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Episode Transcript

Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. This month, we are revisiting our series from last year about what makes America … so American. Today, “The Pros and Cons of America’s (Extreme) Individualism.” Hope you enjoy.

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In our previous episode, we made what may sound like a bold claim. We said that a lot of good ideas and policies that work elsewhere in the world can’t work in the U.S. because our culture is just different. Not necessarily better or worse — but very different. That was our hypothesis, at least. And we did find a number of learned people who had data to back up the hypothesis.

Michele GELFAND: The people that came to New York early on, they were from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds, and that’s helped produce the looseness that exists to this day. 

Joe HENRICH: Americans and Westerners more generally are psychologically unusual from a global perspective.  

GELFAND: In societies that are tighter, people are willing to call out rule violators. Here in the U.S., it’s actually a rule violation to call out people who are violating norms.  

HENRICH: You want to be the same self, regardless of who you’re talking to or what context you’re in. In other places they don’t think it’s a smart idea to be consistent.  

Some of the measurable differences were a bit odd.

GELFAND: Apparently over 50 percent of cats and dogs in the U.S. are obese.  

The focus of that episode was American culture. And how are we defining “culture”?

Gert Jan HOFSTEDE: None of it is intentional. It is what we got fed with our mother’s milk and the porridge that our dad gave us.   

That is one of the main guests in today’s episode.

HOFSTEDE: My name is Gert Jan Hofstede. I’m a professor of artificial sociality at Wageningen University, in the Netherlands. 

Here’s what Hofstede told us last week about culture:

HOFSTEDE: If you’re part of a society, you’re like one drop in the Mississippi River. You may decide to go another way, but that doesn’t make the river change. So we’re all constraining one another through our collective culture.  

And what does he have to say about American culture?

HOFSTEDE: In the U.S.A., there is little constraining. If you’re a constrained sort of person, you won’t go far in the U.S.

Stephen DUBNER: I’m curious whether you’ve ever been accused of political incorrectness in your study of national cultures. Is that a yes?

HOFSTEDE: Yes, especially by people from Anglo countries. Culture can be quite an offensive concept, particularly to people who project it onto an individual characteristic, as if it was about an individual.  

Potentially offensive or not, Hofstede really believes in the power of culture — so much so that he remains the steward of a massive research project begun more than 50 years ago by his late father. As of today, it covers six dimensions — or, as the Hofstedes put it, “six basic issues that society needs to organize itself.” It’s called the 6-D, or 6-Dimension, Model of National Culture, and it is one of the most intriguing explanations I’ve ever seen for why American society is such an outlier in the world — for better and worse. So, today on Freakonomics Radio: can we really build a model that explains why the American psyche is so unusual?

HOFSTEDE: That’s my idea. But I’m Dutch, of course.

Why aren’t all national cultures converging by now?

GELFAND: This has always been the big question, that with the internet and globalization we’re going to become more similar.

And some advice from our new Dutch friend.

HOFSTEDE: Look, guys, we can do it. The future could be bright. We just need to do it.

America the dutiful?

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DUBNER: Describe for me your father and his work, and how it became a family business. 

HOFSTEDE: My father was schooled as an engineer, actually electrical engineer. He did some work in the factory and it shaped him to a great extent because there, he could see that the world of the organization looks so differently from the floor than it does from above.  

That, again, is Gert Jan Hofstede. His father was Geert Hofstede.

HOFSTEDE: And this is before the 60s, before the 70s. So this is quite a while ago. So he read about factor analysis, which had become a little bit fashionable at the time. 

Factor analysis being a way to distill a large number of variables into an index, essentially a ranking.

HOFSTEDE: He did social psychological work on what it is to be a manager. He interviewed people at I.B.M. International, and they were just starting international opinion surveys. 

These were surveys of I.B.M.’s own employees around the world.

HOFSTEDE: He decided to take a job there. And the rest is history, if you like. 

At the time, opinion surveys were relatively new; it was especially unusual for a company to survey its own employees. What was I.B.M. after?

