Individualism is rising across the world, according to a forthcoming study in Psychological Science by a team of Canadian and American psychologists who evaluated 51 years of data on individualistic practices and values across 77 countries.
There is, however, one big exception to this salutary trend: China.
Researchers focused on shifts in measures like the cross-cultural Individualism-Collectivism scale in the countries they evaluated. Individualism promotes a view of self-direction and autonomy, whereas collectivism fosters conformity and adherence to social obligations. Individualistic cultures prioritize independence and uniqueness whereas collectivist cultures emphasize family and fitting in.
To get at how cultures have moved along the individualism-collectivism spectrum the researchers used data focusing on changes in individualistic cultural practices and also World Values Survey responses that track shifts in cultural values.
The relevant cultural practices included changes in household size, percentage of people living alone, older adults living alone, and divorce rates. The researchers also analyzed how values changed with regard to the importance of friends versus family; teaching children independence or obedience; and preferences for self-expression such as arguing that free speech should be protected in their countries.
So what’s causing this shift? After looking at “socioeconomic development, disaster frequency, pathogen prevalence and climate affected trends in individualism,” the researchers found that “socioeconomic development had by far the strongest effect, accounting for between 35 and 58 percent of the change in individualism…The shift toward greater individualism is not confined just to developed countries. Overall, they find a 12 percent global shift on the axis toward increased individualism. The richer people become, the more likely they are to throw off the shackles of collectivism.”
So how come China hasn’t kept up? “As a possible explanation, researchers cite a 2014 study that identified profound cultural differences between southern and northern Chinese. Specifically, the folks in rice-growing southern China are more interdependent and holistic-thinking than those who live in the more individualistic wheat-growing north. Of course, it doesn’t help that the Communist government under President Xi Jinping is forcefully suppressing dissent.”