It is as foolish to characterize a nation by only one trait as it is to characterize a person by only one trait. Yet such simplifications can be helpful. A “happy-go-lucky” person, for example, will regularly respond to a range of situations differently than a chronic worrier (and probably live longer, too). Identifying key traits provides expectations and explanations for behavior.
If one had to characterize American culture by one basic, core trait, it would not be individualism, but something deeper: the assumption that people are unique and sovereign individuals. This belief is novel – even outlandish – in world historical perspective. Yet, it determines much of American distinctiveness.
Each person is, Americans generally assume, a unique and sovereign individual: Deep down, below the layers of conformity that family and society have laid upon each of us, is a singular “true self” as idiosyncratic as a snowflake. We value the person who strips away that conformity, finds his or her distinctive nature, and acts faithfully to it. Mr. Rogers of children’s public television would tell his viewers every day: “There’s only one you . . . You are very special . . . Only you know what you feel.”
This unique person, we believe, ought to be and, in fact, is independent, self-governing, and ultimately self-responsible. We extol the “self-made man,” tolerate “no excuses,” and are embarrassed by “hand-outs.” Early American thinkers stressed how important it was that individuals attain what they called “competency” or “virtue.” These terms referred to the autonomy – and the duties – that came with having property sufficient to support a household (see, e.g., here). Only the “competent” and “virtuous” – in those days they could only be well-to-do white men — could sustain democracy.
If anything, our emphasis on autonomy has only increased since then. Over recent decades national surveys have asked Americans which key values ought to be taught to children. The proportion of respondents who choose traits such as independence and self-direction (e.g., thinking for oneself) has increased while the proportion picking characteristics like obedience and conformity (e.g., being popular) has declined (see here).
Contrast our American assumption of the unique and sovereign self to what most cultures in most times have assumed: that a person is in essence a piece of the social whole, largely interchangeable with others in his or her family or clan; this social person acts out a standard role determined by God, fate, and his or her betters. Understanding people this way makes it seem sensible and moral to, for example, exact collective punishment; hurting an offender’s cousin is essentially the same as hurting him.
Not so in American culture. The central emphasis on the sovereign individual yields a variety of distinctive features today.
Psychologists who study cross-cultural differences have developed a long list of the ways that westerners differ from other humans — and Americans are the most “western” of westerners. In a recent, well-publicized paper, three Canadian psychologists asked whether we were “the weirdest people in the world” and, after reviewing the research literature, answered yes.
One way Americans are “weird” is our susceptibility to the “fundamental attribution error.” This is the psychological tendency to explain other persons’ actions as a result of their personal traits and wills – “He had that accident because he is a careless person and was in such a hurry” – rather than by circumstances – “… because the road was wet.” (At the same time, we are especially likely to see our own actions, if they end poorly, as a result of circumstances – “the guy cut me off” – so as to protect our elevated self-esteem.) This explanatory style follows from the notion that the individual, rather than the gods, luck, or rulers, makes his or her own fate.
The assumption of the sovereign person also underlies Americans’ emphasis on self-reliance, which shows up in our cultural expressions (see this previous post on Emerson and Thoreau), in our especially high tendency to blame the poor for being poor, and in our general resistance to government action.
This assumption underlies our conviction that everyone has, or should have, his or her own, self-crafted opinions. Teachers and professors, for example, require students to write essays with their individual, preferably idiosyncratic, take on issues. In other cultures, memorizing and repeating the views of the great thinkers makes more sense, but we want even preadolescents to give us their personal opinions on, say, war and peace, democracy, or the nature of the divine.
Another fruit of this assumption is the American insistence on choice – on having the freedom to choose, on having many choices, and on choosing as central to what it means to be a person. Free adults make their own choices, we insist, and we know a person’s character by the choices he or she makes. (See, for example, this article and this video.) One study showed that American children did better on tasks when they were allowed to choose those tasks while Asian children did better when they were told that their mothers had chosen the tasks for them.
Even the development of economics as a discipline was different in America: our economists have insisted much more on the logic of free market choice than economists in Europe have (see here).
A last illustration: The sovereign individual assumption sustains the long-standing American preference for living on one’s own. When the finances make it possible, both the elderly and young singles try to have their own homes. The recent economic downturn has created a “crisis” of “boomerang kids,” whose return home is seen as a social problem (see, e.g., here and here). Elsewhere, it is normal or even preferred that youngsters live with their parents until they marry – or even after. We Americans see such young adults as not really adult; they lack “competence.”
This fundamental belief that the social world is made up of separate, distinct, independent, and self-determining individuals is exceptionally American and is one of the key elements of our culture that make us exceptional in other ways as well.
(This column was cross-posted on The Berkeley Blog on January 12, 2012.)