HOFSTEDE: There was a Quaker at the head of I.B.M. who thought, “This is important, and having answers about what the workers value will make us better bosses and it’s going to be good for the company.” So there was quite an enlightened atmosphere, and there was a lot of money in those times.

When Hofstede the Elder went to work for I.B.M., he got involved with these surveys. Between 1967 and 1973, he collected data on I.B.M. employees in more than 50 countries. What was in these surveys? Employees were asked to rate how much they agreed with statements like “Competition among employees usually does more harm than good.” And, “Having interesting work … is just as important to most people as having high earnings.”

HOFSTEDE: Simple questions about daily things that people understand. So this is not about, “Is world peace important?”

What else?

HOFSTEDE: For instance, “Is it important for you to have a good working relationship with your boss?” Or “Is it a good idea for people to maybe have more than one boss?”

DUBNER: So does all the data come from workplace interviews essentially of white-collar and pink-collar workers, or does it go broader than that? 

HOFSTEDE: And blue-collar. It’s also the cleaning lady. It’s all the levels in the organization. But yes, it’s all workplace. But that’s only the first study. Since his first study, many people have started to do similar studies. 

DUBNER: What problem was he, and later you, trying to solve by doing this work? 

HOFSTEDE: Well, if you want an honest answer, I think mainly our own curiosity. 

DUBNER: That’s the best. 

HOFSTEDE: I think so, yes.

So Hofstede the Elder began to amass a huge data set about the workplace experiences and preferences of tens of thousands of I.B.M. employees spread across the globe.

HOFSTEDE: And his special methodological trick was not to do what is now called a pan-cultural analysis across all the respondents, but first to lump them into groups. And he tried all kinds of categories and groups.  

Categories like age, gender, job type, job seniority, and so on. 

HOFSTEDE: But it turned out that lumping them by nationality was the best thing to do. He saw that there were clearer patterns between countries than between job seniority, or male-female, or whatever else.

Hofstede analyzed these data at what he called “the ecological level.” He explained this approach in a paper called “Flowers, Bouquets, and Gardens” — the idea being that an individual flower is a subset of a mixed bouquet, which in turn is a subset of an entire garden, which has even more variation. Once he saw that differences were driven by nationality, Hofstede sensed he was on to something big. Everyone knows there are differences between people in different countries, but his approach was a quantifiable approach.

HOFSTEDE: And it immediately yielded a four-dimensional model.

We’ll hear about those dimensions soon enough. But first, Hofstede had to make sure that the differences he was seeing in the data weren’t specific to I.B.M. employees. After all, they were the data set. Around this time, he started doing some teaching at the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland.

HOFSTEDE: And when he took the job in Lausanne, he found that the international group of pupils at his classes, if he asked them the same questions, came up with the same dimensions. Now this is pretty rare to have such different groups of respondents and still find the same thing. So then he really knew this is not an artifact of this particular company — this is real.   

As Hofstede the Younger remembers it, his father asked his bosses at I.B.M. to let him focus even more on this data. What’d they say?

HOFSTEDE: “Oh, no, that’s something for academia.” And then he decided to go to academia. So he left I.B.M. 

By this time, Hofstede the Elder had already gotten a Ph.D. in social science. He would spend the rest of his life building out the 6-Dimension Model of National Culture. As we heard, the first four dimensions originated with the I.B.M. data, gathered in the late 60s and early 70s. The first one measures the level of individualism in a given culture, versus collectivism. The second one measures what’s called “power distance.” (Don’t worry, we’ll explain the name later.) The third measures “masculinity” versus “femininity” in a given culture. (That will also need some explaining.) The fourth original dimension was called “uncertainty avoidance.” This has to do with how comfortable people are with ambiguity. The fifth dimension in the Hofstede universe came in the early 1980s, in collaboration with a Canadian social psychologist named Michael Bond, who was working in Hong Kong. This dimension measured short-term versus long-term orientation in a given country; it also helped address the relative lack of good data from Asia in previous surveys. The sixth and, for now, final dimension was added to the model in 2010. It was a collaboration between Hofstede the Elder, his son Gert Jan, who’d begun working with him by now, and a Bulgarian linguist named Michael Minkov, who had been analyzing data from the World Values Survey. The sixth dimension is called “indulgence vs. restraint.”

