Collectivism in Nordics and Asian Compared

How do Nordic and Asian culture around individualism and common good differ?

Erik Engheim

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Nordic societies are famous for social democracy, which is a social and economic model where the government takes an active role in ensuring the health and wellbeing of all citizens. In a corporate setting or in sports, the group is often emphasized over the individual; what did we achieve together rather than what did I achieve. It is a stark contrast to American rugged individualism, which much more strongly emphasize the achievements of the individual and where individual choice and freedom matters more than the well-being of everybody else.

Perhaps one of the best summaries of the Nordic ethos is given in the quote:

Nobody gets cake until everybody has had bread

– Einar Gerhardsen, Norwegian prime minister 1962

The emphasis on the collective well-being can seem similar to Asian culture, which is far more group oriented and less individualistic. An interesting experiment which showed this difference in a stark manner is the Michigan Fish Test carried out by Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda in 2001 to compare American and Asian cultural differences. Nisbett presented subjects with a virtual aquarium on a computer screen.

An aquirum but not the one used in the Michigan Fish Test.
An aquirum but not the one used in the Michigan Fish Test.

“The Americans would say, ‘I saw three big fish swimming off to the left. They had pink fins.’ They went for the biggest, brightest moving object and focused on that and on its attributes,” Nisbett explains. “The Japanese in that study would start by saying, ‘Well, I saw what looked like a stream. The water was green. There were rocks and shells on the bottom. There were three big fish swimming off to the left.’”

In other studies, Nisbett discovered that East Asians have an easier time remembering objects when they are presented with the same background against which they were first seen. By contrast, context doesn’t seem to affect Western recognition of an object.

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Erik Engheim

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.