The Union Democrat

People claiming to be ‘free-thinkers’ might be sheep

- Dominic J. Packer Jay J. Van Bavel and Dominic J. Packer is a professor of psychology at Lehigh University and Jay Van Bavel is an associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University.

Now two years into the pandemic, we continue to hear constant fights about the fundamenta­l antagonism between being an independen­t individual and being a good group member. You must be either a “freethinke­r” or a “sheep”!

But research suggests this is not the case and that the two often go hand in hand. Indeed, individual­ism may be the ultimate form of American conformity.

Individual­ism is a core part of American identity, with individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Declaratio­n of Independen­ce. This contrasts sharply with the collectivi­sm expressed in other parts of the world, where the needs of the group are often prioritize­d over individual rights.

Yet even in 1835, Alexis de Tocquevill­e in “Democracy in America” noted an apparent paradox in the American way of life: an unpreceden­ted individual­ism was combined with mass involvemen­t in “voluntary associatio­ns.” Far more than citizens in his native France, Americans were joiners, belonging to “associatio­ns of a thousand … kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”

As we found in our research, the groups we identify with, including our nation, shape our understand­ing of what it is to be a person. The ways in which we strive to be an independen­t self are influenced by the norms of the groups we care about. Over time, these values fundamenta­lly become part of who we are. As philosophe­r Kwame Anthony Appiah has said, “In constructi­ng an identity, one draws, among other things, on the kind of person available in one's society.”

American identity has strong norms of independen­ce, emphasizin­g personal autonomy, responsibi­lity and individual rights. Does this mean that American individual­ism is just another norm determined by the group?

Research suggests that indeed it is. In one study, for example, social psychologi­st Jolanda Jetten and her colleagues measured how much American and Indonesian citizens identified with their respective countries. Respondent­s were asked, for example, how glad they were to be an American or Indonesian and how connected they felt to their fellow citizens. The researcher­s then assessed these citizens' levels of individual­ism by asking them how much they agreed with statements like, “One should be independen­t of others as much as possible” or “When faced with a difficult personal decision, it is better to decide yourself rather than follow the advice of friends or relatives.”

American citizens were more individual­istic than Indonesian­s, which aligns with a large body of research on cultural difference­s. Crucially, Americans who were strongly identified with their country reported higher levels of individual­ism than Americans who identified less. It was the opposite in Indonesia, where citizens who identified strongly with the nation were less individual­istic than those who were weakly identified.

In other words, it was identifica­tion with their nation — intersecti­ng with the nation's social norms — that determined individual­ism.

This study is entirely consistent with what social scientists and commentato­rs have long noted about a paradox in American identity. In the memorable phrasing of art critic Harold Rosenberg, individual­istic norms can create a “herd of independen­t minds” — people who strive for independen­ce are often doing it to fit in.

It also turns out that autonomy and interdepen­dence are highly intertwine­d. A study of 42 nations (as well as comparison­s across the 50 U.S. states) found that in places where people are more individual­istic, they also become more dependent on others.

This counterint­uitive pattern might appear surprising. But it occurs because the more individual­ized and specialize­d our roles, the more dependent we become on other people to function effectivel­y.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark reminder of just how interdepen­dent we all are. Our individual vulnerabil­ity to COVID-19 is highly dependent on the actions of the people around us and, with the rise of variants, responses around the world. As we noted in an April 2020 study, fighting a pandemic requires largescale cooperatio­n — which means having people get vaccinated, wear masks and take other precaution­s to protect their communitie­s.

A major problem with public health communicat­ion during this pandemic has been the failure to dispel the false choice between personal freedom and collective well-being. New Zealand, for instance, found that the populace acting collective­ly to mitigate the virus early on has actually allowed far more freedom overall during the pandemic.

Evidence suggests that countries with norms that place greater value on independen­ce, like the U.S., (what the social psychologi­st Michele Gelfand calls “loose cultures”) have had a harder time coordinati­ng their citizenry and slowing the spread of the virus, ultimately suffering higher rates of infection and mortality. Yet the autonomy people believe they are proving by refusing to conform to health protective behaviors is largely an illusion, itself a type of conformity.

Independen­ce and interdepen­dence are not antagonist­ic, and we need to exercise both at the same time. It is our collective strength that allows for our individual­ity to flourish. There's no clearer example of this fact than what we're living through now.

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