There is some overlap between these six dimensions and some of the ideas we talked about in last week’s episode — particularly the notion that some national cultures tend to be tight and others loose. But it’s important to acknowledge that no culture is a monolith.

HOFSTEDE: This is not about a homogenous soup, but it’s about the power of the millions versus the individual and the power of ostracism. You might want to change, but if you get ostracized, it’s very difficult to persist.

Okay, let’s get into the six dimensions. The first: individualism versus collectivism.

HOFSTEDE: In an individualistic society, a person is like an atom in a gas. They can freely float about. And life is an adventure. The best thing you can become is yourself. And in a collectivistic society, a person is like an atom in a crystal. Whether proud or not, whether happy or not, it has a position. And it should stay there.

DUBNER: Name some of the highest and lowest countries on this dimension. 

HOFSTEDE: So collectivistic cultures are those of the Amerindian empires. The Aztec, the Inca, and today’s Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, are very collectivistic. China is also very collectivistic and so are the Southeast Asian countries, but not Japan. Europe has very strong gradients between very individualistic Nordic and Anglo and Germanic countries; Germanic is a little bit more collectivistic. Latin countries tend to be more collectivistic, especially Spain and Portugal — not so much Italy and France.

You may have noticed that Hofstede neglected to mention a certain country that we Americans tend to care about quite a bit. Yes, the United States of America. Where would you think the U.S. ranks among all the countries measured on this dimension? That’s right: we are No. 1, the most individualistic country in the world, 91 out of 100 on the Hofstede scale of individualism. Spoiler alert: This dimension is one of the six in which the U.S. is the biggest outlier in the world. And how does this extraordinarily high level of individualism versus collectivism play out? In a multitude of ways, large and small.

HOFSTEDE: High individualism is correlated with trying new stuff. Because if you try something new, you show to the people around you that you are an individual and you can make your own decisions. And that is a status-worthy thing. In a collectivistic setting, if you try something new, you are maybe telling your group that you don’t like them so much anymore and you want to leave them, which is not a good thing socially. You could ask people, “What do you like to eat?” The more collectivistic they are, the more likely they are to talk about their grandmother and what she made, and they’re less likely to start entirely on their own diet.  

Here are some things that tend to thrive in highly individual societies: human rights, a free press, divorce, and a faster pace of life. We even walk faster.

HENRICH: So places like New York and London, people are blazing down the sidewalks.

That’s Joe Henrich, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard; he’s also a scholar of psychology, economics, and anthropology.

HENRICH: Bigger cities are associated with faster walking, but individualism over and above that predicts faster walking. 

Henrich has written about the notion of “time psychology.”

HENRICH: And Americans have this probably worse than anybody. We’re always losing time. We’re trying to buy time, save time. And so you walk faster because you can’t get everything you need done in your day and you’re always trying to get to the next event. And you speak fast because I don’t want to waste a lot of time talking. I get these words out so I can get on to the next thing.

Individualistic countries tend to be richer, but as Hofstede the Elder once put it, “The order of logic is not that individualism comes first. It is that the wealth comes first, and the individualism follows.” Henrich takes a more nuanced view:

HENRICH: To explain the massive economic growth that we’ve seen in the last 200 years, you need to explain the continuous and, for a long time, accelerating rate of innovation that occurred. The U.S. patent database goes back into the 18th century and what a number of studies in economics as well as work in my lab has shown is that openness to other people — so, trust in strangers, an inclination towards individualism, a desire to stand out, to be the smartest guy in the room — fosters more rapid innovation because people are more likely to exchange ideas, they’re more interested in distinguishing themselves. And so individualism, trust in others, leads to more rapid innovation. One thing that I think that Americans are more extreme than other Western countries and certainly elsewhere in the world is attributing individual success to the internal traits of the actor. So why did someone succeed? Well, because they’re really smart. They’re really hard-working. And not attending enough to contextual factors — opportunities that presented themselves, being in the right place at the right time. So that leads to justifying more inequality.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that individualism might contribute to inequality — or at least, as Henrich puts it, the justification of inequality. The notion of the American Dream has long been that prosperity is just sitting out there, waiting for anyone to grab it — as long as you’re willing to work hard enough.

