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To motivate many Americans, think 'me' before 'we,' say Stanford psychologists

Researchers find that if you want to motivate many Americans to think and act interdependently, it's best to emphasize their independence.

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'American culture stresses independence, and the desire for independence fuels behavior,' says Stanford psychologist MarYam Hamedani.

If you hear that getting a flu shot is the responsible thing to do to keep others from getting sick, will you get it? And if you're told recycling is better for the planet and humanity, will you do it?

It turns out that for many Americans, the answer is no.

A new study by Stanford psychologists finds that Americans aren't driven by appeals to think and act interdependently, and in fact, those messages may decrease motivation.

"American culture stresses independence, and the desire for independence fuels behavior," says MarYam Hamedani, one of the study's authors. "People often like the idea of working together and certainly care about social issues. But our findings show that thinking about and caring about others doesn't always translate into effective action."

The study, "In the Land of the Free, Interdependent Action Undermines Motivation," was published this month in the journal Psychological Science. Stanford psychology Professor Hazel Rose Markus and graduate student Alyssa Fu are co-authors.

More and more, Americans are exposed to messages urging them to be interdependent, the researchers noted. As recently as Monday, President Barack Obama noted in his second inaugural address, "The American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone."

Interested in how independently minded Americans might respond to these types of messages, the researchers conducted three experiments to test their motivation.

In the first experiment, participants – all Stanford students – were given difficult word puzzles to solve. In the second, they were given a physical challenge to see how long they would persist at it. During both tasks, participants were primed to think either about independence or about interdependence.

After the initial priming, the researchers found that white American participants were less motivated to persist at these challenging tasks when ideas of interdependence were brought to mind.

Primed with the idea of working together, participants were less persistent in solving difficult puzzles and applied less physical pressure in a test of their strength.

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.

Students also said they would be less motivated in the class, which explained why they supported the course less when their participation was framed in terms of interdependence rather than independence.

The researchers also found that, across the three studies, the motivation of Asian American students did not vary when interdependence or independence were invoked.

The authors noted that bicultural Asian American students are exposed to both mainstream American culture, which stresses independence, and East Asian culture, which stresses the value and importance of interdependence. As a result, appeals to think and act interdependently or independently were equally motivating.

The experiments show that motivation to act is deeply tied to cultural context, said Hamedani, who was a graduate student when these studies were conducted.

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.

Hamedani, now the associate director at Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, said the findings could also help policymakers, marketers and others interested in framing their messages more effectively.

"Currently, if we want to inspire Americans to think and act interdependently, it may work best to actually emphasize their independence to motivate them to do so," Hamedani said. "Tell them, 'Be the change you want to see in the world' instead of 'We're all in this together.'"

Media Contact

MarYam Hamedani, Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity: (650) 723-8449, maryamh@stanford.edu

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, brooke.donald@stanford.edu