Cultural dimensions

These class notes are for the learning objective: Examine the role of two cultural dimensions on behaviour. This set of notes focuses only on one cultural dimension - individualism vs. collectivism. If this question is asked as an SAQ, students will be asked to describe or explain one cultural dimension. In an essay, they may be asked to discuss or examine one or two dimensions. Since there is a lot of research throughout the course that is relevant to individualism vs. collectivism, that is the focus here. There are also notes available on this site for Power distance. These class-notes supplement the reading in IB Psychology: A Course Companion, pp 124 - 127.

To begin this topic, I have students work in small groups to try to write a definition of culture. We then try to work toward a class definition by having members of each group join a different group in order to rework the definition until each group comes up with something they think is workable. Then each group presents to the class, and we discuss what seems to be the best definition and put it on the board.

After looking at the definition of culture by Matsumoto and Jiang, we begin focusing on the research that is in the document. Students are encouraged to share their own reflections on the two dimensions.


Culture: A dynamic system of rules, explicit and implicit, share by a group and transmitted across generations, that allows the group to meet basic needs of survival, pursue happiness and well-being, and derive meaning from life (Matsumoto & Juang)

Cultural norms: These are the rules which indicate the expected behaviour in a group.

Dimensions of culture: The perspective of a culture based on values and cultural norms. Dimensions work on a continuum - for example, a culture is never 100% collectivistic or individualistic, but are different levels with a preference for one set of behaviours over another.

Ethnocentrism: The inability to empathize with another culture; to assume that one's own culture is the standard by which other cultures are assessed.

Research: Individualism vs collectivism

Before taking notes on the difference between individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures, watch this short video.

The concept of individualism vs. collectivism was first outlined by Geert Hofstede as a result of his IBM study. Between 1967 and 1973, he carried out a large survey study and compared the answers of 117,000 IBM employees from 40 different countries. He compared their responses to questions about work and the relationships within the workplace. His content analysis of the responses led him to propose four dimensions: individualism vs collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity/femininity. He later added a final dimension - long-term vs. short-term orientation.

The dimension of individualism vs collectivism has the following traits:

Obviously, not everyone in a culture has the same traits. However, cultural dimensions are a helpful "heuristic" for talking about culture - that is, it is a set of labels that allow us to speak generally about culture in order to make comparisons.

You should know two to three studies for this dimension. Here are three that are linked to other areas of the levels of analysis.

Berry (1967) This is the study that looked at the different rate of conformity in Inuits (an individualistic culture) and the Temne of Sierra Leon (collectivistic). You can read more about it in the notes on conformity.

Petrova, Cialdini & Sills (2007) found that there was a difference in the effect of foot-in-the-door compliance techniques; collectivistic cultures were less likely to comply than individualistic cultures. You can read more about it in the notes on compliance techniques.

Another difference is what is called modesty bias. This is the opposite of the self-serving bias. In modesty bias, individuals attribute their success to luck and their failures to dispositional traits. This is more common in collectivistic cultures. Bond, Leung & Wan (1982) looked for a possible explanation as to why this is true. It is argued that a person in Chinese society who makes self-effacing attributions for his performance should be better liked because his self-effacing attributions support cultural norms whose function is to maintain harmonious interpersonal relationships. To test this hypothesis, Chinese participants in the experiment watched two confederates trying to solve a rubrics cube. These confederates were either competent or incompetent and subsequently made either self-effacing or self-enhancing attributions for their performance. Participants then rated them on likability, competence, and anxiety. Results indicated that a self-effacing confederate was better liked but rated as less competent than a self-enhancing confederate. Though in the United States competent persons are better liked, such a finding was not replicated in Bond et al's study. The confederates who were successful in solving the Rubric's cube who attributed their success to luck were more liked by the Chinese participants than those that attributed their success to skill or intellect.

Of course, there are other studies that can be used that link to other parts of the curriculum. Some things to consider are:

  • There are differences in symptomology for disorders between individualistic and collectivistic cultures.
  • There are differences in bullying behaviour between individualistic and collectivistic cultures.
  • There are differences in helping behaviours between individualistic and collectivistic cultures.

Evaluation of cultural dimensions

  • Hoefstede & Hoefstede (2001) have cited over 400 correlations of the IBM dimension scores with other studies, claiming that the results obtained in the 1970’s are consistent with scores obtained 30 years later. However, Hoefstede’s study was originally meant to describe organizational cultures and not national cultures.
  • Inductive content analysis depends on the trends that are identified by the researcher. Researcher bias can play a significant role in which trends are noticed.
  • We have to avoid the ecological fallacy - that is, that we cannot attribute these characteristics to individuals, but use them to describe the general behaviour of the group. There is some concern that the dimensions are simply a stereotypical view of culture. Triandis argues that these labels may be more helpful at an individual level than at a cultural level (Triandis). Other psychologists argue that it is a good heuristic for describing cultures - at least it is the best that we have for now.
  • Much of the research is correlational and does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship.

Checking for understanding

1. What does it mean when we say that cultural dimensions are on a continuum?

This means that cultures are not collectivistic or individualistic, they are usually somewhere in between the two polar opposites. A culture is "more collectivistic" or "more individualistic." It is rare, but not unheard of, that a culture scores 100% on one of the dimensions. So, although the culture may have many of the characteristics of one side of the continuum or the other, they may also have characteristics of opposite trait as well.

2. How did Hofstede develop his theory? What is one concern about the methodology of this study?

Hofstede gave questionnaires and carried out interviews at branches of IBM around the world.  The questionnaires asked questions about how individuals responded to their work environment and interacting with their boss and colleagues.  There are a few concerns about this study. First, the results were the result of an inductive content analysis - in other words, the researchers were looking for trends in the responses.  This is rather subjective and could be open to confirmation bias.  Another limitation is that the focus of the questionnaires was on work related behaviour - which is not a full picture of how we live and interact with others within our culture.

3. The theory of dimensions has high heuristic validity? Explain this giving examples.

Heuristic validity means that there are several ways in which the theory can be applied.  Dimensions have been used to explain differences in levels of conformity, attribution errors, symptoms in abnormal behaviour and approaches to relationships.

4. One of the limitations of the theory is that researchers may commit the ecological fallacy.  What does this mean?

The dimensions describe trends in behaviour within a culture.  It does not predict the behaviour of an individual member of the culture.  The ecological fallacy is similar to stereotyping, making an assumption that because someone is American, for example, that he will be highly individualistic.

5. Why does modesty bias make sense when we look at the characteristics of collectivistic cultures?

Modesty bias makes sense because collectivistic cultures don't believe that individuals should be the center of attention; they would not broadcast their successes and would given credit to the effort of others.

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