HENRICH: So Americans tend to be more work-obsessed than other people.

The average U.S. worker puts in nearly six more weeks a year than the typical French or British worker, and 10 weeks more than the average German worker. For some Americans, at least, working hard is a badge of honor.

GELFAND: When we ask people, “What does honor mean to you?” in the U.S., a lot of people talk about work.  

That’s the cross-cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand.

GELFAND: They talk about individualistic accomplishments. Whereas in other contexts, like in the Middle East, when you think about honor, you think about your family, you think about your purity, your dutifulness, and so forth — much less so about accomplishments.

Henrich has also observed this about Americans.

HENRICH: They are self-enhancing, which means they try to promote their attributes. Self-centered — so if you give them tasks and have them list traits about themselves, they’ll tend to list their attributes and characteristics rather than their relationships. 

GELFAND: The U.S. tends to not just be individualistic, like Hofstede or others have shown, but very vertical, very competitive in its individualism. And that’s different than in Scandinavia and in New Zealand and Australia, which has much more horizontal individualism. That’s to say that it emphasizes privacy and independence, like the U.S., but it’s much more egalitarian.  

In other words, Americans don’t just see other people as individuals. We see them as individuals with whom we are in competition.

GELFAND: We’re trained from a very early age not just to be independent, but to be better. You look at parents and how they treat their kids’ art. It’s like, “Oh, my gosh, that is so amazing.” I was feeling like I have to tell that to my kids as a good parent, training my kids to be vertical and individualistic. And it was like, “This stuff is really lousy. Am I really going to tell my kid how special they are about everything?” 

You could argue that treating your own children as if they’re special may make it harder to care as much about other people’s children. Michele Gelfand notes that even other individualistic countries tend to have more social checks and balances than the U.S.

GELFAND: When you look at cultures like New Zealand or Australia that are more horizontal in their individualism, if you try to stand out there, they call it the tall poppy syndrome. You’re going to be shut down. There, it’s really important to maintain that humility, to be focused on your privacy, but not trying to one-up other people.

The spirit of competition — of what Michele Gelfand calls “vertical individualism” — seems to permeate every corner of American society. Joe Henrich points out that even our religions are competitive.

HENRICH: My favorite explanation for this — I think this has been put out most clearly by a sociologist named Rodney Stark — is that with freedom of religion, you get competition amongst religious organizations. So the U.S. produces the sort of Wal-Mart equivalent of religions: big churches giving the people what they want, high pageantry. Whereas if you have a state religion, it tends to get tired and old and boring. People get less interested.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than 80 percent of Americans believe in God, 55 percent pray at least daily, and 36 percent attend a religious service at least once a week. That level of religiosity is very high for a wealthy country.

HENRICH: We have a kind of religiosity equivalent to somewhere like Kuwait. If you plot the U.S. on G.D.P. on one axis and religiosity on the other axis, the U.S. is a clear and distinct outlier — with high G.D.P and high religion.

High religiosity coupled with high individualism reveals another feature of American culture. As it’s been said: “Everyone knows that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life.” Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke, notes that American individualism is hardly experienced equally across the population.

Mark Anthony NEAL: I think that’s always been a tension in Black culture, around this idea of America’s rugged individualism and the collectivity of Blackness that was born out of necessity because of segregation. That is something that fundamentally many whites don’t understand, right? And it’s not because they themselves don’t have collective experiences, particularly within ethnicity, but part of the price of becoming American is to give up the collectivity of your ethnic background. To become American and to be American is to be individual. But for folks who are pushed out of the mainstream — you know, Black folks have rarely had the luxury of thinking about just simply being themselves. And I think that’s always going to be an ongoing tension — this idea of America that’s rooted in individualism, that’s rooted in transactional practices. “I do this for you and you do this for me.” Folks who come from a collective standpoint where, “I do this for you, but you’re doing this for us” — that’s a very, very different way of seeing the world.

