A recent study published in Psychological Science suggests that people across the globe are becoming more individualistic over time. Individualism, as opposed to collectivism, relates to how independent and self-reliant (and self-centered) people are. Collectivistic people (and societies) tend to be more communal and family-oriented, and tend to work together instead of independently. Couple this with research that shows a rise in narcissism, and this suggests that people are becoming more isolated and focused on themselves, rather than others.

What are the reasons for this shift toward more individualism and self-centeredness?

One trend is that as countries become more economically developed, there tends to be a rise in individualism – more affluence leads to a greater sense of self-reliance and a detachment from others. Another possible explanation proposed by the researchers is that an increase in communicable diseases (such as STDs), and fear of contracting disease, may be fueling the sense of detachment from others.

What about the rise in narcissism?

Social media, while it connects us to others, may actually lead to greater self-centeredness as people strive to make their “presence” known. Much of social media is “all about me.” Overly doting, “helicopter parents,” may also be creating greater narcissism in children. Finally, society, with its emphasis on celebrity, appearance, and narcissistic role models and leaders, may be playing a part in the rise in self-centeredness. [More on narcissism here]

So What?

If individualism is associated with economic success and a sense of self-reliance, what’s the problem?

One outcome of a society shifting toward individualism is a lack of empathy – caring about ourselves and our own welfare, but not caring much about others.  This leads to greater economic disparity, and a lack of concern for taking care of the less fortunate.

Another concern is the inability to cooperate with others.  We are already seeing this in our polarized political system, where people and parties with opposing views are unable to work together to solve problems. 

This could become a greater concern in the future, particularly when it comes to dealing with disasters such as global warming and refugee crises. Individualism fuels a “me first” attitude that makes it difficult for people to both see the plights of others who are less fortunate, and also makes it more difficult for us to self-sacrifice for the collective good.

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References

Santos, H.C., Varnum, M.E.W., & Grossmann, I.  (2017).  Global increases in individualism.  Psychological Science (published on-line, July 13, 2017).

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