Societies Here

Collectivism in Japan

Japan represents a predominantly collectivist culture (Takano, & Osaka, 2018). Japanese society highly values group harmony, cooperation, and loyalty to the group.

These values are reflected in various aspects of Japanese culture, including its very strong work culture, where many people are put under a lot of pressure to work extremely hard so as not to shame their families, leading to burnout (Takano, & Osaka, 2018).

Additionally, Japan’s unique societal practice, such as “Wa” (harmony), underscores the significance of maintaining social harmony, often at the expense of individual preferences or desires.

Furthermore, the significance of in-group harmony is echoed in their very high context communication style, where criticism is subtle and indirect in order to sustain a veneer of politeness (Takano, & Osaka, 2018).

See More Examples of Collectivist Societies Here


While both individualism and collectivism aim to foster societal order and harmony, they diverge significantly in their emphasis on the individual versus the group. This divergent emphasis underlies the manifold socio-cultural differences observed across individualistic and collectivist societies, such as the United States and Japan, respectively. Understanding these concepts and their implications is integral to navigating our increasingly global and interconnected world.


Cohen, A. B., Wu, M. S., & Miller, J. (2016). Religion and culture: Individualism and collectivism in the East and West. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology47(9), 1236-1249.

Oyserman, D., Coon, H. M., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2002). Rethinking individualism and collectivism: Evaluation of theoretical assumptions and meta-analyses. Psychological Bulletin, 128(1), 3-72.

Potter, D. M. (2019). American individualism in the twentieth century. In American Social Character (pp. 159-179). Routledge.

Takano, Y., & Osaka, E. (2018). Comparing Japan and the United States on individualism/collectivism: A follow‐up review. Asian Journal of Social Psychology21(4), 301-316.

Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism & collectivism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Triandis, H. C. (2018). Individualism and collectivism. New York: Routledge.

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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