Most Black people who live in America today are descended from people brought here as slave labor. Most white Americans have an entirely different ancestral history. They are descended from people who came here of their own free will and in order to execute their own free will. This is part of the history that made the U.S. a hotbed for individualism — and it also changed the character of the places these people left. A recent paper by a Harvard postdoc named Anne Sofie Beck Knudsen analyzed Scandinavian emigration from 1850 to 1920, when roughly 25 percent of the Scandinavian population left their countries, a great many coming to the U.S. “People of an individualistic mindset were more prone to migrate than their collectivistic neighbors,” she writes. And: “In present-day Scandinavia … levels of individualism would thus have been significantly higher had emigration not occurred.”

Okay, it took half of this episode to go through just the first of the six dimensions of national culture — individualism versus collectivism. But that makes sense. Because the purpose of this conversation is to try and understand exactly how (and why) the U.S. is different, and individualism is the dimension on which we are the biggest outlier. We’ll go through the other five dimensions, much faster, I promise. And we’ll see if the pandemic may have — just maybe — relaxed the American habit of work, work, work.

NEAL: We realized that the grind is unsustainable. It always was unsustainable, but was made even more acute to us.

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The U.S. is just different from other places in a variety of ways that we often don’t stop to think about. Because when you’re living inside a culture — well, that’s the culture you know; it is what it is. But when you use data to measure the specific dimensions of a given culture, and compare them to other countries, you see some stark differences. For instance: According to the 6-D Model of National Culture that we’ve been talking about, the U.S. is the most individualistic nation on earth.

HOFSTEDE: That’s right. 

Gert Jan Hofstede is a Dutch culture scholar who’s been walking us through these dimensions. Next on the list: what Hofstede’s late father, the originator of this culture model, called “power distance.” That’s “the extent to which the less powerful members of organizations or institutions” — be it society at large or just a family — “accept and expect that power is distributed unequally.”

HOFSTEDE: If you are, let’s say, a toddler, what do you get to decide for yourself? In a society of small power distance, a lot. At school in the Netherlands, I’ve seen a mother ask her two-year-old, “Shall I change your nappy?” And then the child gets to decide whether its nappy gets changed. This would never happen in a society of large power distance. A child is a child, and a parent is a parent, and a parent decides for the child. 

The U.S. also has a small power distance — 40 on a scale of 100, which puts it among the lowest in the world. This carries over into many areas of society, including the labor market.

HOFSTEDE: In the U.S.A., the boss needs to be a team player. They’re not supposed to be the boss. 

HENRICH: We don’t like people telling us what to do. 

That, again, is the American culture scholar Joe Henrich.

HENRICH: It chafes us when we get ordered around. This really contrasts with lots of places where there are legitimate traditional authorities — and people tend to defer to those authorities. 

To that end, the digital revolution is further shrinking the distance to power. Here’s Mark Anthony Neal of Duke:

NEAL: Historically, power has been obscure. You know what it is, you know how it works, you don’t necessarily have access to the people who really hold on to it. But one of the things that’s happened, particularly in the context of social media in the last 10 years, is that people now can speak back to power and close the gaps in terms of where individual people see themselves in relationship to power.

Some of the countries with high power distance: Russia, China, and Mexico. Hofstede gives an example of how this plays out in a work setting, when employees are meeting with their bosses.

HOFSTEDE: They will look at them if they admire them, but they will look away if they’re afraid. So you see these eye movements that are very different. Whereas looking away in a very egalitarian society is seen as a sign of deceptiveness. 

DUBNER: And what would you say is maybe a political ramification of low power distance? 

HOFSTEDE: You have a democracy. In a large power-distant society, you have autocracy. And you need revolutions in order to change the government. Think Belarus, Myanmar, Russia, China.

