Anthropologists Finally Explain Collectivism: It's Fear of Germs!*


You just gotta love anthropology. A new study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B argues that "Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variablity in individualism/collectivism."

Basically, what these anthropologists did was correlate the results of four previously published cross-cultural surveys that score various cultures as being more collectivist or more individualist with some pathogen prevalence indices. I don't have a link to the whole article but let me quote at length some of their findings below:

Disease-causing pathogens represent significant ecological hazards that must be managed or avoided all together. Selection pressures imposed by pathogens appear to have had an influence on the psychology and social behaviour of many species, including primates (Freeland 1976; Møller et al. 1993; Loehle 1995). Humans are no exception. Infectious diseases have been agents of morbidity and mortality throughout human history (Anderson & May 1991; Ewald 1994; Dobson & Carper 1996; Wolfe et al. 2007), and a growing body of empirical research indicates that people possess psychological mechanisms that serve the function of antipathogen defence. For instance, ethnocentrism, xenophobia and other specific forms of interpersonal prejudice appear to result, in part, from the operation of these mechanisms (e.g. Faulkner et al. 2004; Navarrete & Fessler 2006; Park et al. 2007).

As is the case with immune defence more generally (Zuk & Stoehr 2002; Hanssen et al. 2004), there are potential costs as well as benefits associated with psychological and behavioural antipathogen defences. One consequence is the activation of these mechanisms contingent upon cues indicating vulnerability to the transmission of pathogens. To the extent that individuals are more vulnerable (or perceive themselves to be more vulnerable) to the hazards posed by infectious diseases, those individuals show stronger evidence of cognitions and attitudes that serve an antipathogen defence function (Faulkner et al. 2004; Navarrete & Fessler 2006; Navarrete et al. 2007; Park et al. 2007; Schaller & Duncan 2007).

This sort of contingency may manifest not merely in differences between individual persons, but in differences between human cultures. To the extent that particular forms of social behaviour (and the specific psychological mechanisms underlying those behaviours) serve an antipathogen defence function, then those behaviours (and the underlying mechanisms) are more likely to characterize the cultural populations within which there has historically been greater prevalence of disease-causing pathogens. Prior research shows that worldwide variability in pathogen prevalence predicts specific kinds of cultural differences, including differences in food preparation (Sherman & Billing 1999), marriage structures (Low 1990), parenting practices (Quinlan 2007) and mate preferences (Gangestad et al. 2006). We focus here on the multifaceted value systems of individualism and collectivism, which are fundamental to social scientists' descriptions of culture and cross-cultural differences (e.g. Triandis 1995; Hofstede 2001). Indeed, it has been suggested that the individualism/collectivism dimension 'may ultimately prove to be the most important dimension for capturing cultural variation' (Heine 2008, p. 189). But it has remained largely a riddle as to why some cultures are more individualistic while others are more collectivistic. We suggest that collectivism (in contrast to individualism) serves an antipathogen defence function, and thus is more likely to emerge and persist within populations that historically have been characterized by a greater prevalence of pathogens.

The logical basis of this hypothesis is evident in at least two defining features of collectivistic (versus individualistic) value systems. First, collectivists make sharp distinctions between coalitional in-groups and out-groups, whereas among individualists the in-group/out-group distinction is typically weaker (Gelfand et al. 2004). A consequence is that collectivists are more wary of contact with foreigners and other out-group members (Sagiv & Schwartz 1995). This xenophobic attitude can serve an effective antipathogen function by inhibiting exposure to novel pathogens. A second, but no less critical, distinction between these cultural value systems lies in their different emphases on conformity versus the tolerance for deviance. Collectivism is characterized by a strong value placed on tradition and conformity, whereas individualism is characterized by a greater tolerance for (and encouragement of ) deviation from the status quo (Oishi et al. 1998; Cukur et al. 2004). Given that many specific traditions and norms (such as those pertaining to food preparation; e.g. Sherman & Billing 1999) can serve as buffers against pathogen transmission, deviance from the status quo may pose a contagion risk to self and others, whereas conformity helps to maintain the integrity of these ritualized buffers against disease. In sum, the behavioural manifestations of collectivism (compared with the behavioural manifestations of individualism) are more likely to provide defence against the dangers posed by pathogens.

Individualistic values may promote other kinds of functional benefits. For example, the discovery or spread of beneficial new technologies may occur more frequently when individuals are encouraged to deviate from existing traditions and engage in interactions with non-group members. In geographical regions characterized by relatively low pathogen stress, the benefits of collectivism (in terms of antipathogen defence) may be minimal, compared with the benefits associated with individualism. Under these ecological circumstances, individualistic values may be more adaptive. However, within geographical regions characterized by a greater prevalence of pathogens, the functional benefits of collectivism would also be greater, and may outweigh whatever benefits are conferred by individualistic tendencies. Under these circumstances, collectivistic values are likely to be more adaptive. It follows that worldwide variation in the historical prevalence of pathogens should predict contemporary cultural tendencies towards individualistic versus collectivistic values.

Which is what the researchers found. To wit:

…the regional prevalence of pathogens has a strong positive correlation with cultural indicators of collectivism and a strong negative correlation with individualism.

Also particularly charming was the anthropological description of "collectivism" was being ethnocentric, tradition-bound, conformist and xenophobic. Communism/socialism is always a reversion to tribalism.

*Irony alert–last time I tried what I thought was a puckish headline aimed at making fun of a new study, I got accused of all manner of cherrypicking, intellectual dishonesty and so forth.

Hat tip to Matt Hogan.

NEXT: Next in the Series: Car Owners Are Not Just Hit and Run Drivers and Get-Away Men

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Where can I get a vaccination against collectivist bacteria?

