Not Much 'Us' in the U.S.

We're often told that we are "interdependent" - that we must "work together" to keep the country safe or prosperous or in the forefront of progress.

President Obama, like President Bush before him, frequently makes that point in his speeches. For example, in his second inaugural address he said, "The American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone."

This call to act jointly for the common good comes at us from many directions - when we are asked to conserve or recycle to save the planet, or donate time or money to help the needy, or get a flu shot to protect others from getting sick.

The people sending these messages apparently are convinced that Americans believe deeply in the power and importance of teamwork.

But just how responsive are we to such appeals? Does thinking of "we" actually motivate us as much as thinking of just "me?"

Well, according to a recent study by researchers at Stanford University, for many Americans, the answer is no.

In fact, quite the opposite, as the title of the study makes clear: "In the Land of the Free, Interdependent Action Undermines Motivation."

The study finds that although we often imagine ourselves as team players, we really aren't because our national culture has always put the highest value on independence and personal action. We admire the lone wolf much more than the pack.

"Decades of research in the social sciences have shown that fostering people's sense of independence is the most effective driver of behavior among Americans," study co-author MarYam Hamedani told the Association for Psychological Science. "We suspected that while Americans might say they like the idea of working together and cooperating, such appeals may not motivate them to action."

So Hamedani and her colleagues conducted three experiments to test that suspicion. They selected groups of students for each experiment with roughly half of each group made up of Americans of European descent, and half of Americans of Asian descent.

In the first two experiments, students were given difficult mental and physical challenges and "primed" to think of themselves as either working independently or interdependently before they tackled them.

The results? The European Americans primed for interdependence worked less hard on the tasks and gave up sooner than those seeing themselves as working independently.

In the third experiment, students were asked their opinions about a proposed class on promoting environmental sustainability after viewing a website about the course. The same information about the class was given to everyone - except the way that learning goals and participation structures were framed.

"In the independent course frame, students were told that they would take charge of sustainable solutions, learn to work autonomously, develop personal skills ... and cultivate expertise in individual action," the researchers explain.
"In the interdependent course frame, students were instead told that they would work together for sustainable solutions, learn to collaborate with others, develop skills for social coordination ... and cultivate expertise in social action."

The results were the same as in the first two experiments: The European Americans who were told the course involved interdependent elements said they would put less effort into it, and would be less likely to agree that the college should require all students to take the course.

Interestingly, the Asian-American students were not affected by the way the tasks or the class were presented. The researchers say that's because they were influenced by both the American preference for independence and the traditional Asian preference for interdependence. They valued "me" and "we" fairly equally.

The study characterizes the effects among the European Americans as "robust" - meaning that in all three experiments they saw big differences when appealing to individual vs. group action.

These results, the researchers conclude, "suggest that the frequent and pressing calls for Americans to recognize their shared fate and think collectively may result in the unintended consequences of undermining the very motivation they seek to inspire."

That may come as a surprise to all the politicians, advocates, preachers and marketers who regularly rely on the rhetoric of "together" to spur people to action. If Hamedani is right, they're pushing the wrong buttons - or at least not pushing all the right ones.

"Appeals to interdependence might sound nice or like the right thing to do, but they will not get the job done for many Americans," Hamedani told APS.

Basically, "in the land of the free," many Americans are much too enamored of their personal independence to respond reliably to calls to "work together."

The researchers say that will remain true until the idea that "our destiny is 'stitched together'" is "valued and promoted" and "more consistently and effectively represented in the ideas, practices, products, and institutions... of the American mainstream."

Each of us strikes our own balance between "we" and "me," but most of us would agree that a balance is needed, or at least say that we agree.

So the study is certainly food for thought.

To be consumed on your own, or with others, as you please.

Rich Lewis, a former reporter and editor, teaches at Dickinson College. He can be reached at His column appears Sundays in The Sentinel (Carlisle, PA).