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Are individualistic societies worse at responding to pandemics?

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.

A mosquito feeding on a human.
The threat of tropical disease may be the basis of why some societies are more individualistic than others. khlungcenter/Shutterstock

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.

A group of people socialising at a bar.
People in individualistic countries may have wider social networks.

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.

Graph showing correlation between countries individualism scores and the proportion of their COVID-19 patients that died.
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.

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