Our Changing Culture

Exploring how Americans think, work, love, play, vote, and learn today.

Are We All Really Special?

A stunning sea change in American culture

The U.S. was unquestionably a different place in 1960.

It's not just technology: Yes, we now have cell phones and Facebook and 500 cable channels. But it appears that American culture and values have fundamentally changed as well.

In a study published today in the journal PLoS One, my co-authors and I found that American books increasingly use more individualistic language. We analyzed the full text of 766,513 books published in the U.S. from 1960 to 2008, finding that individualistic words such as unique and self, and individualistic phrases such as I love me and I am special became much more common in recent years. (See the complete list of analyzed words and phrases here).

This is part of the relatively new study of "cultural products"—TV shows, song lyrics, advertisements, and books. Until very recently, studying cultural products was extremely difficult—an army of students would code word use or advertising themes, usually in just a small number of magazines or books. Computer word-coding programs improved the situation somewhat, but content still had to be typed in.

Then came the Google Books ngram viewer. It draws from a corpus of 5 million books, 4 percent of all volumes ever published. It’s an amazing tool that can produce graphs of changes in language use in seconds. (And it’s a very fun toy. Start playing around with it only when you have several hours to spare!)

We were most interested in tracing changes in one place—the United States—during the modern era, so we used the American English corpus 1960-2008. We thought it was important for an outside panel to select the words rather than choosing them ourselves, so an mTurk panel nominated and then rated words and phrases they thought best indicated individualism (a focus on the self) and communalism (a focus on groups and social rules). We used the communalistic words and phrases as our control, a recent sample that would be more likely to think of words used recently. That helped us rule out the possibility that individualistic language increased just because it’s more modern in general.

Even when we controlled for communalistic words and phrases, individualistic words and phrases increased between 1960 and 2008. The largest and most consistent increases appeared in language emphasizing uniqueness and specialness, such as personalize, unique, standout, identity, I am special, me first, my needs, and I love me. Others, such as independent, solitary, and self sufficient, either declined or stayed unchanged. This hints at the type of individualism that has gone up—not standing alone, independent, but focusing on being unique and special and loving oneself.

Until recently, I concentrated on the effect of cultural change on individuals—how, for example, generations differ in personality traits and attitudes. But cultural products are another, completely different, way to study cultural change. They don’t have self-report biases, and data are often freely available. Within the past few years, I’ve looked at how baby names have become more unique (using the Social Security card database) and authored on a paper on song lyrics becoming more self-focused and antisocial. Two other researchers found that TV shows for tweens increasingly focused on fame.

All of these studies point in the same direction, toward more individualism in American culture. The question is: Has this been a good change or a bad one? Obviously it’s some of both. I for one have no desire to go back to the 1950s with its conformity and prejudices. But it does seem sometimes that we’ve gone too far in emphasizing ourselves and our self-love.

I’d love to hear what you think.

Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, the author of Generation Me, and co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic.

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