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  • Writer's picturelindsayannkohler

Are individualistic societies faring worse in the COVID fight?

This post originally appeared on my LinkedIn on May 11, 2020.

Like many, I listened to the latest U.K. coronavirus updates issued on May 10. Also like many, I had no real idea what the updated guidelines actually mean in practice. It was a masterclass in being vague. But I don’t want to write another piece on the importance of clear communications and you certainly don’t want to read it. Rather, let’s discuss a concept that did emerge from the briefing: the subtle shift from government responsibility to individual responsibility in fighting COVID-19 — and why that is potentially problematic.

#1: It’s not what people want

According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, COVID has been government’s time to shine in the U.K., with a 24-point increase in trust levels since just January alone. People have a high expectation that the government get things back to normal and contain the pandemic. Yet, only 33% of those in the U.K. think the government is doing a good job at keeping them safe. And people are fine with restrictions — 80% in the U.K. reported that pandemic-related restrictions on movement were perfectly reasonable. There is clearly an information void to be filled now. Business leaders can step up to be the ones to do it, making prudent safety decisions and providing guidance for their people when guidance is unclear.

#2: We can’t win if we don’t work together

Looking to places in Asia that have had more success than the U.K. in halting the spread of the disease, I wondered if it could be because they have something in common that the U.K. doesn’t have — a collective mindset. Generally speaking, eastern societies have more collectivist mindsets, whereas western societies skew toward individualism. A 2008 study examined the connection between the prevalence of disease and whether a society was collectivist or individualist[i]. It hypothesized that certain types of social behaviours in collective societies work to inhibit the spread of disease, and may have developed specifically over time as a way to combat the prevalence of contagious diseases in certain regions. The key behaviour is conformity to the rules with low tolerance for deviation. In other words, no one wants to be the one person on the subway in China not wearing a face mask, or the person that doesn’t follow carefully designed food preparation routines. As businesses and communities, can we create micro-climates of collectivism to encourage more of the right behaviours?

#3: Individualistic societies may place less value on their elderly than collective societies

Many of the rules currently in place are to protect the most vulnerable, and the dangers of COVID increase with age. But now we’re asking people to step up and take more responsibility to help protect the elderly — which may not be the most motivating message in western societies, difficult as that is to admit. In 2014, the MIT Media Lab created an experiment called “Moral Machine” to crowdsource decisions on how self-driving cars should choose who to save. Young over old, law-abiding versus criminals, etc. While those in the U.K. chose to prioritize saving the most amount of lives regardless of the situation, it was also found that in general, people from individualistic cultures were less likely to spare the elderly over the young[ii]. So again, the question becomes — with a lack of government guidance or willingness to take a hard line, what messages can business and community leaders send that can enhance motivation to take the actions needed to keep everyone safe?

Final thoughts

We’re all tired. We’re all eager to get back to normal, whatever that looks like. But now is not the time for governments to waver. But by taking lessons from collectivist societies, perhaps all of us individuals working together can continue to stop the spread. And hey, I’m quite optimistic about our ability to do so. After all, people in individualistic societies also suffer from overconfidence at a much greater degree than those from collectivist societies.

[i] Corey L Fincher, Randy Thornhill, Damian R Murray and Mark Schaller. (2008). Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism Proc. R. Soc. B. 275: 1279–1285

[ii] Edmond Awad, Sohan Dsouza, Richard Kim, Jonathan Schulz, Joseph Henrich, Azim Shariff, Jean-François Bonnefon & Iyad Rahwan. (2018). The Moral Machine experiment. Nature 563, 59–64.

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