Why ‘Americans are Self-Centered’ is Wrong

A thought piece on how to shape the attitudes of the masses – the importance of linguistics in shaping potential strategies

People other than Americans are also self-centered, and the phrase ‘Americans are self-centered’ has an availability effect so that hearing it creates the impression that they are the only ones.

Better would be to say ‘People are Self-Centered’. This availability effect kicks in again, and clearly not everyone is self-centered, nor are self-centered people self-centered all the time.

There is also the notion of perspective. Perhaps this group of individuals, either all or a number of individuals, believes they are not self-centered and are acting in a wider interest. And yet, the ‘other’ population would not think this if they did not see some evidence of behavior that is generally considered self-centered (such as not keeping a door open for someone else, not helping if someone needs help, etc). We need to therefore further refine this by considering what appears to others, rather than safely making any statement of actuality.

Another concept is the time period to consider when making such a statement, and whether self-centered behavior is permanent or rather fluid, temporary, or context dependent.

Within an entire system, only a proportion of a given population is self-centered at any one time. This drives us to use the vital notion of relativity. We are better saying “A proportion of people are or are behaving in a manner that appears self-centered”.

Why is this linguistic dissection needed? Well, if you are to design change programs to get people to behave differently (some people, some of the time, in a set of ways), then imprecise sweeping statements on current state are very damaging, and fail to yield decent results. These assumptions provoke extreme solutions to problems, or neglect problems that are right under a strategist’s nose.

Furthermore the key concept we need in looking at spread and contagion is the relative proportion of different behavior and attitude states in a given population. To inject a new thought or concept, one needs to start somewhere (ignition), and either allow following behavior to emerge, or to structure a response path in such a way to make spread more likely.

In my view Americans are not self-centered at all. Whilst some genuinely are, the largest proportion of the population is kind, giving, thoughtful. The self-centered ones are usually more visible than the rest (in consumption styles, loud voices, etc). However, in making a broad statement about a country, you would go for the largest proportion, covering most of a given time period. And so, just to reiterate… Americans are not-self-centered, and most people everywhere are not self-centered either. And let’s hope that does not change (and, just in case… as ‘hope is not a strategy, a strategy is a strategy’… let’s figure out ways to keep it this way, maybe make it even more considerate).

3 Responses to “Why ‘Americans are Self-Centered’ is Wrong”

  1. Boy, I so couldn’t disagree with you any more! Mr. Turrell. It is a WIDESPREAD American problem.

    • We have an availability bias – we see what we expect to see. I was surprised at myself as I had been ‘primed’ on selfishness (was watching movies on the plane), and then found that there was a lot more helpful behaviors around that I had simply not noticed.

      I have no idea what you see. I have no idea what prejudices you have. I have not idea if you are having a good or bad day. All these things can change your version of reality, on almost every given day.

      And what does ‘widespread’ mean? I like numbers, and I especially like the concept of numbers relative to some absolute number. Given that many observations we have in life only encompass a fraction of the things we see, we are always looking at the world in a way that it relative.

      I would happily agree to bad attitudes being widespread! But what the heck does that mean? One person in every city would count as the attitudes being widespread. People behaving badly on a single day, and then being nice to each other the other 364 days would also count as widespread.

      When I look at ‘my world’ in terms of contagion, I try to be a little more careful on framing, especially with words that can have actual meaning. And words that can mislead (deliberately or accidentally).

      Thanks for the comment, though! M

  2. Sir, Ah yes, but let’s play a little, even if this is a very old example . . .
    Lets imagine that there is something, some huge generalisation, behind those cultural stereotypes we all know and apply to different countries.
    You and I may come from a country which is very similar to America, in that the norms of everyday life mirror American life. Naturally, your definition of “Self Centered” reflects what most American’s regard as “Self Centered”, and like most people of the world, you try not to act in a self-centered way. (Perhaps because no one finds long term happiness by acting in a self-centered way. . . ) You go right ahead and make your evaluation on that basis.

    However, HW comes from elsewhere (perhaps) or is an American resident who so completely rejects the cultural norm, that the definition of Self-Centered” moves away from the way you perceive & evaluate Self-Centered. HW evaluates others by a different (& certainly not wrong) perception of Self-Centered, and comes down heavily on the contrary side to you and me.

    Meanwhile, I go travelling and living with people from a completely different place, where the norms of life are very different. I start to change my perception of what is normal, and reevaluate many things around me. Where once I agreed with you, now I see a lot of truth in HW’s assessment.

    None of us are wrong, its just that basing action against someone based only on your evaluation, which itself is based on what your own (often changing) perception of the world is a very stupid thing to do. Perhaps making emphatic statements about evaluations based on perceptions is pretty ordinary too.
    Call me PC, but lumping any group of people, be it 30 or 300 million, into a stereotype can cause problems, unless you are discussing changing the cultural norms that allow any group to live with each other. PH

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