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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