Collectivism and Individualism: it’s not either/or it’s both

collectionFor anyone watching the second series of Big Little Lies starring Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon, amongst others, you will recall a scene in the third episode where an attentive group of children at Otter Bay Elementary School is sitting at the feet of their teacher on a typically beautiful sunny day, discussing the novel Charlotte’s web.

The teacher quickly dominates the conversation and adopts a rather unusual interpretation of the plot and central theme, whereby Charlotte’s clever rescue of Wilbur from the Farmer’s slaughterhouse is interpreted as an environmentally friendly act supporting sustainability. In essence, Charlotte is protecting the environment, as the processing of one pig in the overall food production process requires 5,000 gallons of water, which equates to 50 showers, which in turn (the children repeat in a synchronous mantra) is akin to having a long shower almost every day for 2 months. Any humour in the scene is quickly dispelled when one of the young girls in the classroom, Amabella, is rushed to hospital after experiencing an anxiety attack.

Beyond any satire the director was aiming at, the scene in Big Little Lies immediately brings to mind the anxiety of a generation of children and young adults that have had to come to terms with climate change and the possible threat of human extinction. Collectivistic values and individualism somehow appear to clash in a jolt of anxious chaos as children, parents, and teachers circle in a dizzy array of confused behaviour.  In the broader context, it seems understandable that anxieties and conflicts may emerge when individual needs, including the need to express our creative identities, clash with collectivist values focused on the common and greater good. These anxieties and conflicts seem all the more striking in the unfolding drama of Big Little Lies, with its beautiful backdrop of sandy beaches and the wonderful sunshine of Monterey, California.  And yet, the empirical question remains: what happens when powerful and significant collectivistic values come face-to-face with a strong culture of individualism?

Collectivism and individualism have never been comfortable bedfellows, but we might wonder why.  For instance, outside of the potential anxiety associated with discovering collective solutions supporting environmental sustainability, are negative outcomes for individuals to be expected when groups share a common collective focus on sustainability? Intuitively, the clash between collectivistic values and individualism seems to run deeper: for example, we might predict that, beyond individual anxiety, the rise of collectivist values will also have a negative effect on creative thinking in groups, particularly if everyone is anxiously prompted to ‘follow the crowd’ and adopt group norms that stifle individual expression while reinforcing conformity to particular ideas or ‘solutions’ that are promoted within the collective. Ultimately, as the scenario unfolds, we might anticipate a sustained negative effect of collectivist values on group problem solving, particularly in a context where societal and environmental conditions change, and where a culture of autonomous thinking is needed to generate a steady flow of fresh new ideas that help groups adapt to these changing conditions. If these intuitions are embraced and elaborated and reinforced by rogue individuals, establishing collective values may become increasingly difficult. A culture of anxiety and conflict may come to dominate in the push and pull between much needed collective values and the desire of individuals for autonomy. More generally, this culture of anxiety and conflict might exacerbate the natural discomfort a young person feels as they face the existential doubt linked to (a) the possible death of the collective in the loss of sustainable futures, and (b) the possible death of the self in the loss of their individual identity in the crowd.  Beyond all this discomfort and anxiety, a crises might arise for the philosophically oriented members of the group – the grim scenario the young person is presented with might begin to feel like an either/or decision, where the terrible choice lies between (a) fully embracing the collective and thus allowing for the loss of one’s individuality, or (b) fully embracing one’s own individuality and thus rejecting the lure of the collective.

However, there is a third option, which empirically-speaking could be the best option for everyone involved.  This is a scenario where science may inform a new, enlightened culture of group creativity where individualism and collectivism produce synergistic effects that maximize the problem-solving potential of groups as they seek to adapt to changing environmental conditions.  In particular, research suggests that groups may perform at their creative best when members embrace their own individual identity and when they value the group as a collective.  It’s not either/or, it’s both.

But how does this work in practice? A recent study reveals some of the dynamics at play. Choi and colleagues (2019) begin with an important observation: notwithstanding our somewhat fixed view of individualist and collectivist cultures, across nations, people are invariably socialized to develop belief systems containing both individualistic and collectivistic values.  As any child with an Irish Mammy will attest to, we are often cajoled into accepting different beliefs in different situations, even if we were a little confused at times throughout our childhood – our confusion facilitates a capacity for creative synergies. The persuasive communication capacities of parents, teachers, managers, and indeed any group member means that we can be primed in the selective or synergistic use of individualistic and collectivistic values, depending on the context: sometimes we prime a focus on the group, sometimes we prime a focus on the individual. Perhaps less often, we prime a focus on both – unless you have an Irish Mammy.  But what effect do these persuasive and selective acts of communication have on group creativity?

