The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism

When talking to teens, it’s helpful to understand how their tendency to form groups and cliques is partly a consequence of American culture. In America, we encourage individuality. Children freely and openly develop strong preferences—defining their self-identity by the things they like and dislike. They learn to see differences. Though singular identity is the long-term goal, in high school this identity-quest is satisfied by forming and joining distinctive subgroups. So, in an ironic twist, the more a culture emphasizes individualism, the more the high school years will be marked by subgroupism. Japan, for instance, values social harmony over individualism, and children are discouraged from asserting personal preferences. Thus, less groupism is observed in their high schools.

That is from Bronson and Merryman’s NurtureShock (p. 45). It touches on a number of points. The most obvious point is made clear by the authors. American culture is defined by groupism. The authors discussed this in a chapter about race, explaining why group stereotypes are so powerful in this kind of society. They write that, “The security that comes from belonging to a group, especially for teens, is palpable. Traits that mark this membership are—whether we like it or not—central to this developmental period.” This was emphasized with a University Michigan study done on Detroit black high school students “that shows just how powerful this need to belong is, and how much it can affect a teen.”

Particularly for the boys, those who rated themselves as dark-skinned blacks had the highest GPAs. They also had the highest ratings for social acceptance and academic confidence. The boys with lighter skin tones were less secure socially and academically.

The researchers subsequently replicated these results with students who “looked Latino.”

The researchers concluded that doing well in school could get a minority teen labeled as “acting white.” Teens who were visibly sure of membership within the minority community were protected from this insult and thus more willing to act outside the group norm. But the light-skinned blacks and the Anglo-appearing Hispanics—their status within the minority felt more precarious. So they acted more in keeping with their image of the minority identity—even if it was a negative stereotype—in order to solidify their status within the group.

A group-minded society reinforces stereotypes at a very basic level of human experience and relationships. Along with a weak culture of trust, American hyper-individualism creates the conditions for strong group identities and all that goes with it. Stereotypes become the defining feature of group identities.

The worst part isn’t the stereotypes projected onto us but the stereotypes we internalize. And those who least fit the stereotypes are those who feel the greatest pressure to conform to them in dressing and speaking, acting and behaving in stereotypical ways. There isn’t a strong national identity to create social belonging and support. So, Americans turn to sub-groups and the population becomes splintered, the citizenry divided against itself.

The odd part about this is how non-intuitive it seems , according to the dominant paradigm. The ironic part about American hyper-individualism is that it is a social norm demanding social conformity through social enforcement. In many ways, American society is one of the most conformist countries in the world, related to how much we are isolated into enclaves of groupthink by media bubbles and echo chambers.

This isn’t inevitable, as the comparison to the Japanese makes clear. Not all societies operate according to hyper-individualistic ideology. In Japan, it’s not just the outward expression of the individual that is suppressed but also separate sub-group identities within the larger society. According to one study, this leads to greater narcissism among the Japanese. Because it is taboo to share personal issues in the public sphere, the Japanese spend more time privately dwelling on their personal issues (i.e., narcissism as self-obsession). This is exacerbated by the lack of sub-groups through which to publicly express the personal and socially strengthen individuality. Inner experience, for the Japanese, has fewer outlets to give it form and so there are fewer ways to escape the isolated self.

Americans, on the other hand, are so group-oriented that even their personal issues are part of the public sphere. It is valuing both the speaking of personal views and the listening to the personal views of others — upheld by liberal democratic ideals of free speech, open dialogue, and public debate. For Americans, the personal is the public in the way that the individualistic is the groupish. If we are to apply narcissism to Americans, it is mostly in terms of what is called collective narcissism. We Americans are narcissistic about the groups we belong to. And our entire self-identities get filtered through group identities, presumably with a less intense self-awareness than the Japanese experience.

This is why American teens show a positive response to being perceived as closely conforming to a stereotypical group such as within a racial community. The same pattern, though, wouldn’t be found in a country like Japan. For a Japanese to be strongly identified with a separate sub-group would be seen as unacceptable to larger social norms. Besides, there is little need for sub-group belonging in Japan, since most Japanese would grow up with a confident sense of simply being Japanese — no effort required. Americans have to work much harder for their social identities and so, in compensation, Americans also have to go to a greater extent in proving their individuality.

It’s not that one culture is superior to the other. The respective problems are built into each society. In fact, the problems are necessary in maintaining the social orders. To eliminate the problems would be to chip away at the foundations, either leading to destruction or requiring a restructuring. That is the reason that, in the United States, racism is so persistent and so difficult to talk about. The very social order is at stake.

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