The Most Powerful Variable in Psychological Science

A construct called individualism-collectivism has exceptional predictive power.

Posted Feb 18, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Suppose you are about to meet a person for the first time and want to predict that person’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a variety of settings over the next several years. What single piece of information would be most helpful to you in making your predictions? If you could know just one thing in advance about the person you are about to meet, what would you want to know?

For me, the answer is easy. I would want to know if the person grew up in an individualistic society or a collectivistic society. Knowing that one thing would likely be more useful than knowing the person’s gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, IQ score, religious affiliation, or standing on any specific personality trait.

I know this is a provocative claim, but I’ve been teaching and writing about psychological science for 40 years, so I feel comfortable making it.

Social scientists have filled dozens of volumes with what they’ve learned about the psychological correlates of individualism and collectivism. According to Google Scholar, more than 2,400 academic publications have both words in their title. The findings from these studies are illuminating.[1]

Here’s what tends to be more true, on average, of people who grow up in strongly individualistic societies like Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

  • They value autonomy, self-sufficiency, and being unique.
  • They see themselves as psychologically separate from others.
  • They put their own goals ahead of family and community goals.
  • They are more generous to strangers.
  • They are motivated to compete, win, and stand out from others.
  • They experience pride more often than they experience shame.
  • They possess an exceptionally high level of self-esteem.
  • They think logically and analytically, by focusing on parts and part-processes.
  • They are not especially adept at seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.
  • They often explain people’s actions in terms of internal factors like personality traits.
  • They believe intelligence is an innate ability that cannot be changed much over time.

Persons who have been reared in an individualistic society are likely to say things like:

“Winning this academic prize has made me the happiest person on campus.”

“My aging parents are here in Chicago, but I can’t pass up this new job opportunity in Los Angeles.”

“It’s a good time to buy stocks because the market has been trending up for the past six months and will probably keep going up.”

“I know my niece needs money for college tuition, but she and her parents have got to figure it out. It’s not my responsibility.”

“That politician changed his position on the issue because he’s weak and dishonest.”

“I didn’t score well on yesterday’s math test because I’m just no good at math.”

In sharp contrast, here’s what tends to be more true of people who grow up in strongly collectivistic societies like China, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Venezuela.

  • They value loyalty and social harmony.
  • They see themselves as psychologically interdependent with others in their group.
  • They put family and community goals ahead of their own goals.
  • They carefully consider the implications for others when making decisions.
  • They are motivated to cooperate, fit in, and not lose face.
  • They experience shame more often than they experience pride.
  • They possess a moderate level of self-esteem.
  • They think more dialectically and holistically by focusing on interrelatedness and context.
  • They are adept at taking the perspective of others.
  • They often explain people’s actions in terms of external factors like the situation.
  • They believe intelligence is not innate and can be increased over time through effort.

Persons who have been reared in a collectivistic society are likely to say things like:

“I won an Olympic medal because my coach is the best, and I have supportive teammates.”

“I would like to be a writer or artist, but I should major in business because that’s what my parents want and they’re paying my tuition.”

“I would not marry someone without my parents’ approval. I have to think about what the match would mean for my family.”

“It’s a good time to sell stocks because the market has been trending up for the past six months and will probably reverse direction soon.”

“That politician changed his position on the issue because he was pressured by the leaders of his party.”

“I didn’t score well on yesterday’s math test, so I will study more and work with a tutor.”

The individualism-collectivism variable is arguably the most powerful variable in psychological science.[2] To say a scientific variable is powerful means it has predictive power and explanatory power. Knowing a person has smoked heavily since the age of 12 is a powerful piece of information because it can be used to predict the likelihood that the person will eventually contract lung cancer or a respiratory disease like emphysema. The piece of information can also explain why the person developed those specific diseases and not others. Predictive power and explanatory power.

Let me end with an important caveat. Knowing if a person grew up in an individualistic or collectivistic society doesn’t allow me to predict the person’s future behavior with a high degree of accuracy. Far from it. Behavior is multiply determined, and the individual differences within groups are almost always larger than the differences between groups (White, 2021).

Anyone who tries to predict a person’s behavior on the basis of a single variable will often be wrong, but the same can be said of any single variable. The point of the thought experiment is to choose a variable that will be wrong less often than any other variable. In my opinion, knowing if someone grew up in an individualistic or collectivistic society is that variable.

[1] For more detailed discussions of the psychological correlates of individualism and collectivism, see the textbooks by Heine (2020) and White (2021).

[2] Some social scientists believe that individualism and collectivism are not end-points on a single continuum. They say I and C are separate variables that are not mutually exclusive. I think their point is a valid one, but I’m treating I-C as a single variable for the purposes of this essay.

References

Heine, S. J. (2020). Cultural Psychology. New York: W. W. Norton.