Do individualism and collectivism on three levels (country, individual, and situation) influence theory-of-mind efficiency? A cross-country study

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This study investigated whether individualism and collectivism (IC) at country, individual, and situational level influence how quickly and accurately people can infer mental states (i.e. theory of mind, or ToM), indexed by accuracy and reaction time in a ToM task. We hypothesized that collectivism (having an interdependent self and valuing group concerns), compared to individualism (having an independent self and valuing personal concerns), is associated with greater accuracy and speed in recognizing and understanding the thoughts and feelings of others. Students (N = 207) from individualism-representative (the Netherlands) and collectivism-representative (Vietnam) countries (Country IC) answered an individualism-collectivism questionnaire (Individual IC) and were randomly assigned to an individualism-primed, collectivism-primed, or no-prime task (Situational IC) before performing a ToM task. The data showed vast differences between the Dutch and Vietnamese groups that might not be attributable to experimental manipulation. Therefore, we analyzed the data for the groups separately and found that Individual IC did not predict ToM accuracy or reaction time performance. Regarding Situational IC, when primed with individualism, the accuracy performance of Vietnamese participants in affective ToM trials decreased compared to when primed with collectivism and when no prime was used. However, an interesting pattern emerged: Dutch participants were least accurate in affective ToM trials, while Vietnamese participants were quickest in affective ToM trials. Our research also highlights a dilemma faced by cross-cultural researchers who use hard-to-reach populations but face the challenge of disentangling experimental effects from biases that might emerge due to an interaction between cultural differences and experimental settings. We propose suggestions for overcoming such challenges.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0183011
Pages (from-to)e0183011
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - 23 Aug 2017


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