Why Americans Don't Join Together: A Scientific Analysis

PHOTO: President Barack Obama gives his Inaugural address on the West Front of the Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013, during the ceremonial swearing-in ceremony during the 57th Presidential Inauguration.
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President Barack Obama's repeated calls for national unity and dedication to the common good probably fell mostly on deaf ears, according to some researchers, because of a misunderstanding of a peculiar trait that marks most of us as Americans.

All our lives we've been told that Americans are independent-minded individuals responsible for their own actions and charting their own course. This is, after all, the home of the free.

So when the president said in his second inaugural address that "The American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone," the researchers say he overlooked the fact that most Americans consider themselves independent mavericks, at least to some degree.

If he had called us all mavericks, he probably would have ended up with a lot more joiners. At least that's the implication in a new study from Stanford University, published in the journal Psychological Science, which found that if you tell Americans to cooperate, they will probably balk. Tell them they are independent individuals who don't need any help and they will more likely join in.

That may sound counterintuitive, but it is supported by a series of experiments involving 392 college students from two different social and cultural backgrounds – European-American, and East Asian-American. The experiments were designed to show how different cultures influence people's willingness to engage others in a common task. The researchers were building on volumes of research showing that Americans tend to think of themselves as independent, while people in East Asia often learn, as a matter of culture, to focus their lives on their communities and families, and thus are more interdependent.

Related: Why Washington Is Gridlocked: A Scientific View

"We found across our studies that when we ask white Americans to think of themselves as interdependent (think joiners) with others, we see a decrease in their motivation to act. They persist less at difficult challenges, and these effects are quite powerful," said MarYam Hamedani, associate director of Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and lead author of the study, in a telephone interview.

The research was carried out by three social psychologists with different ethnic backgrounds. Hamedani is Iranian-American, Hazel Rose Markus was born in England and raised in the United States, and Alyssa S. Fu is Asian-American.

When white Americans were told to think of themselves as independent and self-reliant, they performed much better on the tests, indicating they were highly motivated, even though they may have been told to do something they were not particularly anxious to do.

However, it didn't matter what the Asian-Americans were told to think. Their motivation to join in remained high, whether they thought of themselves as independent or dependent on others.

Motivation is the key here. When the idea of cooperation was brought up during the experiments, white Americans generally performed less effectively -- thus showing less motivation -- than Asian Americans.

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