Are Individualistic Societies Worse At Responding To Pandemics?

Are Individualistic Societies Worse At Responding To Pandemics?
aelitta/Shutterstock
 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently suggested that coronavirus infections are higher in the UK than Germany or Italy because Britons love freedom more, and find it harder to adhere to control measures.

Unsurprisingly, this view has attracted a lot of criticism. Some have argued that Germany and Italy love freedom just as much as the UK . Others suggest the difference is down to the quality of these countries’ test and trace systems.

There’s no hard evidence to prove Boris Johnson wrong, but across the Atlantic, economist Paul Krugman has suggested something similar. The US’s poor pandemic response, he says, is down to politicians and policy failing to get people to act responsibly. Loving freedom is, in his eyes, the excuse for “America’s cult of selfishness”.

While we can’t 100% pinpoint the reasons behind the high case numbers in Britain and America, it’s interesting to see the UK prime minister and a Nobel laureate making similar arguments. Just how plausible are their claims?

The power of individualism

“Loving freedom” is hard to measure, but it’s related to the concept of individualism. This cultural trait emphasises personal freedom and standing out, and celebrates individual success. Its opposite is collectivism, which accentuates the embeddedness of individuals in a group and stresses the need to support and learn from the social environment.

The foundational work on individualism was done by the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede. He developed a framework to compare different cultures along six dimensions. These are: how individualist or collectivist a society is, how indulgent it is, what its attitudes towards power and change are, how it deals with uncertainty, and how masculine or feminine its values are.

Within this framework, individualism versus collectivism has turned out to be the most robust and persistent contrast between different cultures. However, on Hofstede’s scale, present-day Germany and Italy are both individualist societies, even if the UK and US top the scale. Johnson’s view of Italy and Germany seems to be stuck in the 1930s.

The roots of these cultural values can be linked to historic patterns of disease intensity across societies. In areas where the threat of infectious disease was higher, such as the tropics, societies developed to be more collectivist to counter those threats. Low levels of interaction with strangers, which characterise collectivist societies, served as an important defence against infection. In contrast, individualistic societies had more diverse social networks and less reliance on stable patterns of social interaction, making contagion more likely.

Importantly, these cultural traits still have real-world impacts today. They don’t just shape social norms, but also drive economic behaviour, for example. Research shows having a more individualistic culture leads to more innovation and growth, because such societies attach higher social status to innovators.

But there are also drawbacks. While individualistic societies may have an edge in fostering radical innovation, Hofstede argues they are at a disadvantage when it comes to rapid collective action and coordination. This is because people there are encouraged to have different views, speak their mind, and question and debate decisions. Building the consensus needed for policies to work may take longer.

Has social culture influenced COVID?

COVID-19 has reached almost every country in the world, and yet has resulted in very different outcomes. So far, epidemiologists have offered numerous explanations for this disparity, including differences in demographics, urbanisation, quality of health systems, the natural environment, and the speed of government responses.

However, we argue that culture also matters. Because consensus is more readily achieved in collectivist societies, their conditions are better for introducing fast and effective action to contain disease. These countries also have strong social mechanisms based around shame and not wanting to “lose face”, which may drive compliance with control measures, making government actions more effective.

are individualistic societies worse at responding to pandemicsPeople in individualistic countries may have wider social networks. Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Social networks in collectivist societies also tend to be more localised and oriented towards people’s close contacts (typically their extended family). This creates natural social bubbles, lowers social mixing and diversity, and therefore slows down the spread of the virus.

And at an individual level, cultural values can influence personal decisions on such basic things as wearing a face mask or keeping social distance. There’s already work showing that in the US, in areas with a history of frontier settlements and a more individualistic culture, people are less likely to wear face masks and socially distance.

Given that cross-country data on individualism is publicly available, it’s not difficult to begin to evaluate how it relates to COVID-19. Looking at data from early on in the pandemic – when differences between individualist and collectivist countries were likely to be most pronounced, given the potentially different speeds of their responses – there’s a raw correlation between COVID-related deaths per capita and countries’ individualism scores. This correlation remains when we compare individualism scores with countries’ deaths per number of cases, to control for different amounts of testing.

Countries’ individualism scores plotted against COVID-19 deaths per number of cases.Countries’ individualism scores plotted against COVID-19 deaths per number of cases. Data from May 2020. Author provided

In this graph, the individualistic UK (top right, labelled GB) can be compared with collectivist Japan (centre, bottom). Both nations are democratic and have highly developed economies, but Japan has an older population than the UK – so we would perhaps expect its COVID-19 outcomes to be worse. Yet it scores much better.