For a long time, the research focused on group creativity seemed a little mixed and confusing.  For instance, some studies reported that priming individualism, as compared to interdependence, enhanced creative ideation in brainstorming sessions (Goncalo and Staw, 2006) and it was broadly argued in the literature that collectivism has a negative effect on group creativity due to its emphasis on conformity and cohesion. However, other studies began to emerge which showed that when groups worked together toward a common goal (Taggar, 2002), and adopted more pro-social rather than a pro-self motivations (Bechtoldt, De Dreu, Nijstad, and Choi (2010), they tended to perform better and were more creative overall. One problem with the research, in general, was that it tended to view and measure individual and collective orientations as running along a single continuum –  as such, if you’re high on individualism, you’re low on collectivism, and vice versa. This approach to measurement would only serve to reinforce the perceived cultural divide, and add confusion to the research landscape.  In reality, you need to view people as more complex and multi-leveled than this: you need to specify and separately measure both group members’ value orientation to their group and their self-representation (Bechtoldt et al., 2012). Like everything else, this seems very obvious in retrospect, but models and measures need to lead the way before science produces any such discriminations.

To remedy the situation, Choi and colleagues (2018) developed a simple synergy model which helps to explain how priming individualism and collective values maximize group creativity. The model proposes the following synergist and inhibitory mechanisms: first, consistent with available research, it is proposed that an independent, as compared with an interdependent, self-view primes an autonomous mindset that manifests in differentiated thinking that supports creative ideation; second, this effect is augmented when group members adopt a collectivistic rather than an individualistic value orientation. In essence, the synergist effects are produced when group members value the group and the group effort but maintain an autonomous mindset. By contrast, when a collectivistic value orientation is combined with an interdependent self-representation, the concern for harmony and conformity are likely to inhibit group creativity. Similarly, when an individualistic value orientation dominates, any positive effects of independent self-representation and the associated autonomous thinking of members cannot be augmented at the group level, as members do not value the group and the group effort.  Here, a culture of competition inhibits the potential synergies.

So how might we facilitate or prime both a collectivist value orientation and independent self-representation in efforts to foster more creativity in groups? The study by Choi and colleagues (2019) involved a multi-level priming strategy. In their study, 216 Korean undergraduate students were randomly assembled into three-person groups, and groups were then randomly assigned to one of four conditions where they were primed with either an individualistic vs. collectivistic value orientation in one priming phase and with either an independent vs. interdependent self-representation in another priming phase.

Here’s how they did it. When participants entered the experimental laboratory, they were asked to complete a survey which, in reality, involved a priming procedure. In one part of the survey the statements students read either primed a collectivistic value orientation (e.g., “Sometimes one needs to sacrifice his or her self-interest for the benefit of the group”), or an individualistic value orientation (e.g., “In a competition it is only natural that people want to win”). In another part of the survey, participants were further primed with either an independent self-representation (i.e., they were asked to write a description of themselves, why they were different from most other people, and why it might be advantageous to maintain their uniqueness from other people); or they were primed with an interdependent self-representation (i.e., they were asked to write a description of the group to which they belong at the study, why they were like most other people, and why it might be advantageous to be similar to other people).

After completing the priming phase of the study, each of the 72 groups (i.e., 18 groups, each primed in one of four different ways in the 2 x 2 design) moved to the second phase of the study, which involved working together in a brainstorming session.  They were asked to develop advertisement slogans that could be used by their University marketing department to entice prospective students to study at the university. They were asked to generate as many slogans as possible, with one person in each group acting as a scribe recording all slogans generated in 15 minutes.

The research team analysed all slogans listed and measured (a) the fluency in the list (i.e., the total number of non-redundant slogans produced by the group), (b) the consensual originality (i.e., a rating of the degree to which slogans were different from the existing slogans used by the university), (c) the novelty of the slogans (i.e., the statistical rarity of each slogan computed by reference to the full conceptual range captured in a category analysis of all slogan generated across all groups), and (d) the degree of cognitive fixation in the group, which was assessed using an index of adjacency dissimilarity in the slogans listed on idea writing sheets (i.e., the slogan generated in serial position K is more or less conceptually equivalent to the slogan generated at serial position K – 1).  This final measure of adjacency dissimilarity is interesting as it captures something of the flow of ideas in the group; more specifically, the extent to which a group fixated on a preceding idea when generating their next idea.

