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Are We Collectivist at Heart?

Are We Collectivist at Heart?
In this week’s Brave New World we talk to Professor Catherine Caldwell-Harris of the University of Boston Psychological and Brain Sciences department about individualism and collectivism and the impact of each ‘mind-set’ on the development of society.

We start by asking the professor if it could be said that cultures are either individualist or collectivist: ‘Yes indeed, I think a consensus has emerged among social scientists and classical psychologists that culture is very important and that one key dimension is the dimension of individualism and collectivism.’

In terms of the specific traits of individualism and collectivism Professor Caldwell-Harris continued: ‘Cultures pick and choose characteristics… but in general individualists conceptualise themselves as fundamentally separate and different from other people, even close family members… individuals see themselves as having the right to make their own choices and achieve their own goals… The United States is quite extreme in individualism and has additional features such as non-conformity… authority figures are to be questioned, mocked or rebelled against.’

She explained that Collectivists often have the opposite traits:

‘Collectivists grow up seeing themselves as fundamentally connected to others. The most important thing is the family but it can be extended to neighbourhood, tribe and community and even nation-state. And the key thing here is there is not a conflict necessarily between the pursuit of one’s goals and those of the group. Collectivists feel pride and joy and fulfilment in achieving the group’s goals. Authority figures are to be respected but authority figures also may need to pay respect to and give to those who are being obedient to them.’

The professor then continued to explore the different approaches to care of the elderly and the rearing of children in those societies and she explained that in western countries now there is a dual problem – where do the elderly live and who looks after the grandchildren?

‘For millennia the pattern has been for the grandparents to look after the grandchildren. Individualism is not the norm for human beings… in hunter-gatherer groups what you see is people living very tightly together… individualism has had to do a lot of work to up-end the normal practices of collectivism. The one thing that individualists do is that they do child-rearing practices where infants are put in separate beds from their parents, even separate rooms… however, co-sleeping has been the norm for all of human evolutionary history… In hunter – gatherer cultures children sleep with family members up until age 9.’

What do you think? Are we Collectivist at heart?

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