Are Americans individualists? Studies say… absolutely not!

UPDATE: Due to a Redditard invasion, comments are closed.

(the above is an actual propaganda poster used in Washington DC commuter trains in 2005)

A prevalent stereotype about Americans is that they are ferociously individualistic. Indeed, this stereotype is used to analyze all the institutions considered more extreme in America, such as capitalism and Christianity. Sociological studies are based on the assumption that the United States represents an extreme of individualism. It’s one of the assumptions which rests at the core of our imagination about the world.

But is it actually true?

Before I get into this topic, I have to define exactly what I mean by individualism. I have defined it in the past as “the refusal to submit one’s values to an extraneous collective standard.” To be an individualist is an active process of 1. rejection of any submission to exterior standards and 2. self-generation of values and standards.

By this I do not mean that an individualist must reject the principles behind all laws or religious doctrines, and therefore be in favor of murder, kidnapping, rape, and so on. But the vast majority of us are born with the desire not to murder, kidnap, rape, and so on; we have a moral sense, empathy, and higher-level emotions which evolution equipped us with in order to live in society. The individualist does not reject such principles, but his acceptance of them cannot be based on external standards such as laws or doctrines. In short, “it is right because it is actually right, not because you said so.”

Most importantly, if the individualist judges some external standard as being wrong, then ey must rebel against them, if only in eir own mind. This is crucial, as individualism very much pertains to speaking up for what’s right and against what’s wrong. Collectivism, on the other hand, is founded on the principle of belonging. This is not to say that collectivism is always wrong or that individualism is always right, but that in an evil society (like ours) individualism is far more needful than collectivism. Dedication to a good institution is commendable, but dedication to an evil institution is damageable. Usually, the “good guys” (if you’ll excuse me for using that term metaphorically) are individualists, not collectivists.

Individualism also does not mean that the individual does not depend on the external world in order to develop eir values and standards. Obviously all individuals can only formulate their own selves because they learned the tools that society has developed, such as language, technical and scientific know-how, social roles, and so on. One person’s work depends on everyone else’s work. We should not reject all this input, or the conditions of that input, but that doesn’t mean we should not be skeptical about it or want to change it either. Individualism is not about blindly rejecting society (that’s atomism), but rather to recognize that, while one can only think and operate within its parameters, one can still use those tools to formulate a worldview which is different from, and critical of, social norms and beliefs.

So I think individualism has been circumscribed. Now let’s look at the evidence. The very core of individualism, as I argue, is that individual values should trump institutional values, what Claude Fischer calls the “moral primacy of the individual.” He reports the following data from the International Social Survey Programme (incidentally, I do not have access to the ISSP data, and I would welcome further details from anyone who does):

When asked the question of whether “right or wrong should be a matter of personal conscience,” which is a fundamental measure of individualism as we’ve defined it, we get the following results:

For an exceptionally individualist country, it turns out that less than half of Americans are individualists, and that’s lower than a lot of other countries. But this is not the full picture. Consider the following question:

“In general, would you say that people should obey the law without exception, or are there exceptional occasions on which people should follow their consciences even if it means breaking the law?”

And the results:

This gives us the astonishing result that not only half of Americans are collectivists, but that in fact half of Americans are hardcore collectivists, who believe the law always trumps personal values, no exceptions allowed, no personal conscience allowed.

I don’t know about you, but to me this is absolutely astounding data! It certainly teaches us something absolutely unexpected: the US is not only one of the least individualistic countries in the Western world, but more than half of Americans are fanatically collectivists to a degree that would make the envy of the Soviet government, if it still existed.

I also pointed out that individualism also entails to stand up against what one considers wrong. Here are the results for the question “People should support their country even if the country is in the wrong”:

Claude Fischer proposes a number of possible interpretations of these results. To me the most plausible of Fischer’s interpretations is that people mean something entirely different by “individualism.” His suggestions for what people really mean by “individualism,” however, don’t fit the data he proposes. One is anti-statism, but it’s hard to reconcile anti-statism with a hardcore belief in the State’s laws. He admits that another of his suggestions, voluntarism (sortof a cross between voluntaryism and tribalism), is refuted by the data he presents.

His last, “you’re on your own” laissez-faire capitalism, is more credible. This incidentally ties the topic very much to atomism, since refusing to support the lives of others is like treating them as individuals living in a vacuum. There is also the belief that anyone who refuses to follow market diktats or the law “gets what they deserve.” Capitalism, because of its competitive nature, is inherently conformist and collectivist.

