Which Culture is Best for Your Family: Individualistic or Collectivistic?

Psychology textbooks will tell you that there are two types of cultures: Individualistic and collectivistic cultures. American culture is often criticized for being too individualistic: “You’re so selfish! All you care about is me, me, me!” And Asian cultures are often criticized for being too collectivistic: “Your parents moved with you to college? Talk about helicopter parenting! Sheesh!”

CULTURE ON A CONTINUUM

While we tend to focus on the negative extremes, I think it is important to note that culture doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to individualism and collectivism. Instead, I like to think about cultures existing along a continuum:

NO CULTURE

Let’s start with the extremes. If you took individualism to the extreme, you’d end up with no culture: groups are irrelevant, individuals are all that matter. Culture is defined as shared values, beliefs, and behaviors. Without groups, you wouldn’t share any of these with the people around you, and thus you wouldn’t have a culture at all.

This sounds terrible, but some people choose this. They view any amount of culture as too controlling, so they give it up altogether. Think about people who go completely off-grid, living as far from civilization as possible. To them, the benefits of such extremism outweigh the costs.

If life in the woods by yourself sounds like a dream come true, having a family will not bode well for you. Not only will you dislike the closeness of family life, but you will end up with a controlling family culture. 

Why? Because maintaining your extremist lifestyle will require you to isolate other family members from mainstream society. They will need to buy into your extremist lifestyle completely; otherwise, they will up and leave you behind. To prevent their leaving, you’ll need to rely on an arsenal of control tactics that are completely at odds with your love of freedom and independence (See “100+ Tactics Used to Control, Manipulate, and Verbally Abuse”). It won’t end well I’m afraid…

CONTROLLING CULTURE

At the other end of the continuum, we have a controlling culture. This results from extreme collectivism: groups are all that matters, individuals are inconsequential. It is culture on steroids. Conform to every group value, belief, and behavior, or get out!

In modern psychology, we often look at our instinct to conform as a completely bad thing. Just look at what happened in Nazi Germany. The instinct to conform and obey led to the mass killing of thousands of innocent people.

Yet, a controlling culture has its benefits in certain environments. Imagine you are part of a small tribe in a dangerous part of Africa. In such a scenario, conformity is a matter of life or death. If group members don’t work together in perfect harmony to protect their group, it could mean their complete annihilation. Perhaps this is why evolution equipped us with such a strong drive to conform1

What would it look like for a family to have a controlling culture? It would mean the parent’s and family's needs are all that matter. The childrens’ needs are irrelevant so long as they don’t impact the group. Such an approach might be necessary in a dangerous environment or an environment in which resources are scarce. For instance, if you are growing up on a farm during a drought, it would make sense to require even the youngest of children to work from sun up to sun down to ensure the family has enough food to survive.

But here’s the thing, we no longer live in a life-or-death type of environment, so a controlling culture is completely uncalled for in my opinion. In today’s world, if you try to raise your children in a bubble of control, there will come a day when they experience enough of the outside world to realize that life outside the bubble is going to allow them to meet more of their individual needs. They will break free, leaving you with no culture at all.

By this point, I think it should be clear that unless desperate times call for desperate measures, swinging between the two extremes of No Culture and Controlling Culture is not a wise choice for your family.

COLLECTIVISTIC VS. INDIVIDUALISTIC CULTURES

Now that we have a clear understanding of the two extremes of culture, let’s take a deeper look at the shades of gray between the two. 

In collectivistic cultures, the needs of the group are more important than the needs of the individual. Such cultures value obedience and conformity.

In individualistic cultures, the needs of the individual are more important than the needs of the group. Freedom and authenticity are the core values of such cultures.

To gain a feel for the pros and cons of each culture, let’s consider how well each culture might be able to meet the needs of group members:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs

Physiological Needs

Let’s start with the most basic of needs. In farming cultures, big groups of obedient workers means more food and shelter. Such an environment favors collectivistic cultures.

In our modern environment, there is somewhat of a divide. Lower-paying jobs favor conformity and obedience (i.e. factory worker, office employee, etc) while the highest-paying jobs favor authenticity and creativity (i.e. entrepreneur, CEO, etc).

It is no surprise then that there is a clear relationship between parenting styles and socioeconomic status. Lower-class parents tend to be more authoritarian, a parenting style that uses punishment to encourage conformity and obedience (collectivistic). Middle- and upper-class parents, however, tend to be more authoritative, a child-centered parenting style that respects a child’s needs and encourages authenticity (individualistic).2

Safety Needs

The military is a very collectivistic culture. Obedience, loyalty, and conformity are the name of the game. When it comes to keeping our country safe, this is a huge benefit. An obedient army is an effective army. Collectivistic cultures are a great option when protection from a dangerous out-group is needed.

However, you would never think of boot camp as a safe place to be for an individual. The military is notorious for using physical and emotional punishment to accomplish their goal of obedient, loyal soldiers. So, while a collectivistic group provides protection from the out-group, it often results in abuse from in-group members (i.e. getting spat on by your platoon leader).

If your family lives in a dangerous environment, a collectivistic culture may be justified in protecting group members. However, if you live in a relatively safe area (as do most of us who live in developed nations), a collectivistic culture may do more harm than good in terms of providing safety to family members.

