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America: Land Of The Partners, Home Of The Selfless.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Today, many Americans will be celebrating July 4th with fireworks and barbecues.

But how much thought have you given to the true spirit of Independence Day?

As a country, America loves to consider the word “independent” as an adjectival calling card of sorts. Not only is America frequently thought of as a superpower responsible for “spreading the light of freedom” throughout the world, but people are often only successful within American society if they are self-sufficient and largely self-focused.

However, this vision of America has fallen out of favor lately. Many global citizens simply aren’t thrilled by the thought of a country with such a self-serving national stereotype, and plenty of Americans are well aware of that fact. To examine this phenomenon in greater detail, MarYam Hamedani, Hazel Markus, and Alyssa Fu ran a series of studies where they tested exactly what it is that people think of when they think of ‘America,’ and how this vision impacts their thoughts and actions.

The first step was to ask participants how, in their own minds, they see America. Did they think of America as a ‘global leader,’ singlehandedly ruling over other nations? Or did they think of America as more of a ‘global partner,’ working with other countries to create a better, stronger world?

This may not come as much of a surprise, but people in countries around the world (including Americans) tended to rate America as more of a leader. However, when asked what they would ideally like America to look like, the responses overwhelmingly favored partner. America is seen as an overwhelmingly dominant force in the international political scene, although most people hold a fairly negative opinion of this position.

So, most people — including Americans — see America as a “global leader,” although they would prefer America to serve the role of a “global partner.” But does this influence how Americans see themselves? In a subsequent study, participants saw one of two different speeches, both of them written to be equally memorable, powerful, and compelling. The only difference? One speech framed America in that ‘global leader’ position, asserting that America must continue to be a beacon of hope for those desiring freedom. The other speech drew attention to America’s capacity as a ‘global partner,’ noting that America’s political, economic, and social challenges are inherently connected to those of other countries.

Interestingly, the way that America was framed actually impacted how Americans went on to view themselves. American subjects reported feeling happier (and, specifically, felt more positively about being American) when they read the speech focusing on America’s potential as a global partner. Not only that, but when European-American participants were asked to describe what they expected to be like in the next year, they were less likely to focus on themselves and their own personal preferences when they read the global partner speech. For instance, a participant might be asked about the choice that he would make when choosing a movie to watch with friends. After being exposed to the leader speech, he might be more likely to indicate a desire to select the movie based on personal preferences. However, if the next participant saw the partner-speech, she might have been more likely to say that she would default to the group’s decision.

This research has two big implications. First, this is pretty compelling evidence that national identity may actually impact personal identity in a substantial way. Merely reading a speech that focused on America’s role as a global partner (without even seeing the ‘leader’ speech as a contrast) made Americans less likely to be self-focused and individualistic. With the push in recent politics to shift American identity into more of a ‘partner’ role, it’s important to consider the real possibility that this shift would impact more than America’s international image. In fact, it may actually change Americans’ actions within national borders. Could more of a national ‘partnership’ role in global politics actually make Americans less selfish in everyday life?

Secondly, it’s interesting that there is a distinct difference between the way that America is viewed and the way that Americans would like to be viewed. Despite the aforementioned political push towards fulfilling this vision of a global partnership, most people around the world (including Americans) continue to view America as a dominating force of individualism. The problem, however, is that Americans overwhelmingly would prefer to be seen as a partner, and Americans who are led to see their country as a leader instead tend to feel worse about their national identity.

So, fellow Americans, as we chow down on burgers and watch the fireworks today, take a few minutes to think about the national identity that you would like to celebrate. By focusing a little less on how America is an independent leader among nations and a little more on how our country could work well with others, we might find ourselves actually improving our relationships with the friends at our festivities while we’re at it.

To those readers who are celebrating, Happy 4th of July! Stay safe and enjoy your holiday!


Hamedani, M.G., Markus, H.R., & Fu, A.S. (2011). My nation, my self: Divergent framings of America influence American selves. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 350-364

Markus, H.R., & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98, 224-253 DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.98.2.224

Triandis, H.C. (1989). The self and social behavior in differing cultural contexts. Psychological Review, 96, 506-520 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.96.3.506

American Flag image by Joshua Nathanson via Wikipedia. Available under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

 

This post was originally published at my old PsySociety blog for the 4th of July holiday in 2011.

You can see the original post by clicking on the From The Archives icon.

Melanie Tannenbaum About the Author: Melanie Tannenbaum is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she received an M.A. in social psychology in 2011. Her research focuses on the science of persuasion & motivation regarding political, health-related, and environmental behavior. You can add her on Twitter or visit her personal webpage. Follow on Twitter @melanietbaum.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rkipling 11:15 am 07/4/2013

    I think I understand the point you are trying to make. And while the premise that the global partner speech may influence people to be less self-centered or more egalitarian might be true, I’m not sure that modifying our population’s social behavior should be the guiding element of foreign policy.

    Allow me to say it a different way. I’m confident that foreign policy shouldn’t be set with that objective. Now if everyone around the world had your education and intellect then we could “Imagine all the people, Living life in peace.” Sadly that isn’t the case. What other country or collection of countries are in a position to lead? While I agree we live in a flawed system, it is the best of the imperfect. I don’t see the United Nations, NATO, Russia, China, or an Islamic Caliphate as an improvement.

    While “spreading the light of freedom” may seem passé, consider a world dominated by totalitarian governments. Look at signs held by the millions of Egyptians in the streets who want a secular government which would defend the rights of all Egyptians. The signs ask why Obama supported Morsi whose regime was on a fast track to one MAN, one vote, one time. My belief is that the leading from behind policy will be seen by history as disastrous. Is being loved as a nation by the rest of the world in anyone’s best interest even if it were possible?

    Accomplishment by any group still requires individual leadership by my observation. Such leaders are infrequently voted Miss Congeniality, but they are essential. Give it 10 or 20 years and see what you think then? I hope I give no offense when I say that you, yourself may become a leader of significance.

    I read your posts to challenge my own thinking. You have even taught me a thing or two. Keep fighting the good fight.

    Have a great 4th!

    Link to this
  2. 2. wesangle 12:03 am 07/5/2013

    Joseph Simmons(University of Pennsylvania) discussion unscientific research that has no big implications: http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/18167

    Link to this

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