America’s Individualism Is Now Its Achilles’ Heel

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the dark side of our national self-image

Grand Central Terminal in New York City on March 16, 2020. Photo: Pacific Press/Getty Images

From its onset, Covid-19 has baffled the American psyche.

For a culture that believes the most immediate, central, and important thing is the individual self, fully comprehending the danger of a virus that can turn individuals into weapons against one another is a difficult adjustment to make.

Logically, we understand that any effective response to virus that’s this transmissible—so mercilessly efficient at hopping from person to person that it glided the 7,477 miles from Wuhan to New York City in a matter of months—must be communal. Bar charts flash on screens, spots on maps multiply, and the message is clear: The curve should be kept down and the spots should be kept small.

But Americans don’t think of themselves as dots or lines. And the U.S. reaction to Covid-19 has shown how deeply psychologically underprepared the nation is for a communal threat—or a communal response. See for example: the people going to the gym amid an outbreak in New Rochelle, New York; the NBA player who, thinking it was playful rebelliousness, deliberately touched multiple surfaces at a press conference, and later tested positive for the virus; the packed bars and restaurants in New York City, before the mayor ordered their closure. It’s no wonder that vulnerable people have been pleading, “Please stop treating me like I’m disposable when you talk about the coronavirus.”

At the same time, it shouldn’t really be surprising. When a society rewards you — day in and day out — for thinking of yourself as an individual, it’s a difficult adjustment to think of yourself as just a tiny part of a huge network.

The American dream

I’m not an American. I moved to the United States for graduate school and then worked there, and when I left, I remember thinking to myself how much I’d changed — how much more willing I was to stand up for myself, to advocate for myself, to work for myself, and also how much more often I thought about myself.

American individualism, which I took along with me once I packed my bags, is well recognized. It was noted at the birth of the country by another foreigner, French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who stumbled into a new America in 1831 and, impressed, bewildered, and overwhelmed by what he saw, described a country of exceptional individualism in “Democracy in America.”

Americans have repeatedly shown their sense of the world is pinned more on the individual than the group. It’s a phenomenon social scientists have observed: In studies of how people explain incidents, like traffic accidents, Americans are more likely to pin outcomes on individual actions and traits, whereas Indians or Saudi Arabians are more likely to point to social factors as their cause. About 20 years ago, a world survey asked respondents from different nations to estimate, on a scale 1–10, “how much freedom of choice and control you feel you have over the way your life turns out.” Americans were far likelier than any other large Western industrial democracy to rate the highest level of control: Almost half, 44%, put their level of control at a 9 or 10 on the scale.

It makes sense for a nation that was built upon a brutal frontier, largely by isolated settlers. And it’s not an inherently bad thing. I certainly didn’t think so when I was boldly negotiating paychecks after I left the United States. But it’s a trait that has been, to the country’s detriment, slowly transformed from a useful skill — self-reliance — into a core philosophy.

And now, amid this global pandemic that knows no borders or philosophies, it has become a liability. As Anne Helen Peterson wrote for BuzzFeed, “Many of us are still thinking of the ‘seriousness’ of the coronavirus uniquely within the context of our small circles of friends and family members. And if no one is sick, right now, within that group, we’re interpreting it as an all-clear.” We’re simply not used to thinking about the greater good, instead focusing on our personal “preparedness” with stockpiles of toilet paper and canned food. “This mindset is, quite simply, contagion fuel,” Petersen writes, pointing out that “we also have to start thinking about how our habits, our compulsions, and our desire to keep living life completely as usual — because there’s (seemingly) nothing wrong with us — will have ripple effects that will almost certainly lead to other people’s deaths or significant illnesses.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented the United States with a unique challenge: We must act not just for our individual wellbeing, but change our habits for other people. It might seem paradoxical, but the most community-minded action now to shut your doors. Unlike after 9/11, when Americans were urged to go shopping, it’s now their patriotic duty to stay home. It’s increasingly clear that’s the only way to flatten the curve, and ensure we can take care of the people who need it most.

The fish or the tank

I am immensely grateful for my time in the United States (despite the fact that it left me with a constant yearning for Five Guys burgers). However, after a few years out of the United States, and a few humbling reminders of my own relative insignificance, I was glad to be able to restore a sense of equilibrium that came from having a sense of my place in a community again.

Here’s something that helps me understand it. Another experiment, run by the social psychologist Richard Nisbett, had participants look at a cartoon of a fish tank. There was a large, attention-grabbing fish at the front, and multiple tiny fish at the back. Researchers studied small eye movements as people looked at the cartoon to see what they were paying attention to, and then asked questions to see what they thought of the picture.

You can probably guess what happened. Americans were more likely to say they’d seen fish (individual objects) and point at the large fish and identify it as the leader. East Asian people were more likely to say they’d seen a fish tank (the context) and say that they felt sorry for the big fish because it was being left out of the group.

Getting through this pandemic will require a reorientation of the American worldview, at least for the time being. This is not about us as individuals. It’s not even about our workplaces or our neighborhoods. It’s about the much bigger context of the countries we live in — and the planet they sit upon. It isn’t about the big fish or the little fish. It’s about the whole tank.

I get it from my mother.

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