Rich Happy Individualists

In the last week I found three top academic journal articles on how the key difference between societies today is whether they emphasize conformity to social rules/norms, or individual initiative and responsibility. Poor scared societies tend toward a farming-style big-on-rules approach that today makes people less happy and also innovate and grow more slowly. But more secure comfortable societies tend toward a forager-style reduced rules and more individualism approach that leads to happiness and faster innovation and growth.


[Researchers] found that societies exposed to contemporary or historical threats, such as territorial conflict, resource scarcity, or exposure to high levels of pathogens, more strictly regulate social behavior and punish deviance. These societies are also more likely to have evolved institutions that strictly regulate social norms. At the psychological level, individuals in tightly regulated societies report higher levels of self-monitoring, more intolerant attitudes toward outsiders, and paying stricter attention to time …

The substantial variation in religious involvement among nations can be explained, in large part, by perceived levels of security. Religion thrives when existential threats to human security, such as war or natural disaster, are rampant, and declines considerably in societies with high levels of economic development, low income inequality and infant mortality, and greater access to social safety nets.

American Economic Review:

The individualism score … measures the extent to which it is believed that individuals are supposed to take care of themselves as opposed to being strongly integrated and loyal to a cohesive group. The individualism component loads positively on valuing individual freedom, opportunity, achievement, advancement, and recognition; and negatively on valuing harmony, cooperation, and relations with superiors. … The individualism-collectivism dimension is the central cultural variable that matters for long-run growth. Other cultural variables may of course affect other aspects of economic behavior and economic performance, but they do not appear to robustly influence long-run growth.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:

What is more important: to provide citizens with more money or with more autonomy for their subjective well-being? … [We] examined national levels of well-being on the basis of lack of psychological health, anxiety, and stress measures. Data are available for 63 countries, with a total sample of 420,599 individuals. … Individualism was a consistently better predictor [of well-being] than wealth, after controlling for measurement, sample, and temporal variations. … Wealth may influence well-being only via its effect on individualism. …

Among the more traditional and collectivistic societies, increases in individualism were associated with increased levels of negative well-being. Among more individualistic European societies, increasing individualism was associated with increasing well-being. …

The only study-level variable that significantly predicted mean state anxiety was whether the population was composed of students (vs. general population). Students had significantly higher state anxiety means. Both greater wealth and greater individualism were associated with less anxiety, when entered individually. When entered together, only individualism remained significant, but wealth was not significant.

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  • Rich, yes, but happy? Collectivist societies are apparently better at that, at least with people genetically prone to depression – so much so that the depression-vulnerable alleles are way more common in collectivist societies.

    Not that I or anyone I know would want to live in one.

    Culture–gene coevolution of individualism–collectivism and the serotonin transporter gene

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  • How does this fit in with the two-dimensional World-Values graph?

  • Buck Farmer

    Currently living in a developing economy, I observe significantly less strict rule-following than in developed economies. A few examples:

    1. Queuing
    2. Traffic laws
    3. Avoiding entirely or using bribery to acquire licenses

    Relatedly. I observe lower levels of trust both between individuals and between individuals and institutions. There is also a greater willingness to see an individuals particular situation as justification for making an exception to a rule.

    In the social / personal sphere there may be more enforcement of rules / norms, but in the public / economic sphere there is considerably less.

  • Buck Farmer, I seem to recall that recent studies also show that mistrust is tightly correlated with economic inequity within a society, independent of how wealthy the society is overall. Do you happen to know much about the distribution of wealth where you live? I wonder how that type of inequality effects bribery, etc.

    It seems that this would also raise interesting questions relative to Dr. Hanson’s original post: the high value of economic individualism in the United States seems to produce more unequal distributions of wealth than in other rich countries that seem less individualistic. I’ll have to take a look at the articles to see whether and how these factors are accounted for.

  • Buck Farmer

    Inequality is considerably higher than in the U.S. although there is a slowly emerging middle class.

    The U.S. though has unusually high trust for a comparatively unequal society. While there is less trust between individuals and governments than there might be elsewhere there is much higher trust between individuals and individuals and between individuals and corporations.

    Where I live no one trusts a merchant. Everyone believes they are being cheated or worry that what they’re buying is fake (particularly with food stuffs). As a result name brands (particularly foreign ones) have a strong price premium…nothing like outsourcing your quality control.

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