Chinese culture is wedded to a broadly “Confucian” view. This view was old long before Confucius; he states clearly that he was merely trying to conserve it. In this view, people are units in hierarchic, nested systems: nuclear families within extended families, these within clans and lineages, these within states. People are supposed to defer to superiors, but superiors owe protection, help and respect to those below them in the system. Individualism is praised, not discouraged, but it is in the service of the group. (It may not be American-style individualism, but it is individualism nonetheless; see Brindley 2010.) Thus far most Chinese would agree, but, as we have seen, the variations are infinite.
The differences between individualist Americans and collectivist East Asians shows up, unsurprisingly, in brain scans; people react differently, Americans seeing items out of context and people out of social groups, East Asians seeing the context and the group (Azar 2010b).
One may wonder, however, if such broad characterizations are deeply useful. The “individualistic” world is all of west Europe and North America; the “collectivist” world is pretty much all the rest, especially Asia from India to Japan. Is it really very useful to talk about so broad a category? Possibly, if only to hold individualist westerners up to a mirror. But, for instance, even the most broad-brush generalizers admit that “Hispanics and Asians, both engaging in interdependent models, could not have been more different with respect to their emotions” (Mesquita and Leu 2007:752). The Hispanics, for instance, were happier and more positive than Anglo-Americans, while Asians were less happy and positive than the Anglos.
One is caught between the Scylla of westernizing everyone—seeing everyone as “economic man,” rational and isolated—and the rampant Orientalism (Said 1978) of seeing “the East” as mindlessly conformist and tradition-bound while “the West” is rational and enlightened. Both east and west have many-stranded, complex traditional systems that reveal both individualistic and collectivistic strains, and, moreover, rampant modernization has swept away much of tradition in both areas. On balance, the conventional view is correct, but it cannot be taken as an open-and-shut matter.
In a reversal of the usual stereotypes about who studies whom, a Japanese and Turkish team studied Anglo-Americans, English, and North Germans, finding the Americans notably more independent on most measures than the other two. In fact, the Germans were on some measures more collectivist than Japanese (Kitayama et al. 2009). In a further search of the literature, Kitayama’s group found many qualifications and exceptions—tests and measures that showed that East Asians could be independent and westerners hypersocial (Kitayama et al. 2007; Kitayama et al. 2009). The Japanese of Hokkaido, for instance, are quite individualistic (Kitayama et al. 2007:159). Like America, Hokkaido was a hard-scrabble frontier within recent times. Sailors like the Chinese fisherfolk of Hong Kong also tend to be individualistic (Anderson 2007).
The difference between Americans and Chinese is strongest if one contrasts working-class Americans with old-time middle-class Chinese. It is least pronounced if one compares suburban midwestern Americans (relatively collectivist as Americans go) with relatively individualist Chinese, such as modern young people or my fisherfolk friends.
In another study of West by East, a Korean anthropologist, Junehui Ahn (2010), provided an excellent and thorough ethnographic study of an American nursery school. It exemplified the collectivist and conformist American middle class very well. Ahn describes in meticulous detail the constant pressure to be “nice,” friendly, cooperative, sociable, and mannerly. Disruptive children were socialized in a fairly direct if gentle way, just as Asian children are. The key difference is that the American children were treated as independent agents who had their own emotions and made their own decisions, whereas in East Asia children are considered to be much less independent and wilful creatures by nature. Training them in sociability is more a natural process of treating them as parts of society in the first place, rather than treating them as independent agents who must be persuaded to be nice (as in the American school). Ahn uses this to argue that Americans are sociable, like Koreans, but fails to realize how new this sort of treatment of children is. When I was in kindergarten, we were raised and treated as competitive individuals, and were an anarchic lot.
The classic contrast between East and West stands up better when people are unhappy. Claire Ashton-Jones et al. (2009) found that negative affect leads to more social conformity—specifically in this exact area—while positive affect makes people more nonconformist; westerners are prone to get more sociable, East Asians more individualistic, and so on. Of course alcohol notoriously has a similar effect. This provides a whole new slant on culture and personality.
It also stands up better when people are thinking about it. Self-stereotyping is real. Daphna Oyserman and her coworkers have carried out several studies showing that keying people to think “collective” or “individual” is what matters, and suspect that culture is based on situated cognition; basically, it acts to key people to particular dispositions (Markus and Hamedani 2007, esp. p. 26; Oyserman et al. 2009 and references therein; see also Ariely 2009). This is too limited a view of culture, but it is accurate as far as it goes. Alter and Kwan (2009) even found that Euro-Americans keyed to Asian culture, by being shown yin-yang symbols and the like, acted more groupy—more like what they thought Asians were like.
