Why Is USA Different?

An excellent article back in June reviewed the many ways psychologists mostly get data from a very unrepresentative sample of humanity, what they call the WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. In the process, they review ways the US is exceptional:

Americans are, on average, the most individualistic people in the world. … American parents, for example, were the only ones in a survey of 100 societies who created a separate room for their baby to sleep. …

[In 1996], compared with other Western industrialized societies, Americans were found to be the most patriotic, litigious, philanthropic, and populist (they have the most positions for elections and the most frequent elections, although they have among the lowest voter turnout rates). They were also among the most optimistic, and the least class-conscious. They were the most churchgoing in Protestantism, and the most fundamentalist in Christendom, and were more likely than others from Western industrialized countries to see the world in absolute moral terms.

In contrast to other large Western industrialized societies, the United States had the highest crime rate, the longest working hours, the highest divorce rate, the highest rate of volunteerism, the highest percentage of citizens with a post-secondary education, the highest productivity rate, the highest GDP, the highest poverty rate, and the highest income-inequality rate; and Americans were the least supportive of various governmental interventions. …

In a survey of people from six Western countries, only Americans preferred a choice from 50 different ice
cream flavors compared with 10 flavors. Likewise, Americans (and Britons) prefer to have more choices on menus in upscale restaurants than do people from other European countries. … Americans respond more defensively to death thoughts than do those from other countries. …

Perhaps it is this extreme tendency for Americans to punish free-riders, while not punishing cooperators, that contributes to Americans having the world’s highest worker productivity. American society is also anomalous, even relative to other Western societies, in its low relational focus in work settings, which is reflected in practices such as the encouragement of an impersonal work style, direct (rather than indirect) communication, the clear separation of the work domain from the non-work, and discouragement of friendships at work.

In their main article the authors don’t speculate on why WEIRD folks act so differently, but when pressed by comments they suggest:

[Consider] the relative strangeness, in a broad global and historical context, of modern middle-and upper-class American beliefs, values, cultural models, and practices vis-a`-vis childrearing. … These practices impact cognitive, linguistic, and motor development, including long-term cognitive outcomes. …  We speculate that in the context of mobile, meritocratic societies, … cultural evolutionary processes rooted in our evolved tendencies to imitate successful and prestigious individuals will favor the spread of child-rearing traits that speed up and enhance the development of those particular cognitive and social skills that eventually translate into social and economic success in these populations. This kind of cultural evolutionary process may be part of what is driving the dramatic increases in IQ observed in many industrialized nations over the last century, along with increases in biases toward analytical reasoning and individualism. It would also explain the obsession with active instruction of all kinds shown by middle- and upper-class Americans.

It sure seems that these Canadian authors are suggesting that the US (which on a world scale is almost like Canada) is different mainly because the US is better: stronger US competition has more quickly selected for kid-raising norms that make more successful kids, and work norms that are more productive. Seems a remarkably self-centered interpretation for an article claiming that US psychologists are too self-centered.  Doesn’t make it wrong of course, but it is noteworthy that they didn’t even notice its self-centeredness.

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  • Wonks Anonymous

    Ed Glaeser has some interesting papers on why the U.S differs from Europe, though I don’t think they speak to all of your interests):

    The non-WEIRD nations are the majority of humanity, so to the extent the U.S more resembles them it just makes it more normal than its WEIRD peers.

  • Rebecca Burlingame

    It could be the separation of work environments from non-work environments, that hurts the U.S. economy eventually in terms of economic sustainability. Paradoxically, that separation made it easier to grow GDP, in the “not one but two” environment of these past decades. Such zoning, which prefers that people do not work out of their home, can also provide a far greater tax base. But as it becomes more difficult for people to maintain separate locations and still realize profit, the tax base declines as commercial properties sit empty.

    • Is there any historical precedent for that?

  • VeryAnon

    I think that some of the differences in the USA are due to us having a 12 percent black minority that is different enough from the majority and big enough to affect many things.


