Midterm Election Proved Don’t-Tread-On-Me Individualism in WEIRD America

BY Paul Solman  November 9, 2010 at 11:20 AM EDT

As to the midterm election last week, the following is prompted by an academic paper urged upon me by several top psychology professors, for reasons having nothing to do with the voting to come.

The paper, by psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine and Ara Norenzayan, all of the University of British Columbia is called “The Weirdest People in the World.

“WEIRD” stands for “Western,” “educated,” “industrialized,” “rich” and “democratic.”

The nub of the paper:

(1) the database in the behavioral sciences is drawn from an extremely narrow slice of human diversity; and (2) behavioral scientists routinely assume, at least implicitly, that their findings from this narrow slice generalize to the species.

The kicker: this slice is NEEDLE’S-EYE narrow:

A recent analysis of the top journals in six sub-disciplines of psychology from 2003-2007 revealed that 68% of subjects came from the US, and a full 96% of subjects were from Western industrialized countries, specifically North America, Europe, Australia, and Israel (Arnett 2008). The make-up of these samples appears to largely reflect the country of residence of the authors, as 73% of first authors were at American universities, and 99% were at universities in Western countries. This means that 96% of psychological samples come from countries with only 12% of the world’s population. Put another way, a randomly selected American is 300 times more likely to be a research participant in a study in one of these journals than is a randomly selected person from outside of the West.

Making the sample weirder still: “67% of the American samples (and 80% of the samples from other countries) were composed solely of undergraduates in psychology courses”.

But what does this have to do with Tuesday’s results, you might well be asking? What struck me was this section, about the difference between Americans and other “Westerners” (emphasis ours):

Americans stand out relative to Westerners for phenomena that are associated with independent self-concepts and individualism. A number of analyses, using a diverse range of methods, reveal that Americans are, on average, the most individualistic people in the world (e.g., Hofstede 1980, Lipset 1996, Morling & Lamoreaux 2008, Oyserman et al. 2002). The observation that the U.S. is especially individualistic is not new, and dates at least as far back as Tocqueville (1835). The unusually individualistic nature of Americans may be caused by, or reflect, an ideology that particularly stresses the importance of freedom and self-sufficiency, as well as various practices in education and child-rearing that may help to inculcate this sense of autonomy. American parents, for example, were the only ones in a survey of 100 societies who created a separate room for their baby to sleep (Burton & Whiting 1961, also see Lewis 1995), reflecting that from the time they are born, Americans are raised in an environment that emphasizes their independence (on unusual nature of American childrearing, see Lancy 2009, Rogoff 2003).

The extreme individualism of Americans is evident on many demographic and political measures. In American Exceptionalism, sociologist Seymour Lipset (1996) documents a long list of the ways that Americans are unique in the Western world. At the time of Lipset’s surveys, compared with other Western industrialized societies, Americans were found to be the most patriotic, litigious, philanthropic, and populist (they have the most positions for elections and the most frequent elections, although they have among the lowest turnout rates). They were also among the most optimistic, and the least class-conscious. They were the most churchgoing in Protestantism, and the most fundamentalist in Christendom, and were more likely than others from Western industrialized countries to see the world in absolute moral terms. In contrast to other large Western industrialized societies, the US had the highest crime rate, the longest working hours, the highest divorce rate, the highest rate of volunteerism, the highest percentage of citizens that went on to post-secondary education, the highest productivity rate, the highest GDP, the highest poverty rate, the highest income inequality rate, and were in the least support of various governmental interventions. The U.S. is the only industrialized society that never had a viable socialist movement, and was the last country to get a national pension plan, unemployment insurance, accident insurance, and remains the only industrialized nation that does not have a general allowance for families or a national health insurance plan. In sum, there’s some reason to suspect that Americans might be different from other Westerners, as Tocqueville noted.

Remember, though: this is a psychology paper about how un-representative we are. So the argument returns to our psychological make-up. But even this has what you might call Tea Party implications.

Given the centrality of self-concept to so many psychological processes, it follows that the unusual emphasis on American individualism and independence would be reflected in a wide spectrum of self-related phenomena. For example, self-concepts are implicated when people make choices (e.g., Vohs et al. 2008). While Westerners tend to value choices more than non-Westerners (e.g., Iyengar & DeVoe 2003), Americans value making choices more still, and prefer more opportunities, than do those from elsewhere (Savani et al. in press). For example, in a survey of people from six Western countries, only Americans would prefer a choice from 50 different ice cream flavors compared with 10 different flavors. Likewise, Americans (and Britons) prefer to have more choices on menus from upscale restaurants than do those from other European countries (Rozin et al. 2006). The array of choices available, and people’s motivation to make such choices, are even more extreme in the U.S. compared to the rest of the West.”

Hope you find this all as pertinent as I do. After reading historian Sean Wilentz’s disturbing article on the renaissance of the Far Right in America, I was focused more on the anti-intellectualism of American life than its roots in don’t-tread-on-me individualism.