Opinion | Does Individualism Make Americans Selfish? Research says no.


How does individualism promote altruism? One possibility, supported by other research, is that people in individualistic cultures generally report higher degrees of “prosperity” and satisfaction with life goals – and as noted above, these subjective feelings are significantly correlated. to a greater amount of altruism. (Indeed, research has shown that being altruistic, in turn, promotes a greater sense of personal well-being, create a virtuous circle.)

Another possibility is that individualism stimulates altruism by psychologically freeing people to pursue goals that they find meaningful – goals that can include things like alleviating suffering and caring for others, which studies to suggest are widespread moral values.

A third possibility is that individualism promotes a more universalist view. By focusing on individual rights and well-being, it reduces the focus on groups – and the differences between “us” and “them” which noticeably erode generosity to those outside of one’s own circle. .

To be sure, people in more individualistic countries are not uniformly altruistic. Many are not – and many people in more collectivist countries are. But it seems that individualism is fundamentally misunderstood.

Political liberals, for example, often express concern that individualism breeds selfishness, but they may not realize that individualism actually promotes the values ​​they cherish most, as opposed to the values ​​they hold most dear. more traditional “binding” such as obedience to authority and loyalty within the group.

Political conservatives, for their part, often argue that there is a contradiction between individualism and strong welfare policies – that you have to choose between them. But the data does not support it. The United States is an exception among wealthy, individualistic countries in failing to guarantee its citizens health insurance, sick leave, parental leave, and child care. By comparison, countries like Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand all have strong social protection programs and are ranked among the top 10 most individualistic countries in the world – as well as among the most altruistic.

America has many problems, including political polarization, collapsing trust in institutions, and economic inequality – some of which are the result of genuine selfishness on the part of citizens and government leaders. But none of these problems are the result of our individualism. Far from being our worst trait, individualism is perhaps one of our best.

Abigail Marsh (@aa_marsh) is Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Georgetown University and author of “The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-Between.”

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