What Are Individualistic Cultures?

Individualistic culture prizes independence
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Individualistic cultures are those that stress the needs of the individual over the needs of the group as a whole. In this type of culture, people are seen as independent and autonomous. Social behavior tends to be dictated by the attitudes and preferences of individuals. Cultures in North America and Western Europe tend to be individualistic.

A few common characteristics of individualistic cultures include:

  • Individual rights take center stage
  • Independence is highly valued
  • Being dependent upon others is often considered shameful or embarrassing
  • People tend to be self-reliant

In individualistic cultures, people are considered "good" if they are strong, self-reliant, assertive, and independent. This contrasts with collectivistic cultures where characteristics like being self-sacrificing, dependable, generous, and helpful to others are of greater importance.

A few countries that are considered individualistic cultures include the United States, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, and Australia.

How Do Individualistic Cultures Differ From Collectivistic Cultures?

Individualist cultures are frequently compared and contrasted with the more collectivist cultures. Where collectivism stresses the important of the group and social cooperation, individualism prizes uniqueness, independence, and self-sufficiency. Where people in collectivist cultures might be more likely to turn to family and friends for support during difficult times, those living in more individualist cultures are more likely to go it alone.

This tendency to focus on personal identity and autonomy is a pervasive part of a culture that can have a profound influence on how a society functions. For example, workers in an individualist culture are more likely to value their own well-being over the good of the group. Contrast this with a collectivist culture where people might sacrifice their own comfort for the greater good of everyone else.

Such differences can influence nearly every aspect of behavior ranging from the career a person choose, the products they buy, and the social issues that they care about.

How Do Individualistic Cultures Influence Behavior?

The effect that culture has on individual behavior is a major topic of interest in the field of cross-cultural psychology. Cross-cultural psychologists study how difference cultural factors influence individual behavior. They often focus on things that are universal among different cultures of the world, as well as differences among societies.

One interesting phenomenon that cross-cultural psychologists have observed is how people from individualist cultures describe themselves compared to how those from collectivist cultures describe themselves. People from individualist society have self-concepts that are more focused on independence rather than interdependence. As a result, they tend to describe themselves in terms of their unique personal characteristics and traits.

A person from this type of culture might say that "I am analytical, sarcastic, and athletic." This can be contrasted with self-descriptions from people living in collectivist societies, who would be more likely to say something like, "I am a good husband and loyal friend."

Just how much do these self-descriptions vary depending upon culture? Research conducted by Ma and Schoenemann found that while 60 percent of Kenyans (a collectivist culture) described themselves in terms of their roles within groups while 48 percent of Americans (an individualist culture) used personal characteristics to describe themselves.

More Psychology Definitions: The Psychology Dictionary


Kim, H.S., & Markus, H.R. (1999). Deviance or uniqueness, harmony or conformity? A cultural analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 785-800.

Ma, V., &  Schoeneman, T.J. (1997). Individualism versus collectivism:  A comparison of Kenyan and American self-concepts. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 19, 261-273.

Markus, H.R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and the self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation. Psychological Review, 98(2), 224-253.

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