    Are you setting up a sideline, Ron?

  2. No way I’m going to RTFA, but I am curious as to which cultures were termed individualistic and which were collectivist.

  3. So now that we have modern medical science; and the fruit of that medical science can be trqansported anywhere (at least in theory), can people just come to their senses and become individualists?

    It is no longer necessary for people to conform to rigid collective norms in order to avoid such risks.

  4. * “trqansported” = transported

  5. thanks Ronald; this is definitely the most interesting thing I’ve read all week. I wonder how effective it really is, though; Native Americans suffered some of the lowest rates of communicable disease anywhere before the arrival of Europeans due to a lack of domesticated animals and low population densities, yet from what I know Native American communities, both small groups and large empires, were described by European conquerors as quite collectivist. And large cities, which historically were the biggest disease traps anywhere, also tend to foster individualism.

  6. Those reason fundies and their skepticism of hard sciences. Don’t they know that anthropolgy has been proven, darn it!

  7. To be clear, the authors aren’t saying that collectivism is a disease; they’re saying that universal human nature is such that individuals born into high pathogen areas will be prone toward collectivist political orientations. It’s like saying that people born into high sunlight areas will have darker skin. Now in that case we know how the mechanism of tanning works and why; and I think the anthropologists here would admit they don’t know exactly how this link between collectivism and pathogen exposure works.

    I am highly unconvinced that “collectivism” and “individualism” are the most important cultural variables. And for those who haven’ come across this stuff before, “collectivism” almost invariably means “Japan” and “individualistic” means the “US.” Parts of Europe are seen as more collectivist as well. Left unconnected to this variable are such cultural gems as rates of promiscuity (very different in say Saudi Arabi and Sweden which would both be “collectivist”), rates of violence, average life expectancy, etc.

    Anyway, Randy Thornhill is an author on the paper and this is clearly not his best work. Still, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that pathogen exposure effects behavior mechanisms. Death by pathogens is probably the single strongest selection pressure on any mammalian species. It’s believed to be responsible for the origin of sexual reproduction, most of our standards of attractiveness (mate selection) and a fair portion of homicide rates – via future discounting that is set by life expectancy (see Daly & Wilson).

  8. Especially amusing as Ayn Rand was a mysophobe.

  9. “Also particularly charming was the anthropological description of “collectivism” was being ethnocentric, tradition-bound, conformist and xenophobic. Communism/socialism is always a reversion to tribalism.”

    Really? Sounds like this America’s right wing to me…

  10. I think a distinction should be drawn between “voluntary” collectivism like Japan, and “involuntary” collectivism like the for Soviet Union.

  11. I give five points for the use of the word “puckish”.

    One of my favorite words.


  12. rich,

    Really? Sounds like this America’s right wing to me…

    Okay, and? Are you saying that America’s right wing isnt collectivist?

  13. I fund the article interesting, of course I study psy (with a focus on evo psy) at KU, so I am a bit biased.

    The ecological/evo prospective is slowly becoming more and more popular is psychology. It takes a lot of heat from both the left and right for various reasons, and it is not even that well liked in the psy department here. However, like any of the other social sciences, if it supported by empirical evidence than it becomes harder to deny its validity.

    I also think it is worth noting a difference between forced and voluntary collectivism. I also think it is important to note the difference between a collectivist culture and political system. While they may go hand in hand, they do not have to. For example, I could imagine a relatively individualistic government (libertarian in nature) and still have a collectivist culture. A person in such a society would be free to do what they like as long they do not interfere with the rights of others, but at the same time choose to value (and differ to) family (which is a trait of collectivist cultures).

    Any thoughts? I very well could be full of shit on this last point, but it is just a thought.

  14. I meant to type (and deffer to). my bad

  15. or defer, what the fuck ever. 🙂

  16. I don’t think cities are necessarily more individualistic, Jorgen. Socialism and its forms have always started there, haven’t they?

  17. I got accused of all manner of cherrypicking, intellectual dishonesty and so forth.

    Doesn’t this happen to all of Ronald Bailey’s posts?

  18. I mean, his name is joe, right?

  19. I think a distinction should be drawn between “voluntary” collectivism like Japan, and “involuntary” collectivism like the for Soviet Union.


    I’m not sure exactly how collectivist we’d consider Japan to be compared to say, Sweden (grrrr), but I’d argue that voluntary collectivism comes close to being oxymoronic. Because somewhere in the great mass of happy workers, there will always be someone who’s personal idea of happiness differs from that of the “collective”. Which is why they probably phrased it “the PURSUIT of happiness” rather than just “happiness” itself in that old document we so often refer to, being that “happiness” is difficult to define for many people with so many different concepts of it.

  20. Wait, so Howard Hughes was a collectivist?

  21. I got accused of all manner of cherrypicking, intellectual dishonesty and so forth.

    Doesn’t this happen to all of Ronald Bailey’s posts?


    Ron doesn’t always cherrypick in an intellectually dishonest way.


  22. COOTIES!!!!

    Thats why I always wear a couple of condoms while on the innertubes (and gives me a little extra “heft” as well), not to mention not shaking hands – I don’t know where their fingers have BEEN!

  23. Isnt the link between collectivism and pathogen burden BACKWARDS. If the collectivist mindset leads to (a) closer physical proximity to others and (b) less genetic variation, then it would follow that there would be a greater pathogen burden expected.

  24. Jeebus, Bailey.

    You must be the anti-war, anti-Bush Glenn Reynolds.

    And you a science editor?


  25. i good theory however there could be so many other factors maybe more individualistic societys are better at counteracting pathogen with modern technology or any other anomoly. how is supposed that this theorised cultural reaction to diesease come about?

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.