Individualism Increasing Across the World

The richer people become, the more eagerly they throw off the shackles of collectivism.



Good news fellow libertarians: We are winning!

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.

They also sought to identify what might be causing any changes along the individualism-collectivism spectrum. Consequently, they examined how socio-ecological changes such as socioeconomic development, disaster frequency, pathogen prevalence and climate affected trends in individualism.

Not too surprisingly, socioeconomic development had by far the strongest effect, accounting for between 35 and 58 percent of the change in individualism.

"Thirty-four (out of 41) countries showed a substantial rise in individualist practices," note the authors. "Thirty-seven (out of 52) countries showed a similar rise on a subset of markers assessing individualist values."

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.

Researchers find China is an outlier. This is a surprise, since socioeconomic development is driving the rise in individualism. After all, China's per capita GDP has increased nearly ten-fold over the past quarter century.

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.

The findings would suggest despite Xi's oppression, this dynamic of individualism will inevitably take hold in China.