Now two years into the pandemic, we continue to hear constant fights about the fundamental antagonism between being an independent individual and being a good group member. You must be either a “freethinker” or a “sheep”!
But research suggests this is not the case and that the two often go hand in hand. Indeed, individualism may be the ultimate form of American conformity.
Individualism is a core part of American identity, with individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. This contrasts sharply with the collectivism expressed in other parts of the world, where the needs of the group are often prioritized over individual rights.
Yet even in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America” noted an apparent paradox in the American way of life: an unprecedented individualism was combined with mass involvement in “voluntary associations.” Far more than citizens in his native France, Americans were joiners, belonging to “associations of a thousand … kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive…