A Sustainable Point of View

We Are All Individuals: The Limits Of A Worldview

We Are All Individuals: The Limits Of A Worldview

Individualism is belief system about self-determination, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Evidence shows that this doesn’t necessarily make us happy. The “culture of Me” can leave us feeling judged, small and alone, and can disconnect us from a meaningful sense of communal life and contribution. So where does it come from? Ironically, individualism is cultural, and culture is a natural phenomena that reflects humanity’s deep human need for collective meaning. Paradoxically, then, the “culture of Me” is itself evidence that individuals crave something bigger than themselves, an incongruity at the heart of American life.

This is part one of a story in four parts:

  • We Are All Individuals: The Limits of A Worldview – Individualism is a system of cultural meaning, one that make us neurotic and unhappy and hides an intuitive truth: that we have more in common than we think.
  • The Unknown Story of Evolutionary Neurodiversity: A Tale of Two Temperaments – Though culture often demands ideological conformity, an evolutionary phenomenon called neurodiversity makes that nigh impossible. Neurodiversity is the basis for broad biological differences in how a given population makes meaning of the world; yet, its story – of purpose, politics, community, and mental health – remains largely unknown.
  • A Functioning Cog In Some Great Machinery: Evolutionary Purpose & Mental Health – Neurodiversity evolved as an interaction between culture and genes for temperament; consequently, our cultural environment determines whether we experience that temperament as serving a “purpose,” or as the friction and sparks of mental ill-health.
  • Neurodiversity & Ideology: Politics In The Hive Mind – Just as invisible as our neurodiverse temperaments, are the deep coalitions they form in society, what we call “liberals” and “conservatives.” Politics aren’t battles of reason and logic because each temperament has an incompatible biological paradigm, each with its own unique function in defacto cooperation with the other, even as we busy ourselves with bloody business of the culture wars.

Cultural Individualism

In the US we tend to assume that we know where our differences come from. On the one hand, we are all individual and unique, and our subjective idiosyncrasies make for the moral advantage of Western culture – that people can “be the author of their own stories” and “chase their bliss” or “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.” On the other hand, the fact we are all unique seems to imply that we are unequal – some people are better than others, smarter than others, more moral than others. Some people are just born better or worse than others and something something something that is why some people have, and some people do not.

Implicit in this is an assumption we call methodological individualism (MI) – the assumption that all group behavior can be reduced to individual motivations. At first blush, this doesn’t seem important; after all, it was first articulated by Max Weber, a sociologist trying to improve social theory by making group-level phenomena more explainable. But MI came to have political implications in Western culture because it privileged the individual as the source of causal attribution. The implication is that we should look at our differences in terms of how they serve us as individuals, whether as a question of our fitness in evolution, our normalcy in psychology, or our rationality in economics. And if our differences are value-laden first and foremost, almost every way in which we differ becomes an axis of competition; our differences presumably exist to sort who is better and worse. We are all chasing the ideal of being the best individual, and statistically, most of us are failing.

Which is why it becomes important to get some perspective on where this interpretation comes from. When we look at ourselves and others in this way, it has to do with a quality of American society that is unique among world cultures: US culture rates higher than any other on the dimension of cultural individualism (CI) (a 91 out of 100 on Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions scale).

Cultural Dimensions - US 01A

From Geert Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions: The United States (https://geert-hofstede.com/united-states.html)

That we think this is unequivocally good is uniquely American. What is less controversial is that individualism implies specific tropes for how we think about ourselves and others.*

*In fact, though I *just* attributed the origins of methodological individualism to Max Weber, I should pull back from the historicism by framing a different question: why did methodological individualism become the foundation of Western culture in the first place? The answer is that cultural individualism provided the intellectual soil for the idea to take root, and so CI is ultimately the source for Western social science.

For instance, in their paper “Rethinking Individualism and Collectivism,” University of Michigan authors Oyserman, Coon & Kemmelmeier found that you could find common and predictable assumptions of an individualistic worldview:

  • Hofstede (1980) emphasizes: a focus on rights above duties, a concern for oneself and immediate family, an emphasis on personal autonomy and self-fulfillment, and the basing of one’s identity on one’s personal accomplishments
  • Waterman (1984) on normative individualism: a focus on personal responsibility and freedom of choice, living up to one’s potential, and respecting the integrity of others.
  • Schwartz (1990) on individualistic societies: a fundamentally contractual, consisting of narrow primary groups and negotiated social relations, with specific obligations and expectations focusing on achieving status.

