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Dec 9, 2021 2021-12 Business Administration Faculty Research in Education

Activating a collectivistic orientation conducive to curbing COVID‐19

A new paper co-written by a team of Gies College of Business experts in cross-cultural consumer behavior finds a key cultural factor that promotes behavior aimed at curbing the spread of COVID‐19.

The activation of a collectivistic orientation – in which people construe the self as interdependent with others and are motivated to adjust their demands accordingly – is negatively associated with the spread of COVID‐19 and positively associated with the expectation to engage in widely publicized behaviors such as masking and vaccination that limit the spread of the virus, says published research from Carlos Torelli, the Zimmerman Faculty Fellow at the Gies.

“There is a cultural dimension to collectivism, both at the country level and at the individual level, that’s conducive to controlling COVID-19,” said Torelli, a professor of business administration and a co-author of the paper. “It’s somewhat counterintuitive in that collectivism often conjures images of large gatherings and big networks of people – which, to be frank, sound like super-spreader events.

“It’s true that people in cultures that value collectivism tend to congregate more and are physically closer to a larger network of people – but it’s also true that they focus a lot on what they think people in their networks ought to be doing to regulate their behavior. And that’s really what’s driving this control of the spread in places that are more collectivistic or people who think in more collectivistic terms.”

Yafei Guo“We all possess collectivistic and individualistic tendencies; it’s just that our cultural environment pushes us to exhibit one more than the other,” said Yafei Guo (right), a U. of I. graduate student and co-author of the paper. “In collectivistic societies, people construe the self as primarily interdependent with others and are motivated to adjust to the demands of others, particularly so in public settings. But we all have the ability to switch back and forth between being more individualistic at times and more collectivistic at other times. If we push the collective side and make it especially salient, then we’re more likely to pay attention to what others think and realize that we’re all in this together. From a health policy perspective, that’s quite powerful.”

Results from six studies conducted in Hong Kong and the U.S. demonstrated that the endorsement of a collectivistic orientation is positively associated with the likelihood to engage in widely publicized COVID-19 mitigation behaviors.

“The effects were robust and emerged by measuring collectivism both at the country level and at the individual level,” Torelli said. “The fact that our studies revealed similar patterns of relations between collectivism and the likelihood to engage in behaviors to prevent the spread of COVID‐19 at those two different levels suggests that activating a collectivistic orientation by, for example, reminding people about their responsibilities to their group membership can blunt the transmission of COVID‐19.”

The research has implications for health care marketing and how to craft messages for public health campaigns that are likely to elicit compliance behavior such as masking and vaccination, the authors said.

“A key challenge for marketers working in preventive health is understanding how people value such health products, which tends to be more self‐oriented and motivated by emotions such as an individual’s peace of mind,” Torelli said. “Our findings point to a more other-oriented source of value for engaging in preventive behaviors. Tapping into collectivism will positively contribute to the adoption of behaviors to prevent the spread of COVID‐19, particularly so when communicating the widespread belief about the importance of masking, getting vaccinated or even getting booster shots.”

“That’s why you have ads in a collectivist culture like Hong Kong emphasizing the importance of vaccination for the well-being of the community, or why we have the ‘All In’ campaign in the state of Illinois,” Guo said. “Both are trying to activate a collectivistic orientation by making an appeal to people about group membership, about thinking about something larger than the individual.”

Hyewon Cho, of Sogang University, was a co-author of the research.

The paper was published in the journal Psychology & Marketing.