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Me or We: Stanford study concludes self-interest wins out over society’s

Me or We: Stanford study concludes self-interest wins out over society’s

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.


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Henry Hawkins | January 31, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Whut we got here is some good ol’ Darwinian, selected for, self-interested instinct fer survival.

This really is fascinating because no place is pushing systems theory and the integration of radical K-12 education plans and Paul Ehrlich’s ecological catastrophe hyping and Foresight Intelligence to supposedly design the future like Stanford right now. That’s the mention of interdependence as in Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory. Which is a metaphor, not the fact based theory that would merit implementation.

Once again this research shows that most of what is being mandated in K-12 education is political theory and hoped for utopian plans for the future masquerading as Best Practices and research-based. Just as I have been worrying about so. You can alter the future with all this social engineering via the social sciences. What we cannot do is make the vision happen. In the meantime though we can destroy everything that works because the legitimacy of the Individual is under formal attack in every K-12 or higher ed “reform” I have read.

Thanks for the cite.

” 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.”

like rust collectivists never sleep

Nine out of ten collectivists agree: “Man has no right to exist if he refuses to serve society.”

Anne, you mentioned recycling. As a former engineer, I know it does absolutely nothing to help “society” because most of the recycled stuff ends up in the landfill anyway (after taxpayers pay for all the recycling trucks and personnel). I do it for my own self-interest: It saves me money. I have to pay to have my trash hauled away, and the guy who hauls it has to pay by the pound at the dump. So to keep him from raising his fee, I sort out all the steel cans, plastic bottles, and paper goods and every couple of months take that stuff to the recycling place and dump it off for free. I also recycle aluminum cans and every year or so take a load to a recycle place which pays 60c per pound for them.

    Years ago I read an article about recycling that concluded the only thing we routinely recycle that was REALLY worthwhile was aluminum. It takes an enormous amount of energy to extract aluminum from bauxite ore, but once you have it you can essentially pound it down and make something else from it indefinitely.

    I picture some perplexed future archeologist excavating a landfill, wondering why in the late 20th century we started burying our garbage in segregated little piles rather than all mixed up together.

Yes that report is very much about how to get us to act as collectivists. I just finished all nine pages and not just the abstract and this is precisely what I feared. Paul Ehrlich has created an entity called the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior, MAHB, that is working with UN agencies and several Scandinavian universities and the social sciences community globally. The goal he says is to “help organize a near-total revision of human behavior.”

Needless to say having access to UNESCO which gets you accreditation globally and all of Stanford’s changing K-12 education work makes such an aim quite possible. And not for the good.

What that paper is saying is we need to foster interdependence to save Gaia. The socio-cultural environment of European Americans creates a belief in independence. We thus need to alter the dominant sociocultural experience of E-A’s so they will come to believe in interdependence.

That would be K-12–the only institution in this country virtually everyone passes through for an extended period of time for much of their waking day. During the years they are most malleable.

This is why social and emotional learning and systems thinking are so much a part of the actual Common Core implementation. This is why Obama signed an Executive Order requiring a Positive School Climate in all schools. This is why career ready is grounded in Amitai Etzioni’s Communitarianism. This is also why collaboration has to be the focus of the classroom and teachers and principals will now be evaluated based on whether they are Fostering Communities of Learners in their schools. Where the consensus mandates all.

Anne-this paper is very important. It is exactly what the International Human Dimensions Programme has asked MAHB to do. Identify changes that must be made to create the desired beliefs. And no I am not exaggerating. That really is the desired analysis. ASAP. There’s a planned fundamental transformation.

Break it down: It’s easier to bribe people to do what we want than it is to convince them that what we want is more important than what THEY want.

People need a dream. Give them a dream, and they’ll sacrifice self interest to achieve it. It can’t just be an idea, it has to be for a higher purpose – in the eyes of your target audience.

The Tuskegee Airmen weren’t fighting and dieing for the people in America or what was important to the Whites. They fought, suffered, and indeed died in order to forward an idea; an America where Black men (& women) could have their contributions acknowledged and honored.

Argue whether they achieved it, but they fought for a Dream, not for a people.

Convince the kiddies to join your new Eco-Religion, and you can make them recycle. Until then they’ll keep dumping the McDonalds bag in the parking lot.