Might collectivistic values help prevent the spread of disease?

Feb. 01, 2022

 James Leonhardt headshotBy James M. Leonhardt, Associate Professor of Marketing, The College of Business at the University of Nevada, Reno

One day, back in graduate school, I got sick. I could function, but it was a bad cold with mucus and croaky coughs. I stayed home for a day and then headed back to my shared office. When I entered, Kleenex in hand and sniffling, my officemates were visibly alarmed, diverting their gaze and shifting their chairs. I didn’t understand what was so wrong. Not even a “Hey Jim?” was said. I left sometime after but continued to ponder the underpinnings of my faux pas.

A decade or so later, I have some answers. When I came to the office that day, I was thinking of all the work I needed to catch up on and that I shouldn’t let a runny nose stop my routine. I wasn’t thinking about my colleagues and how going to the office would put them and their families at risk of getting sick. Such behavior isn’t unique, however. Through my research, I have come to realize that there is much cultural variation in the tendency to focus on one’s own needs rather than the needs of friends, family, schoolmates and coworkers.

Gert Hofstede realized these cultural differences much earlier in his seminal work on cultural dimensions (Hofstede, 1980). The cultural dimension of collectivism, for instance, reflects the extent to which people view themselves as interdependent and responsible for the wellbeing of their ingroups (e.g., friends and family). In more collectivistic cultures, people tend to strive for social harmony and put the needs of their ingroups ahead of their own. It may not come as a surprise, then, that by better understanding cultural differences, we can better understand, for instance, why people choose to stay home when they're sick and, wash their hands, wear a mask, or get inoculated against COVID-19.

In our recent work, my colleagues and I have found that COVID-19 vaccination intentions tend to be higher among people who endorse collectivistic values, and this seems to result from collectivism being associated with more empathy for those afflicted by the pandemic (Leonhardt and Pezzuti, 2022; Leonhardt and Pezzuti, 2021). Moreover, we find that collectivism may help to lessen the threat that feelings of invincibility pose to vaccine uptake (Leonhardt, Ridinger, Rong, and Talaei-Khoei, 2021).

Our recent findings, however, only scratch the surface of what we need to know about the interplay of culture and the public’s willingness to engage in preventative health behaviors. Next year, with the support of the SGH Warsaw School of Economics, Adolfo Ibañez University, the University of Nevada, Reno College of Business, the Ozmen Institute for Global Studies, and the Nevada Global Business & Economics Lab (NVGLOBE-L), I will work alongside scholars at the SGH Warsaw School of Economics (in Warsaw, Poland) and Adolfo Ibañez University (in Viña del Mar, Chile) to further explore how our cultural differences influence preventative health behaviors.

Findings from this research will provide needed insights on how cultural orientation influences perceived individual and community risks posed by infectious diseases. In turn, this work will aid in the development of culturally sensitive public-health messaging to encourage preventative health behaviors across culturally diverse populations. And, I must admit, this work also helps me reconcile with my selfish younger self that couldn’t grasp why I should feel responsible for protecting the health of my officemates.


Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s Consequences. International Differences in Work-Related Values. First Edition. Volume 5. Series: Cross-Cultural Research and Methodology. Sage Publications.

Leonhardt, J. M. & Pezzuti, T. (2022). Vaccination Acceptance Across Cultures: The Roles of Collectivism, Empathy, and Homophily. Journal of International Marketing

Leonhardt, J. M. & Pezzuti, T. (2021). Covid-19 Vaccination Acceptance: A Cultural Perspective. Proceedings of the 2021 Association for Marketing & Health Care Research Conference

Leonhardt, J. M., Ridinger, G., Rong, Y., & Talaei-Khoei, A. (2021). Invincibility threatens vaccination intentions during a pandemic. PLoS ONE, 16(10), e0258432.