Another interesting and related feature was brought out in a companion article (Lie et al. 2009): East Asians are much more aware of history and long time frames than Americans. Chinese (in China) and Euro-Canadians (in Canada) were asked to comment on various recent events. The Chinese all put them in long-term historical context, the Canadians saw them in terms of the here-and-now. The difference was quite striking, and seems to be part of the “social vs individualist” pattern. One awaits a study keying the Euro-Canadians with yin-yang symbols to see if it makes them more history-conscious.
All these matters have major implications for psychotherapy, as many of the cited authors point out. An excellent recent review by Paul Pederson (2010) suggests using Chinese ideas (among others) to inform therapy; we could certainly use a much better sense of collective welfare, social benefit, and human connectedness in our American psychotherapies. Pederson rather cautiously proposes more in the line of culturally appropriate therapies—each cultural group gets an appropriate therapy—but it is clear that he thinks many lessons from the east could very well go west (as well as vice versa). He quotes some excellent advice on how not to over-westernize therapeutic practice. However, he also quotes some Orientalist statements so extreme as to be positively embarrassing. From one source, for instance, comes the claim: “In eastern traditions of scholarship, what is valued most is not truth. In broad outline, the pursuit of objective knowledge is subordinate to the quest for spiritual interconnectedness” (Pederson 2010:843, quoting a Chinese source). With all due respects, this is a ridiculous quote. Edward Said is no doubt turning in his grave at the thought of it.
I have spoken above of the striking familiarity of the emotions in world literature. China’s great novel, The Story of the Stone (Cao and Gao 1973-1986), is probably the most thorough dissection of human emotions in all literature. Every emotion in it is instantly and totally recognizable to any sensitive reader. (Especially if the reader has a considerable spiritual side. The novel does not neglect religious and spiritual emotions in its comprehensive coverage.)
The extreme collectivism of the Chinese world comes through, but that collectivism is at a more social and cognitive level. It does not diminish the individualism, individual sensitivities, and constant conflicts of the characters. The difference between its world and the world of modern American life is in the daily reality: a Chinese household had (and usually still has) many people living together, such that being alone is rare, privacy in the American sense does not exist, and people have to accommodate their behavior and language to the certainty that they will be observed and monitored by all sorts of others with all sorts of agendas. This means that collectivist strategies must be devised and invoked, whatever the emotions are People learn to cope with this, and to preserve normal and human emotional lives. Many of the social rules for doing so have been described (see Anderson 1972, 2007). Basically, Chinese are as individual and individualist as anyone else, but they have had to learn to defer to the common good, almost all the time. They learn from birth that their needs and will are real and important, but have to be subject to needs and wills of everyone else in the house and neighborhood. From simple politeness to giving up personal desires to real self-sacrifice, they always have to take others into account.
The individualism of Anglo-Americans is certainly real enough. It is also of great antiquity. It was clearly evident in early Celtic and Anglo-Saxon society, which stressed individuals in battle and other heroic situations. Caesar commented on it, and correctly spotted it as the fatal flaw in Celtic fighting. He could match his disciplined legions against more numerous and hardier, but incorrigibly individualist, fighters. The legions would always win. Somewhat later, it is clear in epics such as The Tain or Beowulf, as in much literature since. Just as Chinese collectivism comes (wholly or at least in large part) from coresidence in large families, western individualism comes from a world of isolated farms and frequently isolated individuals.
Western individualism received support from reading the Prophets in the Bible. They stood out as upholders of divine truth, often against strong opposition from the power structure of the time. This has served as a model for European dissidents, from the Middle Ages until today.
However, the extreme conformity and the power of tradition in Britain and America cannot be denied (see above, in connection with Fromm and Riesman on social conformity). Foodways in England and the midwestern United States, for instance, are incredibly conservative and resistant to change—in dramatic contrast to those of China.
Even individualism can be conformist. Readers who remember the Sixties (in spite of the old joke “if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there”) will recall countless sardonic and all too accurate comments on the faddism and imitativeness of the “sixties rebels.” Less aged readers will be used to the endlessly repeated, threadbare, never-varying slogans and arguments of the “libertarians” and “rugged individualists.” No one is more conformist than a person who talks up individualism. (Those Celtic fighters didn’t talk about it—they just did it.)
So, just as Chinese are much more individualist than they talk, Americans are much less individualist than they talk. The Chinese behave more collectively because they need to. Americans genuinely do behave more individualistically, but largely beause they need to or at least can get away with it. The differences are real, but not far—on either side—from a human average: the individual who is highly socialized and reacts in response to society, but is thoroughly conscious of being an individual nonetheless. (Paul Sillitoe  gives an exhaustive account of controversies around this point in From Land to Mouth.)
