Why Americans Don't Join Together: A Scientific Analysis

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All of that shows what a dramatic impact a cultural and social background has on how we make fundamental decisions, like whether to join a movement or to hang back. Most Americans probably like to think of themselves as independent, maybe even mavericks, Bi-cultural persons who live daily in one environment that treasures independence but go home in the evening to another that is rich with interactions and social connections have no problem joining others, whether they are mavericks or joiners.

But are Americans a bunch of renegades at heart?

"This is not to say we don't value relationships or being a good team player, because we certainly do," said Hamedani, who has family in Italy as well as Iran. "But the behaviors that really stand out to us are the ones where we see someone acting as an individual.

"If you grow up in American society, your parents are more likely to have emphasized your uniqueness and encouraged you to be independent growing up. Those are the things you are rewarded for," Hamedani said. "The cowboy or the maverick or the pioneer are the things that tug on the American heartstrings or give us goose bumps. Those are the heroes we think about. These things are even encoded in the founding documents of our country, freedom and independence."

But does simply telling someone he or she is a maverick really make any difference?

These findings are based on a practice, called "priming," widely accepted in psychology and backed by decades of research. In a controlled environment, if you tell someone to recall a past event, or simply think of himself as independent, or dependent on others, that thought will carry over into subsequent thoughts and actions.

In the real world outside the lab, priming doesn't work very well. The outside world is a wild animal compared to a scientific laboratory, and telling a man to think he's a lover may not work well if he has just had a fight with his girlfriend. But in the lab, it is a valuable tool for exposing some of the complex workings of the human brain.

In this case, research suggests that how you ask someone to join a community effort may determine whether or not you are successful. Telling the world we need to work together sounds great, but may not be as effective as had been thought.

Or as the study put it, "…the frequent and pressing calls for Americans to recognize their shared fate and think collectively may result in unintended consequences of undermining the very motivation they seek to inspire."

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