To most Americans, freedom and independence are the highest possible cultural values, followed by self-reliance and pride. If you've grown up in the United States, the idea that individualism isn't a universal value may even be shocking. And yet not everyone shares the American sense of the independent self. In fact, in many cultures, the sense of self is inextricable from the family, group, and surrounding society.
Stanford psychologist Hazel Rose Markus explains:
"We take the view of culture as something that people do rather than something that people have. If you change the cultural system, you can change the self that goes with it. You get a different selfway, you get a different self."
Much psychological research in the past has assumed that every person worldwide develops a sense of autonomous self in one way or another, but Markus' work shows that this isn't exactly the case. In fact, our cultures shape even our unconscious thinking. In her experiments, she has found, for example, in giving students a creativity test, American students who were told they did well tried to solve more of the problems, while those told they did poorly lost interest.
Conversely, Japanese students who were told they did poorly were the ones who continued to work. She concludes that the interdependent self concept of the Japanese students led them to work hard in order to measure up to a standard, while the independent self concept of the American students reacted to a sense of pride and desire to stand out.
Markus notes that the entire American experience—our political system, our media, the ways in which we raise our children—is predicated upon this model of the independent self. Individualism, it turns out, is something we do.
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photo by matthew griffiths