“I’m the Decider.” Decision-Making & Coping Strategies in Individualist vs. Collectivist Cultures

Do you make good decisions?

Do you feel you do…and do you actually?

This study in the International Journal of Psychology strove to uncover whether individualist or collectivist cultures were more confident in their decision-making.

It also examined various cultures’ decision-making styles and coping strategies.

Here’s what the study found.

The Subjects

Researchers recruited students from three individualistic Western countries (USA, Australia, and New Zealand) and three collectivist Eastern Asian cultures (Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) to participate in their experiment.

The purpose of the study was to measure participants’ confidence in their decision-making abilities and the coping patterns they employ.

The Statements

Participants were handed a questionnaire that would unveil the way they view their own decision-making. 

Rating themselves from 0 to 12, the questionnaire prompted with thought-provoking statements like:

  • I think I am a good decision maker
  • I like to consider all of the alternatives
  • I avoid making decisions
  • Even after I have made a decision, I delay acting upon it

This self-reflection and self-reporting led to some exciting finds.

The Coping Strategies

The coping strategies identified by the study included:

  • Vigilance – a careful decision-making style, where every alternative is thoroughly considered. 
  • Buck-passing – dodging decisions and shifting responsibility to someone else. 
  • Procrastination – delaying action even after a decision has been made. 
  • Hypervigilance – a panic-induced decision-making style that makes you feel like time is about to explode.

The Results 

The students from the individualistic Western countries displayed confidence in their decision-making abilities, while their collectivist Eastern Asian counterparts scored higher in buck-passing, avoiding decisions, and hypervigilance.

But what was surprising about this study was that, despite these cultural differences, all six countries showed similar ratings. 

Across all countries, all participants who had higher decision-making self-esteem were more likely to adopt adaptive coping patterns like vigilance. 

On the flip side, those who doubted their decision-making abilities were prone to fall into the abyss of maladaptive coping strategies – buck-passing, avoidance, and hypervigilance.

Potential Flaws in the Study

Some things to keep in mind about the potential flaws in this study are that decision-making strategies depend on the situation.

You might make impulsive decisions in some cases and vigilant ones in others. 

The study did not account for the varied approaches to decision-making according to different scenarios.

Moreover, the difference in cultural values may impact the self-reporting. 

For instance, in many Asian cultures, boasting about oneself or decision-making prowess isn’t the norm. This could have influenced the participants’ responses, leading to hidden biases.

Lastly, self-reporting on decision-making is, of course, subjective and may not align with actual behavior. To get to the bottom of that, researchers would have to observe the participants’ decision-making in action. 

Regardless of the approach, this study uncovers the dynamic relationship between culture, self-esteem, and coping strategies.

The bottom line is decision-making is complex – influenced by context, societal expectations, and our true behavior in the face of tough choices.

“Employee of the Month”: Self-Realization & Individualist Cultures

What is the “American Dream”?

The Commission on National Goals had the answer for President Eisenhower.

They reported that the primary motivator of American citizens was the possibility of individual self-realization.

What does this mean?

Pull Yourself Up By Your Own Bootstraps

The American Dream doesn’t often include the economic success and overall wellness of one’s neighbor or third cousin.

It’s a dream of one’s own economic success.

In individualist societies – like that of the United States, western Europe, and other Western countries – a person often identifies with themselves above all others and looks to satisfy his own needs before those of the group.

He also sees his path as one of self-determination. “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” so to speak.

Self-reliance, personal freedom, and independence are the values glorified by individualist societies.

The individual is the smallest unit of survival.

Employee of the Month

This is why, at an American company, “employee of the month” is a successful incentive for productivity and improved performance in work culture.

The strong individualist culture means that employees will seek any way in which they can stand out from the pack in a positive light.

When your name and photo are posted on a bulletin board of achievement in the company lobby, recognition is your reward, and it fuels individualist motivation.

As a Swiss manager in the US, I appreciated the effectiveness of this reward system. So, I attempted to bring it back to Switzerland with me.

When I implemented “employee of the month” at the Swiss company I was managing, it fell flat. In fact, not only was it not a motivator, the reward system was met with immediate and breathtaking negativity on the staff’s part.

“This is ‘typical American,’” they said, adding that Swiss workplaces traditionally don’t single out individual successes, as they see success as a result of teamwork.

Although “employee of the month” type of recognition is frowned upon by Swiss companies, they are not so collectivist as to dissuade pay-for-performance or achievement-based promotion, also distinctions. The difference is, these are in-group and colleague-approved.

Collectivist Thought

On the other hand, a collectivist culture, which centers around group betterment, rather than individual development and freedom, would not even humor the idea of “employee of the month.”

An international survey asked managers from Egypt, China, Japan, and the US whether they agreed with the following statement:

“When individuals are continuously taking care of their fellow human beings, the quality of life will improve for everyone, even if it obstructs individual freedom and individual development.”

Who agreed?

  • 70% of Egyptian managers
  • 59% of Chinese managers
  • 61% of Japanese managers
  • 31% of US managers

We’ll talk more about that difference in mentality next week.

10 Cultural Universals: The Role of Family in Culture

We’ve talked about geography and language and their relationship with culture over the past couple weeks.

Family is the third universal in our ten-part series.

Whether you’re from a culture which is centered around a nuclear family or one that embraces an extended family model, the family unit is an integral part of your cultural and your personal development.

This is why family dynamics are a common focus of cultural studies. From family member roles to labor division to rites of passage, culture begins at home and the family is its core.

Collectivist vs. Individualist

While there are obviously many family structures across cultures, let’s focus this discussion on two main distinctions: collectivist and individualist cultures.

One of the main ways in which these groups differ is in their family dynamics. Individuality is obviously stressed in individualist cultures, while interdependence and conformity are valued by collectivist cultures. And these dynamics are prevail within the family.

As Marcia Carteret, M. Ed., writes in “Cultural Differences in Family Dynamics”:

“Individualistic cultures stress self-reliance, decision-making based on individual needs, and the right to a private life. In collectivist cultures absolute loyalty is expected to one’s immediate and extended family/tribe.”

In other words, collectivist cultures put the needs of the family/group (the collective) before individual needs.

Nuclear vs. Extended

In examining the prevalence of nuclear and extended families in developing and developed countries, the un.org writes:

“The presence of two adult members per household in developed countries is an indication of the predominance of the nuclear type of family; on the other hand, the presence of more than two or three adult members in a household in developing countries indicates prevalence of an extended type of family or of a nuclear family with adult children present.”

The nuclear family is composed of parents and their children. This model is commonly followed by Western cultures and developed countries. Children are often raised to become independent and move out on their own when they reach adulthood.

The extended family model is often found in collectivist cultures and developing countries in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, as well as in Hispanic and American Indian cultures. In this model, the extended family – including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – are an intimate part of the familial network.

Whereas individualist cultures prize privacy and independence, with the nuclear family living separately from the extended family, collectivist cultures often share the household across generations. In a multi-generational household, you might find three or more generations cohabitating. Grandparents might live with their adult children and grandchildren.

In some of these households, the eldest son brings his new wife to live with his parents at home. The daughter-in-law submits to the mother-in-law.

“Relatives” unrelated by blood may even play a significant role in the family, with tribal leaders being consultive beings in American Indian families and godparents serving this role in Hispanic families.

Next week, we’ll talk more extensively about familial roles and rites of passage across cultures.