    Perhaps we have less welfare because the majority of whites think that blacks are not like them and will take advantage of it when they should not.

    Crime, longevity and health seems to be strongly affected by the ethnic make up, and higher crime rate in poorer areas might make us work more hours.

    Whites may even adopt certain behaviors to differentiate from black.

    North Dakota does not have much of a black minority and is more similar to other western nations.

  • Robert Koslover
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  • Very interesting article, and touches upon interesting notions of “better” vs. value. For example, individuality / having your own room or space / having more options are all associated with a higher quality of life, whereas other countries may see sharing / quality over quantity as superior.

  • Rebecca Burlingame

    I honestly can’t say, for I need to read a lot more economic history in the coming years. This is just an analysis I arrived at in the last six years of steady reading in other areas economic: that, and of course having struggled too long as someone self employed.

  • Paul Shearer

    I don’t think the authors are saying anything self-centered. They’re just pointing out that others will imitate the success stories in any given society, and that will mold the character of the nation as a whole. Only someone who assumes that the US characteristics are obviously superior would then conclude that the authors are suggesting the US is better than everyone else. So what if the US culture pushes the population to have higher IQ or analytical reasoning? Do those make US better?

  • jacques

    This document states that US workers aren’t really the most productive. Where did you get your data from ?

    • KA

      Great document, but it does in fact suggest that US workers are among the most productive. The USA ranks 4th in highest GDP per hour worked, which is a standard measure of productivity. However, Luxembourg, Norway, and Ireland all rank ahead of the US.

  • My favorite weirdness of the USA: the sex ratio of killing (SROK) in spousal relationships. Women kill their husbands (proportional to husbands killing wives) in the USA WAY more than in any other country or society studied – 75 to 100 in the US, versus more like 30 to 100 or less in other countries. It’s not guns (it predates gun prevalence, and a huge proportion of women-on-man spousal killings are non-gun) and it’s not the generally greater proportional violence of American women compared to American men versus other countries’ women versus other countries’ men.

    See, e.g., Who Kills Who in Spousal Killings? On the Exceptional Ratio of Spousal Homicides in the United States.

    • Sisters are doin’ it for themselves, standing on their own two feet.

  • Jose

    As a Spaniard myself and traveler I had listen to many topics about Americans, one of the most heard(in South America and Europe) is this:

    “Never go to eat where Americans go, is going to be expensive, and bad quality”.

    Also, “they want to stay alone, they don’t like sharing spaces,people”(we Spaniards do).

    As much as I dislike to use topics, I have over the years came to the conclusion that they are right, they are a lot of good things about American too. Every culture is different, and weird for the others(you get used to the one you live most of your life). When you travel, you pick the things you like, and become weird for the people that stayed (the majority of the population).

  • euromix

    USA is number one place to make money, Europe is number one place to spend it 🙂

  • Carlos Gonzalez

    America is the whole freaking continent not just the USA. Stop using that term just to refer to you pricks.

    • justin

      prick? You, my friend, ARE THE PRICK. I didn’t particularly like saying “I’m from America” in the first place. But my travels to 3 countries has taught me at least 1/6th+ of the world’s population doesn’t understand “I’m from the US” and just look at me like WTF. Finally when they do figure it out they insist “Oh you’re from America!”. Why would I want to go to the effort of facing this communication difficulty every time just because it offends retards like you?

    • American from America

      Colombia originally referred to the whole new world, but the Colombians cleverly appropriated the word for themselves, and Americans grabbed “American”.

      If you don’t like it, maybe your country should have declared independence sooner and grabbed that name first. :3

      • Anonymous

        You know perfectly well that the person you’re adressing had no say in that.

    • KA

      It’s actually two continents…

      Nobody is trying to be a prick, but there doesn’t seem to be a well known, acceptable alternative. I know plenty of US citizens who don’t like it either, but what do you suggest any given individual should do about it?

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