Fundamentally individualistic cultures value uniqueness and self-expression. They encourage people to be unique and differentiate themselves – or at least that’s the message. But… are they really like that?
We tend to think that those who live in collectivistic cultures – those that emphasize the importance of the group over the individual and value interdependence – are more likely to adapt to culturally acceptable forms of behavior than people who live in more individualistic countries, such as the United States.
In fact, we generally assume that following social norms is a central feature of life in collectivist countries, like China. However, there is a surprising exception to that rule: people who live in individualistic societies stick more closely to the emotional norms of their culture.
The emotional homogeneity of individualistic cultures
We live in society, so explicit and implicit rules always have an influence on us, even if we are unlikely to admit it. As the social psychologist Serge Moscivici said: “Individuals underestimate the influence that socialization can exert on their attitudes and behaviors, so this influence can be exerted implicitly and unconsciously.”
However, in the classic experiment carried out by Solomon Asch, it was observed that most people are willing to accept a clearly inappropriate answer in order not to antagonize the group. Social influence usually finds loopholes to break the will and sometimes even individual reason.
However, a study conducted at the Israel Institute of Technology revealed that, contrary to what we think, individualistic cultures put more pressure on their citizens to conform to emotional norms; That is, they establish with greater precision the types of emotions that are considered acceptable and desirable in society.
These researchers conducted four experiments to analyze the level of individualism and adherence to emotional norms in different cultures. In fact, they evaluated up to 60 different emotions and worked with almost 100,000 people from 48 countries, including children.
Although there were some discrepancies in the findings, the researchers did detect some consistent patterns. The main result was that there is more “emotional homogeneity” in individualistic cultures than in collectivist ones, both in adults and in children. That means that in individualistic countries the emotions of each person were more similar to those of their fellow citizens. In other words, there was less emotional granularity and more emotional compliance.
Why do people from individualistic countries show greater emotional compliance?
Emotional compliance is the degree to which people alter their emotions and their expression to adapt and fit the norms of another individual or group. Obviously, many of these rules act implicitly, guiding our affective states without our realizing it.
Although emotions are considered expressions of the “authentic self” in all cultures, those that have a more individualistic vision place more emphasis on that type of authenticity. Contradictorily, “The more weight is attributed to individual emotional experiences, the greater the pressure to conform to socially desirable emotions may be,” the researchers noted.
A highly individualistic country like the United States, for example, focuses heavily on individual experiences and places a high value on “happiness,” which could lead to more pressure to be happy than in more collectivist cultures. And we already know that the pressure to be happy often has the opposite effect: deep dissatisfaction and frustration.
Additionally, people in more individualistic cultures are more likely to express their emotions in everyday interactions, which could intensify the pressure to conform to social norms about how they should feel.
In fact, people who grow up in individualistic cultures have a greater need to see themselves positively, as demonstrated by a study conducted at the University of British Columbia, which found that “The need for positive self-esteem, such as it is currently conceptualized, it is not universal, but rather it is rooted in significant aspects of North American culture.”
One way to see ourselves in a more flattering light is to maintain positive social relationships, which makes people living in more individualistic cultures more susceptible to that kind of social pressure on emotions. In practice, if they want to be successful, socially accepted and validated, they need to fit into the emotional mold that society has built.
On the other hand, everything seems to indicate that collectivistic cultures leave their members more freedom to experience their emotional world, since they do not exert as much pressure on what they should feel, preferring to focus on more practical aspects that guarantee the daily functioning of society.
The main problem with the emotional compliance that is fostered in individualistic cultures is that it is easy to lose the touch with our inner world as we are forced to mask emotions that are not socially acceptable. Thus we end up wearing always a forced smile, we build a mask that reflects only what is socially acceptable, while we stop exploring those emotions that are rejected.
However, emotions that are not expressed can end up becoming entrenched, causing deep damage to our psychological balance and mental health. As Sigmund Freud wrote: “Repressed emotions never die, they are buried alive and they will come out in the worst way.”
In short, when it comes to behaviors, research shows that people from individualistic cultures are more unique and less likely to conform to social norms, but when it comes to emotions, the story is radically different.
Vishkin, A. et. Al (2022) Adherence to emotion norms is greater in individualist cultures than in collectivist cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 10.1037.
Heine, S. J. et. Al. (1999) Is there a universal need for positive self-regard? Psychological Review; 106(4), 766–794.