Cultural Dimensions

Your family has decided to go on vacation to Bali, and you want to learn as much as you can about Indonesian culture before you go.  Where do you start?  By reading history books about Indonesia, or learning about the different religions that are practiced?  How about taking an Indonesian cooking class, or learning some of the language?  As culture is such a vast and complex subject, trying to really "know" a foreign culture seems hopelessly difficult.  Enter Geert Hofstede - who claims that some of the most important differences between cultures can be summed up in just five dimensions.  What are these dimensions, and how useful are they to understanding culture?  That will be the focus of this lesson.
Try it Out

You have just been assigned to be the "buddy" of a student from the United States, who will spend a year studying in your school.

  • List some differences between American student culture and the culture at your school

  • What difficulties (if any) do you think the American student might have in adapting to a foreign culture?

  • Make a list of 8-10 tips for the American student to adjust better to the culture of your school and country. (Think of differences in both surface and deep culture).  For instance, think of the following:  how people socialize and make friends, how to behave in class, importance of fitting in, how students feel about school and their future
The Five Cultural Dimensions

Geert Hofstede was in charge of the personnel department at IBM in the 1960's-1970's.  This was a time when the company became a truly giant multinational corporation - with hundreds of thousands of employees in dozens of countries around the world.  Hofstede noticed that it was not always easy for people from different cultures to work together well - misunderstandings and miscommunication were frequent problems.  Hofstede decided to investigate cultural differences in order to help IBM employees better understand their overseas colleagues.

Hofstede carried out his research by mailing an extensive survey about workplace values to an astonishing 117,000 IBM employees in 50 countries.  Then, Hofstede carried out factor analysis on the survey results, which involves grouping questions together into similar clusters.  Based on his analysis, Hofstede came up with five dimensions on which cultures can be different.  The five dimensions that Hofstede identified are as follows:

  • Power distance is the extent to which people accept unequal distributions of power.  In a high power distance culture, the boss makes all the important decisions, and employees accept the total authority of their superiors.  In a low power distance culture, decisions are made more collaboratively, and all employees expect some say in how things are done

  • Uncertainty avoidance describes tolerance for ambiguity.  In a culture which has high uncertainty avoidance, there tend to be strict rules and guidelines that establish how things must be done.  In a culture with less uncertainty avoidance, there is more acceptance for different ways of doing things, and a more free-flowing and unpredictable environment

  • Masculinity vs. femininity describes the importance given to achievement and striving for success.  In a masculine culture, there is more competition, focus on material rewards, and assertiveness.  In a feminine culture, there is more emphasis on co-operation, modesty and quality of life

  • Individualism vs. collectivism describes the importance given to group belonging and integration.  In an individualistic culture, people have looser ties to their social groups, and tend to act independently, driven by their own personal goals.  In a more collective culture, people have stronger bonds with their social groups, and emphasize group loyalty and co-operation with others

  • Long-term vs. short-term orientation describes how people think about time.  In a short-term culture, people tend to focus on the past and the present, and tend to seek immediate gratification.  In a long-term culture, people tend to focus on the distant future, and are willing to delay immediate gratification in favor of working towards long-term goals
Think Critically

  • Read the following statements.  For each statement, indicate whether you Strongly Agree, Agree, Disagree, or Strongly Disagree

  • Separate the statements into two groups, based on which statements "go together" (this is essentially the process of factor analysis)

  • Which of the cultural dimensions is being assessed by these statements?

1.  I'd rather depend on myself than others

2.  I feel good when I co-operate with others

3.  Family members should stick together, no matter what sacrifices are required

4.  I rely on myself most of the time, I rarely rely on others

5.  It is important for me that I respect the decisions made by the group

6.  It is important that I do my job better than others

7.  When another person does better than I do, I feel tense and aroused

8.  I often "do my own thing"

9.  To me, pleasure is spending time with others

10.  Parents and children must stick together as much as possible

Individualism vs. Collectivism

You may have noticed that statements 1, 4, 6, 7 and 8 emphasize working independently, competing with others, and self-reliance.  These are qualities of a culture high in individualism.  On the other hand, statements 2, 3, 5, 9, and 10 emphasize group unity, co-operating with others, and respecting decisions made by the group.  These are qualities of a culture high in collectivism.  The distinction between individualism and collectivism has been perhaps the most studied of all of Hofstede's dimensions, as it points to a very important difference between cultures.

Simply put, individualistic cultures emphasize personal identity, who you are as a unique person.  In these cultures, independence is valued - you ought to make your own decisions, but also accept personal responsibility for the consequences of your actions.  Personal success and achievements are valued, and you are expected to strive for success for yourself and perhaps for your immediate family only.  Finally, people are encouraged to be unique, express individuality, and "do your own thing".  North American and Northern European countries (U.S., England, Germany) tend to be amongst the most individualistic countries.

In contrast, collective cultures emphasize social identity - the groups you belong to are what matters most.  In these cultures, co-operation with other members of your group is valued, and so you ought to respect and support the decisions made collectively by your group.  Success is measured not so much by what you accomplish as a person, but rather by what you accomplish together as a group.  In collective cultures, being in harmony with the group is most important, so minimizing individual differences is necessary to make sure everyone is on the same page.  East Asian countries (China, Japan, Korea) tend to be amongst the most collective.