However, I am not sure how complete of an answer this is, since I’ve also met humanist liberals who were fanatically collectivist. So while this is definitely part of the answer, there must be some more fundamental issue at hand. What that issue is, I couldn’t say.

At any rate, the “people get what they deserve” explanation is validated by this data posted by the Sociological Images blog:

About 62% of Americans think that “people get rewarded for their effort,” compared to about 35% of citizens in our national comparison group.
About 70% of Americans think that “people get rewarded for their intelligence and skills,” compared to about 40% of citizens in our national comparison group.
About 19% of Americans think that “coming from a wealthy family is essential/very important to getting ahead,” compared to about 29% of citizens in our national comparison group.
About 62% of Americans think that “differences in income in their country are too large,” compared to about 87% of citizens in our national comparison group.
And about 33% of Americans think that “it is the responsibility of the government to reduce the differences in income,” compared to about 69% of citizens in our national comparison group.

This data further illustrates the difference between individualism and the belief in competition, which makes people feel justified in their atomism. After all, if the economic order is just and people are rewarded for their efforts, then there’s no point in helping the poor or trying to further the cause of equality, or so goes the reasoning. In fact, such things may be harmful to society as a whole. But this line of reasoning necessarily implies a strong collectivist belief: you either conform to the norms of success of the economic system or you perish. Individualism, which cannot exist if one cannot meets eir basic needs, has no place in this peculiar American way of thinking.

There is also an implicit threat in these principles: if people get rewarded for their effort, then people who are not rewarded must not have put in the effort necessary. If people get rewarded for their skills, then those who go unrewarded must be useless to society. Of course, these are fallacies of Denying the Antecedent. But these fallacies are used to persecute people.

What are “American values”? A study by Edward Steele and Charles Redding done in 1961 has identified a number of what we could call specifically American values. Amongst these values are Puritanism (there are good and bad people, if you’re not with us, you’re against us), success (money, status, power, property), and optimism (if you work hard, you will succeed). Again, there is nothing individualistic about such values. If you don’t conform, you are against us, and you deserve every hardship you get.

The flip-side of this is that Americans are particularly complacent and meek compared to the rest of the world, something which again goes against stereotypes. American protests don’t accomplish anything any more, all they do is march. When someone does anything that has any effect, they are immediately decried by everyone else, including the protestors. Americans have also seemingly given up on any kind of social change that doesn’t go through political channels. They are cowed.

I’ve read the book Bright-Sided recently, on the invasion of positive thought cultism in American business culture and Christian culture. I think it goes a long way towards explaining why Americans are so complacent. The basic premise of positive thought culture is that whatever good or evil that happens to a person is caused by that person’s thoughts. A further corollary is that, in order to be successful, people must concentrate on themselves, not on social conditions. Like all forms of thought-stopping, its social purpose is to divert attention from the attacks of the power elite against the freedoms of the average person.

One could imagine positive psychology, or a more liberal expression thereof, spawning a movement to alter social arrangements in the direction of greater happiness- by advocating more democratically organized workplaces, to suggest just one example. Instead, positive psychology seems to have weighed in on the side of the employers… “Hard-headed corporate culture is becoming interested in how to get more work out of fewer workers. They’re realizing that if their workers are happy, they will work harder and more productively…”

Positive thought cultism is not, by far, the entire answer, but it is one element of it. From the surveys, it’s clear that belief in capitalism has a big part in it.

6 thoughts on “Are Americans individualists? Studies say… absolutely not!

  1. Fazer Eyes June 12, 2012 at 02:25

    Typo in paragraph 5.

  2. sbt42 June 13, 2012 at 06:33

    Here in the US, I think it’s a fascinating (in a dreadful sense), complex implementation of statist propaganda that promotes the _state-defined_ ideas of individualism and patriotism. For example: firearm ownership and demonstrations against the governments are decried as fringe behaviours that go against the mainstream, while patriotism/cultural homogeneity, enrollment in the armed forces, and respect for authority/”knowing your place” are promoted as ways to “keep America strong.”

    Something about “if you tell a lie long enough and often enough, it becomes the truth” fits here. Of course, buying out media outlets with government subsidies and kickbacks also helps to transmit the message, however misleading.

  3. […] in a society which has the greatest inequality and penal population in the first world, as well as one of the most conformist and anti-individualist. To call this delusional would be […]

  4. […] always extend this admiration to moral independence in our daily lives. As I discussed in this entry, anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of people state they believe that morality is not a matter of […]

  5. […] previously wrote an entry about how Americans are not individualists. Well, this article in the Boston Globe brings a lot more evidence to the fore regarding the issue […]

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