In it together: How we become less individualistic during harsh economic times

Team Huddle Harmony Togetherness Happiness Concept
It’s an effect that’s reflected in pop songs and baby names 

By Alex Fradera

The Great Depression gives us a vivid picture of a time when economic hardship rekindled a sense of the collective. Politics took on a greater obligation to common welfare, new workers’ institutions sprang up, and society developed through charitable movements and new habits. More broadly, we know that as societies grow richer, they tend to focus on the individual more than on the community. These trends are fed by political decisions, institutions, and indeed new generations born into the times, but is there also a psychological component to this, operating at the level of individuals? New research in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Emily Bianchi at Emory University suggests the answer is yes – subtle fluctuations in American national economic health, too brief for society to change wholesale, nonetheless push each one of us between We and Me.

Bianchi considered the unemployment rate, which is known to be a strong indicator of economic “facts on the ground” for ordinary people. She correlated this with a variety of variables drawn from national surveys and other sources at various timescales. So in one sample of 112,000 adults from 1975-2006, periods of high unemployment were characterised by less agreement with the statement “I like to look a little different from others.”

In another survey, 20,000 respondents from the 1970s-90s stated during higher unemployment periods that the attributes that they would prize in a child were less about “thinking for himself or herself” and more about how helpful they would be to others, and how much others would like them. I should say that in many cases the effects, although significant, are of the very small size you only tend to see when using these vast datasets (for instance, in the study about hopes for children, the overall shift when comparing the highest and lowest periods of employment was less than 0.1 on a five-point scale).

Two of Bianchi’s studies really give something to put your finger on. Drawing on data from 262 million people in the US Social Security database born between 1948 to 2014, she showed that the most popular name in any given year, normally bestowed on just a few percent of babies, has tended to be more common during bad economic times. The correlation curve across all the data suggests a fifth more boys receive the most popular name, and half again more girls, in bad economic years like 1982, compared to good years like 1953. By Bianchi’s calculations, in 1982, this translated to an additional 12,538 Michaels and 18,650 Jennifers (which happens to be my birth year; you can find out the most popular names in the US in your birth year here.)

The other particularly compelling study looked at the big pop songs of the year. Were lean times replete with more communal lyrics, We’s over I’s? Indeed they were. The ten most popular songs based on US music sales in each year from 1980 to 2014 saw a shift in pronoun use, with the worst years, compared to the best, such that there was a 21 per cent decrease in I-songs among the year’s top 10 , such as Leanne Rimes’s 1998 How Do I Live, and a 103 per cent increase in We-songs, such as McCartney and Wonder’s 1982 Ebony and Ivory – “We learn to live, we learn to give / Each other what we need to survive together alive.”

Why does this happen? In further research Bianchi showed that it seems to be related to the fact that dips in the economy lead to psychological uncertainty about the future, as livelihood and jobs are thrown into question. And and the more uncertain we feel, the less we tend to think of ourselves as independent.

Clearly many people in the UK and elsewhere feel that their specific economic conditions are currently hard, and the uncertainty this provokes may be one ingredient in the turn towards a more communal expression of politics, seen in the rejection of neoliberalism by both sides of the political divide, in favour of competing concepts of Us. You can see this in the US primary and presidential elections. With more economic shocks sure to hit, through a reconfiguring of the global balance, and the impact of new technologies, it may be that the individual turn will continue to take a hit. The question is, what will replace it?

American individualism rises and falls with the economy: Cross-temporal evidence that individualism declines when the economy falters.

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

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