Statistical analyses conducted across the 72 groups revealed some interesting effects. In particular, it was found that measures of flexibility, consensual originality, novelty, and adjacency dissimilarity were higher when group members combined a collectivistic value orientation with an independent self-representation rather than an interdependent self-representation. The authors labeled this synergistic effect ‘Collectivistic Independence’.  A related finding was that differences in self-representation (i.e., independent versus interdependent) had no effect on the creative output of groups when an individualistic value orientation was primed. This suggests that strongly individualistic cultures may limit their creative potential if they fail to draw a distinction between individual and group level representations, for example, if they mistakenly equate individualism with a competitive orientation in relation to others. Finally, a series of fascinating analyses revealed that the positive effect of collectivistic independence on originality (i.e., consensual originality and novelty scores) was mediated by lower cognitive fixation and higher flexibility.  In essence, priming collectivistic independence produced a characteristic idea flow marked by less similarity between adjacent ideas in the flow, and more non-redundant ideas overall, which in turn predicted the prevalence of more original ideas at the group level.

Overall, the study by Choi and colleagues suggests that belief systems often viewed as stable bedrocks of society may ebb and flow and combine in different ways to produce synergistic cultural influences that impact on group creativity. Cultural influences that may seem at odds or in conflict with one another may, in reality, produce positive synergistic effects. As Choi and colleagues note, this is important in the context of historical views on individualism and collectivism, as the potential positive effects of collectivistic values have been somewhat ignored in group creativity research. By setting up a conflict between collectivistic values and individual autonomy and creative expression, we might miss out on valuable opportunities to enhance group creativity and problem-solving ability.

Coming back to Amabella’s anxiety and the collective anxiety she provokes amongst parents and teachers as the drama of Big Little Lies unfolds, it is interesting to revisit the scenario that acted as a catalyst to Amabella’s anxiety attack. If you study the scene closely, you will recognize a common classroom pattern: specifically, the voice of the children is cut off by quite abruptly by the seemingly wise, albeit foolish, interpretation of Charlotte’s web in the teacher’s monologue.  Indeed, teacher talk tends to dominate classrooms and, as we have argued previously, a move away from monological (teacher-dominated) to dialogical (collaborative) classroom culture is needed if we hope to build sustainable futures grounded in a culture of collectivistic independence (Hogan et al., 2014, 2015).  Beyond simply priming the synergistic belief systems, groups need to practice talking to one another and working together using a variety of collaborative tools.  Like any other skillset, the skillset linked to effective collaboration takes time to cultivate.  We need to start early and let the voice of each new generation shine through.  Without this, anxiety and dread may be a natural response to our collective uncertainties.


Featured Paper:

Choi, H.-S., Seo, J.-G., Hyun, J., & Bechtoldt, M. (2019). Collectivistic Independence Promotes Group Creativity by Reducing Idea Fixation. Small Group Research, 50(3), 381–407.

Additional References:

Bechtoldt, M. N., Choi, H.-S., Nijstad, B. A. (2012). Individuals in mind, mates by heart: Individualistic self-construal and collective value orientation as predictors of group creativity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 838-844. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2012.02.014

Bechtoldt, M. N., De Dreu, C. K. W., Nijstad, B. A., Choi, H.-S. (2010). Motivated information processing, social tuning, and group creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99, 622-637. doi:10.1037/a0019386

Choi, H.-S., Cho, S.-J., Seo, J.-G., Bechtoldt, M. N. (2018). The joint impact of collectivistic value orientation and independent self-representation on group creativity. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21, 37-56. doi:10.1177/1368430216638539

Goncalo, J. A., Staw, B. M. (2006). Individualism-collectivism and group creativity. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 100, 96-109. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2005.11.003

Hogan, M. J., Harney O., & Broome, B. (2015). Catalyzing Collaborative Learning and Collective Action for Positive Social Change through Systems Science Education. In: Wegerif, R., Kaufman, J. Li L (eds). The Routledge Handbook of Research on Teaching Thinking. London: Routledge.

Hogan, M. J., Harney O., & Broome, B. (2014). Integrating Argument Mapping with Systems Thinking Tools – Advancing Applied Systems Science In: Okada, A., Buckingham Shum, S. & Sherborne, T (eds). Knowledge Cartography: Software Tools and Mapping Techniques. London: Springer.

Hogan, M. J., Dwyer, C., Harney, O., Noone, C. & Conway, R. (2014). Metacognitive Skill Development and Applied Systems Science: A Framework of Metacognitive Skills, Self-Regulatory Functions and Real-World Applications In: Peña-Ayala, A (eds). Metacognition: Fundaments, Applications, and Trends. International: Springer.