Guidelines around COVID-19 have changed, but many places now require that masks are worn to reduce the chances of transmission. A recent study looked at American individualism to determine its impact as a predictive variable for COVID-19 response and found that higher individualism lessened compliance by 41%
One of the co authors stated, “Culture is very persistent and slow to change, so initial conditions are critical in shaping modern individualism culture. This historically determined individualism measure makes sure that the causality runs from individualism to collective actions, rather than the other way around.”
“Rugged individualism, self-made millionaires, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps are all part of the American Dream,” said therapist Katie Lear, LCMHC. “While it's disheartening to see the relationship between our individualistic culture and responses to the coronavirus, it can also help us look at people not complying with masks or other safety protocols with a little more understanding and compassion. Ironically, the importance they place on independence and personal choice is part of a bigger cultural and historical tradition.”
Author Girish Shukla agrees that “Americans have always prided themselves on their individualism. This self-reliance and self-motivation has done economic and industrial wonders for the country. But the individualistic framework on which the country was built, is not helping during the crisis that COVID-19 has brought upon us. Countries, like America and the UK, that have individualistic approaches to living have shown higher infection rates.”
“Countries that have a more collectivist mindset are, in general, faring better with the pandemic now. However, in the United States, it's a big ask for people to shift their mindset when independence is such an American ideal,” added Lear. “Much of the talk has been about caring for neighbors and the community, but what's in it for each of us, personally? For example, will wearing masks allow businesses to reopen more quickly? Is it beneficial to the economy? Does the mask protect us from illness, as well as protect others from our germs?”
Shukla believes one way to address these issues is for policymakers to focus on making laws that can help shift the individualistic ideals to community help. “People tend to be more sensitive to the consequences if they see them,” explains Shukla. “Creating awareness campaigns that focus on the importance of social distancing, wearing masks, home quarantine, etc. on our close ones like elderly parents and younger kids can inspire compliance. Many people are discouraged from following rules because they do not see immediate positive effects. Using data oriented, visually appealing campaigns that show effects like flattening of the curve, prediction of new cases, etc. may help."
David Foley, Founder of Unify Cosmos, a Meditation Center, also notes that “people, especially Americans, love to exercise their right to freedom.” He believes stricter rules should be imposed for the time-being. “It’s akin to slapping a punishment on an erring teenage son or daughter,” noted Foley, “especially if they deliberately ignore your guidelines as parents.”
Nicole Arzt, LMFT, advisory board member for Family Enthusiast, believes the answer lies in more than new rules and instead a shift to empathy, which helps people understand and care about each other. She explains, “Individualistic cultures often lack empathy. America comes from a long history of rebellion and individualistic thinking. With such a focus on capitalism, it's hard for people to want to help others when it is so hard to stay afloat yourself. Thus, it's a problem in all facets of life.” Shukla suggests “local representatives arrange meetings with people to come up with mutually beneficial ideas to combat the pandemic, which will promote a sense of community.”
As Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, recently said, "It's not super spreading individuals, it's super spreading events and we need to stop those. We definitely need to take more precautions." Without a sense of community in addressing COVID-19, this virus will impact our communities longer than it should.