Decades of research have described East Asian cultures as collectivistic, often characterized by ingroup relationships that are harmonious and cooperative. We find evidence that people in collectivistic cultures can also be more vigilant, mindful of ingroup members’ bad intentions. Participants imagined what coworkers and classmates would do in competition. Compared with individualistic Americans, people in China expected more unethical competition. Is this a “China phenomenon” or a phenomenon of collectivistic culture? We next compared regional cultures within China to rule out between-country alternative explanations. We found that people from China’s collectivistic rice-farming regions were more vigilant than people from the individualistic wheat-farming regions. This research suggests a more balanced view of collectivism, revealing tensions that can co-occur with harmony.Abstract
Collectivistic cultures have been characterized as having harmonious, cooperative ingroup relationships. However, we find evidence that people in collectivistic cultures are more vigilant toward ingroup members, mindful of their possible unethical intentions. Study 1 found that Chinese participants were more vigilant than Americans in within-group competitions, anticipating more unethical behaviors from their peers. Study 2 replicated this finding by comparing areas within China, finding that people from China’s collectivistic rice-farming regions exhibit greater ingroup vigilance than people from the less collectivistic wheat-farming regions. The rice/wheat difference was mediated by greater perceived within-group competition. Study 3 found that Chinese participants were more likely than Americans to interpret a peer’s friendly behavior as sabotage in disguise. We also manipulated within-group competition and found that it increased ingroup vigilance in both cultures. Finally, study 3 identified two boundary conditions where cultural differences in ingroup vigilance decrease: an unambiguously competitive win–lose situation where Americans also exhibit vigilance, and an unambiguously cooperative win–win situation where Chinese participants relax their vigilance. This research contributes to a more balanced view of collectivism, revealing its interpersonal tensions in the forms of within-group competition and ingroup vigilance.