This graph is just a simple correlation. Truly what’s needed is something that controls for other factors (demographics, urbanisation and so on) and that takes into account excess deaths caused by COVID-19. But for now, it shows that the individualism hypothesis is worth investigating further. This is something we’re now doing.The Conversation

About the Authors

Tomasz Mickiewicz, 50th Anniversary Professor of Economics, Aston University; Jun Du, Professor of Economics, Centre Director of Lloyds Banking Group Centre for Business Prosperity (LBGCBP), Aston University, and Oleksandr Shepotylo, Lecturer in Economics, Aston University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

You May Also Like

AVAILABLE LANGUAGES

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeeliwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptroruesswsvthtrukurvi

INNERSELF VOICES

man and dog in front of giant sequoia trees in California
The Art of Constant Wonder: Thank you, Life, for this day
by Pierre Pradervand
One of the greatest secrets of life is to know how to constantly marvel at existence and at the…
Photo: Total Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017.
Horoscope: Week of November 29 - December 5, 2021
by Pam Younghans
This weekly astrological journal is based on planetary influences, and offers perspectives and…
young boy looking through binoculars
The Power of Five: Five Weeks, Five Months, Five Years
by Shelly Tygielski
At times, we have to let go of what is to make room for what will be. Of course, the very idea of…
man eating fast food
It's Not About the Food: Overeating, Addictions, and Emotions
by Jude Bijou
What if I told you a new diet called the "It's Not About the Food" is gaining popularity and…
woman dancing in the middle of an empty highway with a city skyline in the background
Having the Courage to Be True to Ourselves
by Marie T. Russell, InnerSelf.com
Each one of us is a unique individual, and thus it seems to follow that each one of us has a…
Lunar eclipse through colored clouds. Howard Cohen, November 18, 2021, Gainesville, FL
Horoscope: Week of November 22 - 28, 2021
by Pam Younghans
This weekly astrological journal is based on planetary influences, and offers perspectives and…
a young boy climbing to the top of a rock formation
A Positive Way Forward Is Possible Even in the Darkest Times
by Elliott Noble-Holt
Falling into a rut doesn’t mean we have to stay there. Even when it can seem like an insurmountable…
woman wearing a crown of flowers staring with an unwavering gaze
Hold That Unwavering Gaze! Lunar and Solar Eclipses November-December 2021
by Sarah Varcas
This second and final eclipse season of 2021 began on 5th November and features a lunar eclipse in…
Transforming Your Life by Exploring and Changing Your Current Story
Transform Your Life by Exploring and Changing Your Current Story
by Carl Greer PhD, PsyD
Many of us look back and wish that we had spent more time doing what we enjoy and less time doing…
hnob2t7o
Why I Should Ignore COVID-19 and Why I Won't
by Robert Jennings, InnerSelf.com
My wife Marie and I are a mixed couple. She's Canadian and I am an American. For the past 15 years…
How Old Would You Be If You Didn’t Know Your Age?
How Old Would You Be If You Didn’t Know Your Age?
by Barbara Berger
How old would you be if you didn't know your age? It’s an interesting thought isn’t it? Why not…

Selected for InnerSelf Magazine

MOST READ

How Living On The Coast Is Linked To Poor Health
How Living On The Coast Is Linked To Poor Health
by Jackie Cassell, Professor of Primary Care Epidemiology, Honorary Consultant in Public Health, Brighton and Sussex Medical School
The precarious economies of many traditional seaside towns have declined still further since the…
The Most Common Issues for Earth Angels: Love, Fear, and Trust
The Most Common Issues for Earth Angels: Love, Fear, and Trust
by Sonja Grace
As you experience being an earth angel, you will discover that the path of service is riddled with…
How Can I Know What's Best For Me?
How Can I Know What's Best For Me?
by Barbara Berger
One of the biggest things I've discovered working with clients everyday is how extremely difficult…
What Men’s Roles In 1970s Anti-sexism Campaigns Can Teach Us About Consent
What Men’s Roles In 1970s Anti-sexism Campaigns Can Teach Us About Consent
by Lucy Delap, University of Cambridge
The 1970s anti-sexist men’s movement had an infrastructure of magazines, conferences, men’s centres…
Honesty: The Only Hope for New Relationships
Honesty: The Only Hope for New Relationships
by Susan Campbell, Ph.D.
According to most of the singles I have met in my travels, the typical dating situation is fraught…
An Astrologer introduces the Nine Dangers of Astrology
An Astrologer introduces the Nine Dangers of Astrology
by Tracy Marks
Astrology is a powerful art, capable of enhancing our lives by enabling us to understand our own…
Giving Up All Hope Could Be Beneficial For You
Giving Up All Hope Could Be Beneficial For You
by Jude Bijou, M.A., M.F.T.
If you're waiting for a change and frustrated it's not happening, maybe it would be beneficial to…
Chakra Healing Therapy: Dancing toward the Inner Champion
Chakra Healing Therapy: Dancing toward the Inner Champion
by Glen Park
Flamenco dancing is a delight to watch. A good flamenco dancer exudes an exuberant self-confidence…

New Attitudes - New Possibilities

InnerSelf.comClimateImpactNews.com | InnerPower.net
MightyNatural.com | WholisticPolitics.com | InnerSelf Market
Copyright ©1985 - 2021 InnerSelf Publications. All Rights Reserved.