American individualism and self-reliance (Bellah et al. 1996; Warner 1953) takes many forms. The liberal position tolerates government help but militantly defends freedom of speech. Conservatives prefer a form that eliminates government help—individuals are “free” to stand or fall—but they typically idealize loyalty and tolerate varying degrees of censorship, and even torture and extrajudicial detention. American conservatives—at least traditional ones—value loyalty, authority, and religious purity or puritanism as well as fairness and utilitarian caring (Graham et al. 2009). Religious right-wingers often argue for extreme freedom in many aspects of behavior, such as business or gun ownership, but expect the government to enforce rigid dogma and conformity in matters of religion and sexuality. Liberals hold the opposite views.
Particularly important are the exceptions deemed necessary within canonical subcultural models of how to govern. Liberals value fairness and avoidance of harm, but often give short shrift to authority, purity, and even loyalty (as every college administrator knows far too well). Each group recognizes that there is an exception here, but sees it as necessary and basic for the wider ideal of liberty. Debates on the matter can be heard from the halls of academe to rural bars. Probably every American understands “freedom” and “self-reliance” somewhat differently from every other American (Lakoff 2006).
The results have worldwide impact, given the importance of the United States on the world scene. The survival of peasants in Darfur and slum-dwellers in Mumbai may depend on the shifting currents of liberal, moderate, or conservative interpretations of America’s distinctive value.
However, this is only the beginning of what has become a very confusing situation. Libertarians have a very marked subculture with its own institutes and magazines. They vote conservative but have a liberal values system (Graham et al. 2009). Social conservatives (especially the so-called “fundamentalists” of various religions) may value only authority and purity. The striking difference in sexual attitudes between religious extremists and religious moderates is a worldwide phenomenon that has never been explained and is consequently grounds for incredible myth-making in the popular media.
In my lifetime, the defining beliefs of “liberals” and “conservatives” have changed fairly sharply. Conservatives used to oppose big government; today they still claim to, but the size and expense of government and the federal deficit all enormously increased under Reagan and both Bushes, while Carter and Clinton balanced the budget. Conservatives used to conserve—the Democrats were the party of big development, the Republicans were more environmentalist. This has reversed. Conservatives used to be more broadly favorable toward population control and even abortion than most liberals. A consistent thinker would have had to shift parties several times in my lifetime. It seems that media stereotypes define “conservative” and “liberal” positions, and have little consistency over the decades.
Rampant individualism, conformist collectivism, communal mutual aid, selective individualism, and many mixtures all go back to prehuman times. Individualism and collectivism developed through religious communalism, frontier experiences, organization for war or peace, and the needs of growing societies. They eventually fed into the countless forms of democracy, socialism, and welfare-statism. Another possibility, fascism, stems from normal human hierarchy; developed through what the Greeks labeled as tyranny, and then through the autocracies of the 17th century (see Perry Anderson’s great work, 1974). It remains with us.
In short, culture does affect personality, but it affects more the ways we talk about personality.
Personality and Culture
Let us consider, then, the opposite question, raised by Kimberly Hedrick (email of April 27, 2007): how do differences in personality affect individual understandings of cultural models and rules? Religious dogma means one thing to an extremely open person, something quite different to a closed-minded one. Religious rules such as avoiding pork or always kneeling in church are taken very differently by a conscientious person than by one low on that scale. A religious leader who happens to be open and conscientious may have a very different effect on society from one who is rigid and irresponsible.
American regional cultures vary in personality. British psychologist Jason Rentfrow found in a large-scale study (using the Big Five factors described above) that people of the northeastern United States are somewhat higher in neuroticism and openness than the American average, but lower in agreeableness; Midwesterners and Southerners were more extraverted, conscientious and agreeable; the Great Plains was also an extraverted land (Holden 2008). These differences are exaggerated in regional stereotypes. Southern hospitality, Midwestern soberness, and Northeastern tension are not just imaginary. However, the agreeable South is the home of the Ku Klux Klan and religious bigotry of all kinds, and of the exaggerated “honor” code that makes it necessary to defend one’s honor by violence in all challenge situations (Baumeister 2005). The (slightly) “neurotic” and “disagreeable” Northeast is the home of most of the socially conscious endeavors in American history, from universal public education to rehabilitation for the mentally ill. I suppose a southerner would say “well, they need it.” But in fact it may be truer that the South needs the niceness. As Dov Cohen (2007) points out (citing Elizabeth Colson for the !Kung of Africa, among other sources) people with a high rate of violence have to be as nice as possible to each other to prevent things turning ugly.
The violent South introduces another point: not only Southerners and many Mediterranean groups, but many low-status groups, especially poor and marginal groups, resort to violence to preserve their “honor.” The rich may (or may not) have too much to lose to be confrontational, but the poor are resentful of their low situation, envious of the powerful, and often contentious among themselves (Henry 2009). Worldwide, violence tracks marginal status, especially in societies that are rather stagnant economically and socially. This is true of the South, and indeed violence reduces as the South develops. It is more true of the Middle East, where extreme violence characterizes the marginal, displaced, and downtrodden groups.
