A study entitled “In the Land of the Free, Interdependent Action Undermines Motivation” published this month from Stanford University researcher MarYam Hamedani concludes that appeals to community motivation, what they call “interdependence,” are less compelling than independent behaviors when addressing social challenges.

In other words, if you’re trying to get people to go along with an idea like recycling, stress individual impact rather than societal good.

It’s an interesting finding, although I’m not convinced it’s all-encompassing (more on that later), for those of us who try, even on an amateur basis, to speak about politics to our friends and family in order to convince. Rather than advocating, for example, smaller government because it allows the free-market system to work, is better for society because it creates more wealth, etc., we ought to examine the impact smaller government has on an individual’s life: a mother who will have more control over how she raises her children; a student who would have the ability to see their entrepreneurial dreams have a chance and an immigrant who will be able to build his business in a robust economy.

Although the study included three different experiments, each somewhat concerned with discerning the difference between Americans of European descent vs Asian-Americans, the third experiment seems the most compelling:

In the third experiment, designed to test these motivational effects in relation to a pressing social issue, students were asked to give their opinions about a class on promoting environmental sustainability after viewing a website about the course.

When the course description emphasized interdependent behavior – working together, being adaptive and taking others’ views into perspective – white American students predicted they would put less effort into the course and were less likely to agree that taking the course should be a university requirement than when the course description emphasized independent behavior – taking charge, being unique and knowing your own perspective.

While the study concluded that today, the prevailing American culture values independence over interdependence, Brooke Donald at The Stanford Report writes:

The findings also suggest that people’s psychologies could be changed with a cultural shift, she said. If the American culture becomes more interdependent and begins to consistently promote the value and the positive consequences of emphasizing the “we” and not just the “me,” American psyches will follow.

One caveat I have in reviewing the study’s somewhat broad conclusions is that they remain somewhat broad in their definitions of independence and interdependence. I’ve found that often there is a bit of difference between the surface-level description of motivations, and the deeper, underlying factors that drive behavior.

For example, The Frontier Lab’s research has found that sometimes we seek out societal good for self-interested reasons. In other words, even those two motivations described in the study can themselves be intertwined.

In TFL’s study of the core Occupy protesters, we found that the desire to feel as though they personally were better people through broader societal action was a strong motivating factor. Likewise, community played a large role in making the individual feel complete.

So while the study appears to scratch at surface-level positioning of social challenges, at the same time it leaves unaddressed the nuances of how interdependent behaviors can themselves be positioned as a self-fulfilling behavior.