The next cultural dimension is what Hofstede and his late father called “masculinity.” That title is a bit misleading.

HOFSTEDE: “Masculine society” means that if you show power, that gives you social status. So looking decisive, muscular, active — or if you’re a woman, sexy — that makes you more status-worthy. And that also means that fighting is a good way to get what you want. 

In a more masculine society, men and women adhere to the gender roles you might think of as patriarchal: fathers, for instance, take care of the facts, while mothers handle the emotions. More feminine societies tend to have less poverty and higher literacy rates. How does the U.S. do on this dimension?

HOFSTEDE: You are on the masculine side — not at the very end, but more on the masculine side. 

The Hofstede scale puts the U.S. at 62 out of 100 on masculinity — relatively high but substantially less masculine than China, Mexico, and much of Eastern Europe. On the more feminine end of the spectrum are the Scandinavian countries and some of Western Europe. Mark Anthony Neal of Duke is not surprised that the U.S. scores relatively high on the masculinity scale.

NEAL: We’re a country that presumes male leadership. We presume male public voice. And a lot of those presumptions come from how men function within the context of various religious practices. You could just do an across-the-board search of various “Western” religions and look at who the figureheads are. I think those fundamental religious beliefs extend to the American view of what leadership should look like outside of the church — in the corporation, in the legislatures, and what have you.  

Neal sees a strong connection between U.S. masculinity and our appetite for work.

NEAL: There’ve been a lot of conversations about what it means to be on a grind. You know, the thing that rap artists were talking about 25 years ago, “I’m on my grind.” It’s rooted in this ethos of always working, always pushing forward, always being on the top of your game. And in this moment, we realized that the grind is unsustainable, right? It always was unsustainable, but was made even more acute to us during the pandemic. We’re realizing that part of that push forward — there’s a toxicity to that in terms of how you treat other people, how you think about institutions. And for me, it’s hard to divorce the toxicity of the grind from the toxicity of masculinity, when you always have to dominate. You always have to win. You can never admit weakness or failure.

HOFSTEDE: In the U.S.A., individualism coupled with masculinity creates a society where if you’re not a winner, you’re a loser. And this dynamic leads to a lot of fighting for the sake of fighting. There is a strong desire to be more feminine. I think Joe Biden, for instance, he’s trying to play the card of, “We’re all Americans. We should be nice to one another.” But when push comes to shove, most of the time it doesn’t go that way. That would be very beneficial because now you might be going down the path of civil war, really. If you no longer even pretend to be one people and to be fair to all the citizens of your country, then you’re not going down a road that leads to a great future. That’s my idea. But I’m Dutch, of course. 

The next dimension is what the Hofstedes call “uncertainty avoidance.”

HOFSTEDE: This is actually a little bit of an unfortunate name. “Uncertainty” in economics means something very akin to risk. And in culture, uncertainty means not knowing the ritual, not knowing how status-worthy or blameworthy some action is. You want to know where you stand — which is, for instance, what diplomats know very well. They make sure that there is no violation of any ritual. Nobody can feel insulted. Everybody gets tickled until they laugh. So uncertainty avoidance is the intolerance of ambiguity. The converse, which is what Anglo societies are high on, means you don’t care about ambiguity. Ambiguity is good. It could give you new occasions to gain status in an unexpected way.

DUBNER: What are some of the consequences of being relatively tolerant of uncertainty, as the U.S. is

HOFSTEDE: It means that you only need rules when you’re going to use them. And you don’t need them for ritual reasons. 

DUBNER: I like those rules. I must be American.

HOFSTEDE: Yes. So rules for the sake of having rules are not good. Chinese, in that respect, are very like the Americans. Why have rules if you don’t use them? Whereas uncertainty avoidance means you have lots of etiquette and ritual. Greeks are very strong on that. 

DUBNER: When you’re inclined to look at the U.S. in a positive light, do you find uncertainty avoidance to be largely a force for the good in terms of creating and building a strong society, or do you think it’s more —?

