We instinctively experience situations as individuals or as part of a group. As David Brooks suggests today, the world is divided into those with an individualist or a collectivist mentality. Guess which group is larger.
Freedom to succeed. That powerful American dream attracts millions of people to the U.S. yet it is at odds with the way the Chinese and other Asians are primed to view life. Not that most people everywhere aren’t seeking a better life. It’s just that Americans view themselves in a situation. The lens through which Asians look at life is the situation, the context. Life, to them, is a series of relationships. (That doesn’t mean that one approach makes us more cooperative than the other.) Brooks offers this example, “If you show an American an image of a fish tank, the American will usually describe the biggest fish in the tank and what it is doing. If you ask a Chinese person to describe a fish tank, the Chinese will usually describe the context in which the fish swim.”
Here are some other takeaways from Brooks’ column:
• Individualistic countries tend to put rights and privacy first.
• People in individualistic cultures tend to overvalue their own skills and overestimate their own importance to any group effort.
• People in collective societies tend to value harmony and duty.
• They tend to underestimate their own skills and are more self-effacing when describing their contributions to group efforts.
• People who live in the densest social networks tend to flourish, while people who live with few social bonds are much more prone to depression and suicide.
• Individualistic societies have tended to do better economically. The rise of China may signal the beginning of a reversal of that trend.