Writes the University of Michigan authors:

These definitions all conceptualize individualism as a worldview that centralizes the personal—personal goals, personal uniqueness, and personal control—and peripheralizes the social. Given these definitions, plausible consequences of individualism for psychology—self-concept, well-being, attribution style, and relationality—are easily discerned.

First, with regard to self-concept, individualism implies that (a) creating and maintaining a positive sense of self is a basic human endeavor; (b) feeling good about oneself, personal success, and having many unique or distinctive personal attitudes and opinions are valued; and (c) abstract traits (as opposed to social, situational descriptors) are central to self-definition.

Second, with regard to well-being, individualism implies that open emotional expression and attainment of one’s personal goals are important sources of well-being and life satisfaction.

Third, individualism implies that judgment, reasoning, and causal inference are generally oriented toward the person rather than the situation or social context because the decontextualized self is assumed to be a stable, causal nexus. Consequently, individualism promotes a decontextualized, as opposed to a situation-specific, reasoning style, one that assumes social information is not bound to social context.

Last, with regard to relationality, individualism implies a somewhat ambivalent stance. Individuals need relationships and group memberships to attain self-relevant goals, but relationships are costly to maintain. Theorists assume that individualists apply equity norms to balance relationships costs and benefits, leaving relationships and groups when the costs of participation exceed the benefits and creating new relationships as personal goals shift. Therefore, theorists assume that for individualists, relationships and group memberships are impermanent and non-intensive.

This is what an individualistic paradigm looks like. The emphasis on individual choice, personal freedom and self-actualization means that we tend to attribute our differences to our own personality, strengths and weaknesses. If pushed, we can follow those back to our brain, which was shaped by our genes, which was shaped by an evolutionary process that favors one individual over another. The individual is at the center of the universe from the highest levels and all the way down.

But are we guided to these conclusions by the data? Or do we find data to fit our expectations? The question the University of Michigan authors asked was, does an individualistic worldview start with an accurate psychological and behavioral theory, or does the theory come from the worldview?

Oyserman, Coon & Kemmelmeier got at this question in a unique way: by trying to ascertain whether the most vocal champions of the worldview – America’s European-descended white males – really are the most individualistic group as we would expect from their Hofstede score. They did so by measuring how individualistic or collectivistic their behavior really was, and comparing the results to other ethnic groups around the world. What they found was interesting – European white males are less individualistic than Puerto Ricans and African-Americans, and more collectivistic than the Japanese and Koreans. In other words, Americans practice an individualistic belief system more than most, yet individualism isn’t necessarily the best way to understand their actual behavior.

The authors conclude:

As we demonstrate in subsequent sections, contemporary American psychological research is particularly suited to an individualistic worldview and may not necessarily fit as a universal model of human behavior to the extent that other peoples or regions of the world are sharply different from Americans in individualism and collectivism. For example, self-concept research is dominated both by a focus on self-esteem and by the belief that attainment of personal happiness is a basic motivational drive. Likewise, person perception and cognitive processes are understood in terms of stable traits, and equity is viewed as the basis for successful relationships. These research frames fit individualistic, not collectivistic, conceptions of human nature.

Individualism, then, creates a kind of style of thinking about, and making-meaning of, the world; a paradigm. Paradoxically, it is a collective belief system about being independent and rational; a social phenomena that “peripheralizes the social;” a collective worldview about collective worldviews being the enemy. Contradictions like these make the American worldview like lots of others, full of meaning and ideals that limit how self-aware subscribers can be to their own condition, while keeping our sacred myths from ever being fully-realized. And maybe that is good news – it shows that our ways of understanding ourselves and our differences are a partial story at best, right down to the manufactured tensions between us.

Despite the contradictions, American individualism shows that our fractured ways of looking at the world and each other really come from a singular paradigm that paradoxically unites us. Even as we attribute the origins of our paradigm to our traits and life experiences, willpower and strategies, brains and genes, we are bound to a single cultural meaning-making lens called methodological individualism that puts individuals at the center of our universe.

Quite in contrast to that vision of the universe, this common paradigm can be seen as evidence that we are all pulled into something bigger than ourselves: an American complex adaptive system that biologically, psychologically and culturally links us like cells in a superorganism. As we will see, such complex systems may have evolved and flourished using synergistic neurodiversity to keep the system afloat and evolving: different biopsychosocial strategies for making meaning, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and social hierarchies. Through this neurodiversity we find that individualism isn’t really dead after all; it is alive and well as something called temperamental individualismLess factual, more functional, this definitely ain’t your grand pappy’s American Dream.

Continued in: The Unknown Story of Evolutionary Neurodiversity: A Tale of Two Temperaments