Law in Contemporary Society

Collectivism and Individualism: How Societal Behaviors Shaped the Response to COVID-19

-- By KailaAlston - 30 May 2022

Individualism vs Collectivism

Individualism and Collectivism are two social psychological terms that, over the past 100 years, have been presented as opposites of each other.[1] Individualism has the traits of it’s constituents possessing an independent concept of self, their own goals independent of in-groups, an emphasis of rationality when choosing and evaluating social relationships, and finally, their social behaviors are belief, values, and attitude driven. Whereas collectivists possess a concept of self that is interdependent, their goals are compatible with their in-groups, they are relational in their social relationships and exchanges, and finally social behaviors are norm driven. The US and Sweden are two examples of countries that generally maintain an individualistic culture, whereas South Korea and Japan are two collectivist ones. This divide can be seen in several ways from language to dining rituals. For example, the concept of self extends into the way language is spoken in each country. In the Korean language the possessive ‘my’ (나의) is rarely used instead the equivalent of ‘our’ (우리). Whereas in the US and other English speaking countries the use of my and our are very distinctive. Given that the concepts of individualism and collectivism run as deep as language, it is not shocking to see that there has been a distinct divide in how individualistic and collectivist societies have responded to COVID-19.[2] The distinction in concepts of self have dictated how individuals will care for themselves, their immediate family, and their community broadly.[3]

Response of the General Public

The ways in which masking was perceived at the beginning of the pandemic and how the perception has evolved over the course of the past two years is a prime example of the divide between societies. Mask wearing in collectivist cultures, specifically those in Asia, was societally not an issue. The practice of wearing masks while one was ill, whether severe or mild, was already in place as common courtesy to protect others you may come into contact with. Country-wide mask mandates were received well considering this was already common practice in these countries.

The same cannot be said however, for individualistic countries – especially the US. In the US the response to masking was nearly feral. Masking was viewed as an infringement on individuals personal freedoms and liberties. As time in the pandemic progressed the resistance towards masking only got worse. With the information that masking was more to protect others from you than to protect you from others, the willingness to wear masks (which wasn’t high to begin with) plummeted even lower. The concept of caring for strangers and your community at large was not one that Americans had grown accustomed to. Rather the independent concept of self proved to be a hard shell to crack when attempting to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Anti-maskers far and wide have shown throughout the pandemic that they value their personal freedom and liberties more than the health and safety of those around them. Going as far as getting banned from restaurants, shopping centers, and placed on no fly lists by commercial outlines it is safe to say that an unignorable portion of this country believes that their desire for individual freedom far outweighs that of those in their communities.

Vaccination is another hot topic on how COVID-19 was handled by individuals in collectivist and individualistic countries. With the frustration and uproar in response to masking mandates in individualistic societies like America the vaccine should have been viewed as a godsend. Unfortunately, for a significant portion of the country this was not viewed as a saving grace. Instead, the COVID-19 vaccine and the vaccination requirements that accompanied its rollouts were viewed as another threat to their individual freedoms. Many people refused to even entertain the idea of vaccinating themselves against the virus even though this proved to be the most effective way to beat COVID-19 (at least in its most severe forms). They fought tooth and nail claiming that mandated vaccinations were a direct violation of their bodily autonomy even though mandatory vaccines have been around far longer than the 2020s. The visceral desire to maintain what they viewed as their personal freedoms led to some Americans losing all semblance of common sense and logical reasoning. With many people going as far as being willing to lose their jobs or even attempt to forge their medical records.

On the other side of things the collectivist response to vaccinations, much like their response to masking, was much quieter than the individualistic one. The engrained understanding of needing to protect one another as well as themselves allowed for vaccine rollout to mostly go without incident. As of today Japan, China, and South Korea all have vaccination rates over 85%. Individualistic societies sit at a much lower rate with Sweden at 75% and the US at 67% of citizens completely vaccinated.[4]

Governmental Response

The protocols implemented by each government also vastly differed depending on the type of society they governed. While no country's response was without faults, the individualistic governments’ approach was pisspoor. From the US refusing to implement a federal mask mandate until January 2021[5] (which was later struck down in federal court) to Sweden’s reluctance to consult with experts in public health instead crafting policies as they pleased[6] the results were disastrous. As the death toll climbed in the US and Sweden they were waved off as being primarily those that are disabled and elderly – something the majority of people were not. The rhetoric of “I don't fit into those categories therefore this doesn’t matter to me” was strong. This laissez faire attitude was not found in collectivist societies. The response in China, South Korea, and Japan were early, speedy, nationally organized, and communication was transparent. All things that individualistic protocols weren’t.

Final Remarks

If society as a whole ever expects to beat this global pandemic it is necessary for us to trade at least some of our individualistic values for a collectivist state of mind. Perhaps then we could begin to return to ‘normal.’

Kaila, I really liked how you tied in the language customs when discussing the two different cultures—it's something that I don't think a lot of people would think shapes behavior, I think even within the United States, there are varying degrees of individualism. I'm not sure what the current culture is like in NY, but as I start my fourth week in TX I can say the level of individualism is even higher here. When I first moved back down here, I was the only one wearing a mask. When people would ask me what COVID-19 protocol/social norms are in NY, they were appalled when I told them we still wear out masks to a lot of places. It might be because NY is highly-condensed like a lot of the cities in collectivism countries.

I'm not sure what it would take for us to start caring for everyone again, but I'm afraid that we only exacerbated the current pandemic because of our individualism thinking. –Adrian


[2] Ravi Philip Rajkumar, The relationship between measures of individualism and collectivism and the impact of COVID-19 across nations, Public Health in Practice, Volume 2, 2021, 100143, ISSN 2666-5352, (

[3] Maaravi, Yossi et al. “"The Tragedy of the Commons": How Individualism and Collectivism Affected the Spread of the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Frontiers in public health vol. 9 627559. 11 Feb. 2021, doi:10.3389/fpubh.2021.627559




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r4 - 07 Jun 2022 - 05:27:30 - AdrianHernandez
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