Individualism is good, collectivism is bad. That’s what I first concluded as a teenager after reading Friedrich Hayek’s seminal treatise, “The Road to Serfdom.” Every life experience since then has confirmed my hunch. That makes it all the more irritating when opponents of individualism, out of ignorance or bad faith, keep distorting what it is.
A particularly misleading charge is that individualism should somehow be tantamount to selfishness and egoism. Individualists think only of themselves, this narrative goes, whereas people in collectivist societies take care of their group.
The opposite is closer to the truth. That’s the conclusion of forthcoming research by four psychologists — Shawn Rhoads, Rebecca Ryan, and Abigail Marsh at Georgetown University and Devon Gunter at Harvard.
They did an impressive data dive, in which they painted what amounts to a psycho-cultural atlas of the world. One thing they measured was not only objective well-being in different countries, such as wealth and health, but also people’s subjective perception that they’re flourishing or thriving.
They also mapped the world according to six cultural markers defined by the late Dutch social scientist Geert Hofstede. Some countries value power hierarchies more than others. Some, in the lingo, are more “masculine” — prizing achievement and heroism, say — while others treasure consensus and cooperation. Some cultures are more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, others less so. Some emphasize the long term, others the short term. Some cherish restraint, others embrace indulgence.
And then there’s individualism. It marks cultures that value people’s autonomy in making personal choices and seeking fulfillment and self-expression. In contrast, collectivist societies extol subordinating personal autonomy to the needs of the group and one’s own place in it.
The authors also investigated altruism. They mined data on everything from volunteer work and random acts of kindness to charitable giving, donations of blood, kidneys or bone marrow, and even the humane treatment of animals.
One relationship jumped out from all this number crunching: Individualism, subjective well-being and altruism are intimately linked, as these maps show. By contrast, countries with collectivist cultures, such as China or Ukraine, tend to rank low on altruism.
It’s an open question whether these are just correlations, or whether causation is at work, and in which direction. But according to Marsh, one of the authors, it appears that individualism makes people thrive, which in turn makes them more altruistic, which makes them feel even better about themselves, and so on in a virtuous cycle.
As a Hayekian, I find this reassuring more than surprising. The collectivist priority given to the group is really a form of discrimination in favor of insiders, whether defined by genetic or ideological kinship, and against outsiders, including strangers. Collectivist “solidarity” is thus neither totally voluntary nor inclusive, and “harmony” tends to be coerced and parochial. It stops at class in communism, at tribe or nation in fascism, at sect in religious fundamentalism.
By contrast, the individualist emphasis on personal autonomy and freedom may loosen the social bonds of kinship but also opens the mind toward people outside our in-group, including total strangers. In that sense, individualism rhymes with cosmopolitanism. I imagine that the Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable was an individualist — and felt happy after helping.
But why are some cultures more individualistic than others? Economic development certainly seems to help. The more prosperous and safe you are, the less you need to rely on your immediate in-group just to survive, and the more you can pursue independent goals and experiment with new acquaintances. And yet economics can provide only part of the answer, since countries like Japan have grown rich without becoming individualistic.
A more ambitious explanation goes all the way back to the Middle Ages. Very early on and for entirely unrelated motivations, the Catholic Church discouraged old traditions like cousin marriage and polygamy. Cumulatively, and long before the Protestant Reformation, these policies weakened kinship institutions and encouraged the spread of nuclear families.
This forced Western Europeans to look beyond their in-groups and find other affiliations, including individual definitions of identity. Modernity — and institutions from English common law to market economics — only turbo-boosted the trend. That would explain why individualism, and thus altruism, is not unique to, but much more prevalent in “the West,” which in this context means cultures that historically originated in lands with a Catholic heritage, even if they are predominantly Protestant or secular today.
All this should be uplifting. The origins of individualism may have been Western, but its future appears to be global, because it is spreading almost everywhere. With luck, this will lead ever more people on our planet out of serfdom, making them more open-minded and generous toward others, not to mention happier and free.
This article was originally published on Bloomberg Opinion.