Love and Esteem Needs

Increased group conformity can lead to a greater feeling of support and belonging for members that fit the values, beliefs, and behaviors of the group. For members that do not fit the mold, however, it may have the opposite effect. Depending on how collectivistic the group is, misfits may experience anything from loneliness and shame to complete ostracism.

In our diverse and ever-changing world, I think it is important for family members to feel like they belong, no matter what. Our children will likely change a lot across their lifespan and belong to a wide variety of groups. With how fast American Culture is changing, parents need to be prepared for a generation gap. If you expect your children to conform to your own cultural values and upbringing, your children will most likely end up not feeling like they belong to the family.

Self-Actualization

Self-actualization entails becoming the best version of yourself. This is what individualistic cultures are all about. Cultures that swing too far towards collectivism may make it difficult for group members to truly self-actualize.

FLEXIBLE CULTURE

I hope it is clear by now that both collectivistic and individualistic cultures have their pros and cons. You may find yourself leaning towards one or the other, but I would encourage you to appreciate the benefits of both. I personally think the best approach is to try and maximize the best of both worlds as you develop your family culture.

There is no perfect type of family culture. It all depends on the environment the family finds themselves in. A collectivistic family culture could be the better option if (1) the environment is dangerous, (2) the greater culture (i.e. national culture) requires conformity to avoid ostracism, and (3) the economy favors obedient workers. On the other hand, an individualistic family culture might work best if (1) the environment is relatively safe, (2) the greater culture values individuality, and (3) the economy favors ingenuity.

America is currently (1) a safe place to live for most, (2) has a larger culture that increasingly values individuality, and (3) economically rewards ingenuity. However, these factors are always in flux. American culture and family cultures have changed more over the last 100 years than the previous 1,000 years. With the constant production of new technologies, cultural change is progressing at a mind-blowing pace. It is important to have a family culture that is flexible enough to handle these changes. Additionally, different regions of America may lean more towards collectivism than others, so if you move to a new region, your family culture may need to adjust accordingly. 

I believe our current environment favors a family culture that relies mostly on individualism with some collectivistic elements. It should be malleable enough to adapt to changes over time and region. For this reason, I call it a flexible family culture. Here is how it compares to the other four types of culture I’ve covered in this article:

DEVELOPING A FLEXIBLE FAMILY CULTURE

If you are serious about developing a flexible family culture, here are 3 tips that should help:

1. Integrate and Participate in Local Culture

Yes, American culture has it’s issues, but that doesn’t mean you need to shelter your children from it. Attempting to do so would shift your family culture towards the control side of the cultural spectrum. Instead, simply integrate the neutral and positive aspects of American culture. 

For example, when major holidays come along, incorporate the best and most popular elements into your family’s celebration. During the month of October, we love going to pumpkin patches and corn mazes, carving pumpkins, participating in trick-or-treating, etc. 

Each of these traditions may not teach our kids something specific to our own family culture, but they are still great activities for family bonding. They also help our children understand the greater culture around them and give them a sense of belonging to the community.

2. Be Wary of Participation in Controlling Groups

If you are trying to develop a flexible family culture, it would be wise to be wary of family participation in extremely collectivistic/controlling groups (i.e. demanding religions, cults, exclusive clubs, governmental institutions, ancestral heritage, etc). Such groups may end up dictating your family’s values, beliefs, and behaviors in ways that make it difficult to distinguish your own family culture from the culture of the group. Your family culture will end up with more collectivism and less flexibility.

I recently watched this documentary which highlights the challenges a family faced as they left their Amish community. They ended up being completely cut off from their other family members due to the shunning required by the Amish church. It is absolutely heartbreaking.

Family membership should never be conditional on a family member’s participation in a certain group outside the family. Remember, you want each family member to feel accepted no matter how they change across their lifespan. If your family becomes divided along the lines of who belongs to the group and who doesn’t, this is a strong sign that the group is too controlling.

Your family culture should be primary and all other group cultures secondary. So, if participating in such a group is important to your family, you may want to simply limit how much time your family spends in it.

3. Be Open to Change

Change is synonymous with family life: A new baby is born/adopted, a child goes off to college, a marriage ends in divorce, the family moves to a new state, the parents become empty nesters, and on and on. As your family goes through such changes, it is important to be open to adjusting the culture of your family. 

For instance, let’s say a marriage ends in divorce. The family may need to emphasize values such as understanding, family, service, and acceptance more than ever. The parents will need to express beliefs and maintain/create traditions that support these values. For example, it may work to create a quarterly tradition in which both parents and the children get together and do something fun together. This could support the belief that although mom and dad are no longer living together, they are still united in supporting our family.

As you adjust your family culture to changing circumstances, be careful not to adjust it too much. The culture of your family can act like a sturdy foundation during times of change. When traditions are continued during transition periods, they remind family members that “yes, we are still a family.”

BE INTENTIONAL

No matter what balance between individualism and collectivism you end up with in your family culture, I’d encourage you to be intentional about it. Whether you like it or not, your family has a culture. It can develop by accident or on purpose. It’s your choice.

Action Item

Use my article “How to Build a Strong Family Culture: A Step-by-Step Guide” to slowly start developing your family culture. 


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  1. The Biological Bases of Conformity” by T. J. H. Morgan and K. N. Laland
  2. The Relationships Between Socioeconomic Status, Parenting Styles, and Motivation Orientation” by Kelly M. Fox and Lindsay Timmerman, Ph.D.