You have already studied how degree of individualism affects conformity.  As you might expect, collective cultures tend to exert more pressure on individuals to conform, as it is considered important for everyone to subordinate themselves to the group's goals.  On the other hand, there is less pressure to conform in an individualistic culture, as it is expected that each person pursues their own personal goals, however they see fit.  This was demonstrated in the research study by Berry - participants from the collective Temne culture gave incorrect answers in order to conform to their group, while participants from the individualistic Inuit culture spoke their mind regardless of what answer other was given by other Inuit.  There have also been studies done on many of the other cultural dimensions, such as long-term vs short term orientation, such as the study by Chen described below.
​Research - Chen

Aim: Investigate how long term or short term orientation affects decision-making


  • Participants were bicultural Singaporean-Americans, who were exposed to both Singaporean and American cultures (for example, someone who was born in Singapore but who now lives in America)

  • Participants were randomly assigned to have one of their cultures "primed" (brought to mind) by showing photos, either of the New York skyline (to prime American culture) or Chinese lanterns (to prime Singaporean culture)

  • Afterwards, participants were instructed to order a book from an online shop.  There were two delivery options (1) free shipping, which would take longer for the book to arrive, or (2) immediate shipping, which would result in faster delivery time for an extra fee


  • Participants "primed" with American culture were more likely to pay extra for the immediate shipping, while those "primed" with Singaporean culture were more likely to opt for the free shipping


  • Singaporean culture has a long-term orientation, which values patience and saving money for the future, so reminding participants of this culture led to different behavior than a reminder of American culture, which favors immediate gratification


  • This was a well-designed experiment, demonstrating a causal relationship between the independent variable (which culture was primed) and the dependent variable (which shipping option was selected)

  • This study also suggests that bicultural participants have absorbed the values of two cultures, and will act according to whatever culture is brought to mind in that moment

  • This study only involved Singaporean-Americans, so it is not clear if these results will generalize to other cultural groups with different time orientations

  • The authors of the study explain the results in terms of long-term vs. short-term orientation, but there may be other differences between Singaporean and American culture (perhaps pace of life?) that could also explain the findings
IB Psych Matters​Hof

According to Hofstede, many important differences between cultures can be summarized by a country's scores on the five dimensions.  Let's think critically about that claim:

  • Go to this website and look up the cultural dimensions scores for your country

  • How accurate do you feel the scores are in describing the culture of your country?  Give some examples of behaviors that are common in your culture that are either consistent or inconsistent with your country's scores on each of the dimensions

  • To what extent do you feel these scores are useful in explaining the culture of your country to a foreigner?  What are some aspects of your culture that may be difficult to convey by these scores alone?

Evaluating the Dimensions

Hofstede's theory of cultural dimensions was the first large-scale attempt to quantify cultural differences - in other words, to take something as complex as culture and try to represent it by numerical scores.  The cultural dimensions continue to be a useful and important way of recognizing and studying differences between cultures.  On the other hand, it is unlikely that all of the complexity of a culture can be represented by numerical scores alone.  Here are some strengths and limitations of the cultural dimensions:

  • Hofstede's research involved a survey of over 100,000 participants from around the world.  The size of this survey makes his findings particularly reliable, as each country was represented by a large sample size

  • The cultural dimensions have been well-researched, and there is a great deal of evidence showing that behavior is correlated with these dimensions (for instance, more conformity in collective cultures)

  • The cultural dimensions assume that all people within a country share the same values.  In fact, there is a great deal of variation within a culture - although, on average, Americans may be more individualistic than Japanese, there may be some Americans who are more collective in their outlook and there may be some individual Japanese who are more individualistic

  • Hofstede only surveyed IBM workers, which may not be representative of most people from their country.  IBM workers are likely to be educated, IT professionals, so their values and attitudes may not be the same as less educated people or people in different occupational fields


  • I can explain how Hofstede developed the five cultural dimensions through is work at IBM

  • I can describe the five dimensions, especially long term - short term orientation and individualism - collectivism

  • I can describe the Aim, Procedure, Findings and Conclusion of Chen's study on how time orientation affects spending behavior, and can Evaluate the study

  • I can evaluate the strengths and limitations of the cultural dimensions in explaining differences between cultures
Quiz Yourself!

1.  What research method was used by Hofstede to investigate cultural differences?

(a) Lab experiment

(b) Correlational study

(c) Case study

(d) Survey

​2.  At High Tech Co., any employee can submit proposals for new strategic developments, and decision making takes place after a great deal of collaboration between relevant departments.  Which cultural dimension best reflects this?

(a) High power distance

(b) Low power distance

(c) High masculinity

(d) Low masculinity

3.  Which of the following is NOT a quality of collective cultures?

(a) Primarily focused on the success of one's immediate family

(b) Conformity to the decisions made by one's group

(c) Personal sacrifices made to ensure that the group succeeds

(d) Co-operating with others is valued

4.  Which statement best describes the findings of Chen's study?

(a) Participants shown a picture of Chinese lanterns tended to pay for immediate shipping

(b) Participants shown a picture of NYC's skyline tended to pay for immediate shipping

(c) Singaporeans tended to pay for immediate shipping

(d) Americans tended to pay for immediate shipping

​5.  One criticism of Hofstede's cultural dimensions is that they may encourage cultural stereotyping.  Why might this be the case?

(a) Hofstede only surveyed IBM employees, who may not be representative of everyone in their culture

(b) Cultural dimensions do not take into account individual differences between people in a given country

(c) Cultural dimensions do not convey the complexity of a country's history, religion, and belief system

(d) It is unclear if there are other cultural dimensions which have yet to be discovered

​1 - D, 2 - B, 3 - A, 4 - B, 5 - B