Opinion | Does Individualism Make Americans Selfish? Research Says No.

The United States is notable for its individualism. The outcomes of a number of giant surveys assessing the values held by the folks of assorted nations persistently rank the United States because the world’s most individualist nation. Individualism, as outlined by behavioral scientists, means valuing autonomy, self-expression and the pursuit of non-public targets somewhat than prioritizing the pursuits of the group — be it household, group or nation.

Whether America’s individualism is a supply of delight or concern varies. Some folks extol this mind-set as a supply of our entrepreneurial spirit, self-reliance and geographic mobility. Others fear that our individualism is antithetical to a way of social accountability, whether or not which means refusing to put on masks and get vaccinated through the pandemic or disrupting the shut household bonds and social ties seen in additional conventional societies.

Everyone appears to agree that our individualism makes us self-centered or egocentric, and to disagree solely about how regarding that’s.

But new analysis suggests the other: When evaluating international locations, my colleagues and I discovered that larger ranges of individualism had been linked to extra generosity — not much less — as we element in a forthcoming article within the journal Psychological Science.

For our analysis, we gathered knowledge from 152 international locations regarding seven distinct types of altruism and generosity. The seven kinds included three responses to survey questions administered by Gallup about giving cash to charity, volunteering and serving to strangers, and 4 items of goal knowledge: per capita donations of blood, bone marrow and organs, and the humane remedy of nonhuman animals (as gauged by the Animal Protection Index).

We discovered that international locations that scored extremely on one type of altruism tended to attain extremely on the others, too, suggesting that broad cultural elements had been at play. When we appeared for elements that had been related to altruism throughout nations, two specifically stood out: numerous measures of “flourishing” (together with subjectively reported well-being and goal metrics of prosperity, literacy and longevity) and individualism.

The undeniable fact that international locations wherein persons are flourishing are additionally these wherein folks have interaction in larger altruism is in line with earlier analysis exhibiting that individuals who report excessive ranges of non-public well-being have a tendency to interact in additional constructive, beneficiant social behaviors.

That individualism was carefully related to altruism was extra stunning. But even after statistically controlling for wealth, well being, schooling and different variables, we discovered that in additional individualist international locations just like the Netherlands, Bhutan and the United States, folks had been extra altruistic throughout our seven indicators than had been folks in additional collectivist cultures — even rich ones — like Ukraine, Croatia and China.

On common, folks in additional individualist international locations donate extra money, extra blood, extra bone marrow and extra organs. They extra typically assist others in want and deal with nonhuman animals extra humanely. If individualism had been equal to selfishness, none of this could make sense.

How does individualism handle to advertise altruism? One risk, supported by different analysis, is that folks in individualist cultures usually report larger levels of “thriving” and satisfaction of life targets — and as famous above, such subjective emotions are meaningfully correlated with larger quantities of altruism. (Indeed, analysis has proven that being altruistic, in flip, promotes larger emotions of non-public well-being, making a virtuous circle.)

Another risk is that individualism boosts altruism by psychologically liberating folks to pursue targets that they discover significant — targets that may embody issues like assuaging struggling and caring for others, which research counsel are widespread ethical values.

A 3rd risk is that individualism promotes a extra universalist outlook. In specializing in particular person rights and welfare, it reduces the emphasis on teams — and the variations between “us” and “them” that notoriously erode generosity towards these exterior one’s personal circle.

To be certain, folks in additional individualist international locations aren’t uniformly altruistic. Plenty aren’t — and loads of folks in additional collectivist international locations are. But evidently individualism is essentially misunderstood.

Political liberals, for instance, typically specific concern that individualism begets selfishness, however they might not notice that individualism truly promotes the values they most prize, versus extra conventional “binding” values like obedience to authority and in-group loyalty.

Political conservatives, for his or her half, typically argue that there’s a contradiction between individualism and robust social welfare insurance policies — that you have to select between them. But the info don’t assist that. The United States is an outlier amongst rich, individualist international locations in failing to ensure its residents medical health insurance, sick depart, parental care depart and youngster care. By comparability, international locations like Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand all have robust social welfare applications and are ranked among the many 10 most individualist nations on the earth — in addition to among the most altruistic.

America has many issues, together with political polarization, plummeting belief in establishments and financial inequality — a few of which consequence from true selfishness on the a part of residents and authorities leaders. But none of those issues is a results of our individualism. Far from being our worst trait, individualism could also be amongst our greatest.

Abigail Marsh (@aa_marsh) is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University and the creator of “The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between.”

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