Individualism vs. Social Science

04/05/2013 01:49 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

NPR's social science maven reported that President Obama may have undermined the success of gun control legislation when he stated that "We don't live in isolation, we live in a society. A government of, and for, and by the people. We are responsible for each other." Americans, Shankar Vendantam stated, care about individual rights and liberty, not the common good. As evidence he cited a research paper by MarYam Hamedani and her associates called, "In the Land of the Free, Interdependent Action Undermines Motivation," showing that when researchers evoke concepts of the common good -- the subjects did less well on various tasks than when no such concepts were evoked.

Much of the paper relies on the notoriously unreliable concept of psychological priming, contrived situations, and extremely trivial stimuli and responses. Thus, in one of the paper's experiments, students were asked to unscramble anagrams of communitarian words (e.g., "accommodate" or "coordinate") and then were given very difficult anagrams -- their motivation being measured in terms of how long they attempted to solve the puzzles. A second study by the authors had students role-play a job applicant "skilled at working with others," and then measured how long they would squeeze a handgrip -- a short squeeze was taken to show that communitarianism had undermined their motivation! In both cases, the authors found a measurable decline in motivation of the students when compared with various control groups.

Such "priming" has come under fire from many researchers who have been repeatedly unable to replicate these kinds of findings. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate, who at one point favored priming experiments, has recently expressed serious doubt their legitimacy, urging priming researchers to thoroughly address the charges of many skeptics, or else there may be a "train wreck looming" for the field.

An additional problem is that the tasks that the researchers asked students to perform were all individualistic ones. They did not explore how such prompting affects behavior when the task at hand requires teamwork, as is the case for much of work and life. There are a number of studies reporting that those with communitarian tendencies achieve greater success when working as teams (Lillian T. Eby & Gregory H. Dobbins, 1997), have greater work group commitment (Michael Clugston, Jon P. Howell & Peter W. Dorfman, 2000), and exhibit more behaviors associated with citizenship (Linn Van Dyne et al., 2000) than do their more individualistic peers. Such findings suggest that communitarian values have a positive effect on people's motivation to collaborate and achieve team-based objectives.

This conclusion is supported by other studies show that people are more motivated to contribute their time and effort if they believe they are being helpful and promoting the common good (Martha E. Kropf & Johnny Blair, 2005) . Furthermore, studies of voting show that the most important factor determining whether or not a person will vote is his or her sense of civic duty. And studies on recycling show that people are motivated to recycle not so much for themselves and their kids but for all of us.

More supporting evidence for the efficacy of communitarian calls to action can be found in public opinion polls. For instance, a 2006 poll found that "American voters are increasingly worried about rising materialism, self-interest, and unethical behavior in our society" and strongly desire a government that focuses on the common good and basic dignity of all Americans. For instance:

• Sixty-eight percent of voters strongly agree that the "government should be committed to the common good and put the public's interest above the privileges of the few" (Eighty-five percent agree overall).

• Seventy-three percent of Democrats, 62 percent of Independents, and 67 percent of Republicans strongly agree with a common good focus for government. A similar percentage of voters (68 percent) strongly agree that "government should uphold the basic decency and dignity of all and take greater steps to help the poor and disadvantaged in America" (Eighty-nine percent agree overall).
• Eighty percent of voters strongly agree that, "It's our moral and social responsibility to be good stewards of our land, air and water and leave the environment better than we found it."

NPR quotes MarYam Hamedani as concluding that, "When you look at American culture, independence is really foundational. From the founding documents of our nation to the heroes and the stories we tell, we really focus on the independent individual." Well, this is hardly the only way to read American history, society, and culture. For instance, in his account of the American Revolution, historian Gordon Wood writes that, for the American republicans, "True liberty was 'natural liberty restrained in such a manner, as to render society one great family; where every one must consult his neighbour's happiness as well as his own.' In a republic 'each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body.'"

EJ Dionne Jr., in his book Our Divided Political Heart, finds that American history reveals a tension between the values of individualism and community. Americans have strongly favor liberty and individual rights but strongly recognize the value of community, responsibility, and civic virtue. The founders referred to these values as liberalism and republicanism, and the effort to balance and reconcile them is what truly characterizes America.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction.