Why Americans Don't Join Together: A Scientific Analysis

Scientists say cultural differences explain why Americans don't join together.

January 30, 2013, 7:43 PM

Jan. 31, 2013 — -- 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.

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."