The relationship of culture, personality, and situation in the case of “honor” has been studied by two prominent cultural psychologists, Angela Leung and Dov Cohen (2011). They compared Anglo-American northerners (that would be “Yankees” to some of us), Anglo-American southerners, Asian-Americans, and Latinos—all citizens of the United States and more or less Americanized culturally. The Yankees were thought to represent a “dignity” culture, where individuals have human dignity as a birthright and cannot lose it.
They take “dignity” cultures to be typically rather egalitarian and peaceable, with good order. Southerners and Latinos have somewhat different forms of an “honor” culture, in which honor is normal to humans but can be lost through failure to defend oneself, one’s loved ones, and one’s social standing. They note the anthropological point that honor cultures nest in areas with long traditions of local independence and high violence, outside the control of the state. The Asian-Americans were thought to represent a “face” culture-type, in which social standing depends heavily on appearances and on conformity to proper behavior. “Face” cultures are thought to be hierarchical and based on personal regulation of behavior before superiors. (I partly disagree; I find that face nests more naturally in cultures where crowding is extreme and privacy nonexistent. It seems more an adaptation to that than to hierarchy. Most hierarchic cultures seem more “honor”-driven, even when peaceable.) They recognize that these cultural labels are Weberian “ideal types” (2011:511), not to be taken as anything more than that—but they do find effects.
Leung and Cohen created a number of situations in which basic cultural theories of human dignity, honor, and face would lead to different behaviors, and found that, indeed, the predicted different behaviors occurred. Individuals within the groups varied in how much this was true. For one example, some of the Yankees rejected the idea of basic human dignity, and cheated in experimental situations in which the dignity-concerned Yankees never dreamed of doing such a thing. This led the investigators to a “culture-personality-situation” model, in which culture gives fundamental rules of the game, individual stable personality orientation determines how much one will play by those rules, and situations determine which rules actually apply. As they put it: “The effect of culture is huge; it is just that people are not passive recipients of their culture, and so the effects are not uniform” (Leung and Cohen 2011:523).
So culture may not affect basic personality much, but it does affect the behaviors that express that personality. Conversely, personality does affect the internal representations of culture. Japanese culture as seen by the mystical Buddhist poet Ryōkan (1996) is far different from Japanese culture as seen by Osaka businessmen, who strongly reminded Robert Bellah of Max Weber’s descriptions of Protestants (Bellah 1957). Highly emotion-charged behavior can break either way: it is so individual, and so dependent on personality, that cultures everywhere seek to regulate it particularly strongly. Hence, grief rituals at funerals, ritualized joy at weddings, and strict rules for fighting are imposed everywhere—with varying results.
In any cultural group, one finds a continuum, with psychopaths at one tail, saints at the other, and the good-but-imperfect in the middle. Cultures vary too, and cover the same range of possibilities. The Waorani of South America, and the Hatfields and McCoys of the Appalachians, almost exterminated themselves by feuding and general violence. The Semai of Malaysia have no aggression and live without violence or apparent anger. (On these extremes, see Robarchek 1989; Robarchek and Robarchek 1997.) Thus, culture and economy can push the bell curve toward the psychopath end or toward the saintly one. The resulting curves can be so different that even the most violent Semai is much more irenic than even the most peaceable traditional Waorani.
As Jilek (1981) and others have shown, the worst impact of culture clash is felt by people from small-scale, egalitarian cultures. They never had to learn to deal with prejudice and oppression by vast, faceless societies, and when they are exposed to the full force of those evils, alcoholism and despair often set in. At the other extreme are religious minorities in complex civilizations. They cope better, in direct proportion to how much their religion gives them a sense of strength, importance, and meaning. They have had to learn to deal with vicious hatred while somehow preserving self-respect and independence. In such groups, community life is active, and people are involved in many complex personal relationships. The Jews and Parsis are examples. Among other things, they often learn to be good arguers; they have to defend their minority views against a rejecting majority.
“Agency” is a deceptively simple term for a concept that is actually enormously complex. (Kockelman 2007 provides a fine Peircean analysis of the term.) Individual agency may lead one to follow faithfully one’s cultural rules, to follow them in a certain way, to follow them at some times and not others, or to reject them out of hand. Agency can make one think one thing and do another, or to be extraverted in one situation (say, an office party) and introverted in another (such as the dentist’s waiting room). Agency and its translation into practice is bound to confound any simplistic claims for the overriding importance of culture, or even of basic personality. All of us are somewhat free agents, and can rationally or irrationally decide to do it all differently.