HOFSTEDE: This is a very American question, Stephen. You realize, you want a black or white value judgment. 

DUBNER: I’m curious for advice on how we should balance— we’ve become an economic powerhouse, and we recognize that there is a lot of benefit to that. We also realize that we’re a culture in distress in many, many, many ways. 

HOFSTEDE: Okay, no, I was just being naughty. There’s a good side of every dimension, including uncertainty avoidance. It means you really want to know and you’re not satisfied until you know. So that can be very beneficial.

DUBNER: You sound very grateful that you were not born an American. Is that the case? 

HOFSTEDE: If I had been born in America, I would have liked it, probably, because I would have been used to it. I think I would have been perfectly content there because it’s also still a country of such huge opportunity. And I think that America has wonderful things happening to it. I do think that today they are living through difficult times, but so are we. So it’s not necessarily the case that my country is better. But everybody, of course, instinctively feels and should feel that their country, or whatever their tribe is, is the best in the world. If you don’t feel that, then you will be an unhappy person.

The fifth cultural dimension is one that I think will resonate with everyone who’s ever listened to Freakonomics Radio, since it is at the crux of problem-solving. And it’s another dimension on which the U.S. is a substantial outlier. It’s called long-term versus short-term orientation. This is the dimension based on data from the World Values Survey. The country that ranks highest in long-term orientation is Japan; also high on this scale are China and Russia. On a certain level, this is obvious: These are cultures that have norms and traditions that have endured for centuries. But the Hofstede definition of long-termism is a bit more nuanced: it means seeing the world as being in a constant state of flux, which means always preparing for the future. The U.S., according to this analysis, is comparatively a short-term country. One hallmark of short-term thinking: a tendency toward black and white moral distinctions versus shades of gray. Another one: impatience. Michele Gelfand again:

GELFAND: De Tocqueville noticed this about Americans, that we are a “time is money” country. We’d rather think about solutions temporarily rather than as, “this might take some time.” It means that we need to attract different types of people to an organization. We need to have different types of leadership. We need to change our practices. So, organizations — you can think about them as the people, the practices, and the leaders. And all those things need to be realigned when you really have a true culture change.

Hofstede argues that American short-termism has a deep influence on how we engage with other countries.

HOFSTEDE: For the U.S.A., the world is like a market. But a lot of the world is much more like a family. You have to behave like a family member if you want to be one. In the Germanic world, we have systems, which means that nothing stands alone. Every action or every fact or every move has a system around it. And this is what Europe has. Europe has a strong influence from Germany, also from France. Both are long-term oriented, so they see a lot of context around things. 

DUBNER: So we’ve done a pretty good job of beating up on the U.S. thus far. And we see that the combination of high individualism, high masculinity, and high short-termism can produce some chaos, at the very least. Let’s flip it for a moment. The U.S. is a pretty successful country, maybe the most successful country on many dimensions in the history of the world. How much should we attribute that success to these very same factors that create chaos on other dimensions? 

HOFSTEDE: I like this question a lot. This is really a conversation that pleases me a lot. 

DUBNER: I’m glad. 

HOFSTEDE: Because it’s true: the very same dimensions under different circumstances, can work the other way. In an individualistic society, depending on how the mood is, you can get very different developments. So you can see that in an individualistic society, after becoming a world champion in a sport or certainly after winning a major war, people do not fight one another, but they admire one another. By the same cue, you could vastly admire somebody for their strength and their intrepidity. Then you can have something very good happening. For instance, the rhythm of vaccination in the U.S.A. is very fast. Whereas in countries that are bogged down in cronyism and corruption, it doesn’t happen. So, yes, the same attributes that can be a big problem can also be a big boost. 

Coming up: We will get   into the final characteristic that makes America different.

NEAL: In the U.S., it was freedom to do whatever the hell that you wanted to.

And if you want to listen to the other episodes in our series on the idiosyncrasies of American culture — we cover transportation, policing, and more — you can find them on your podcast app or at, where you’ll also find transcripts and show notes. We’ll be right back.

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The final dimension on the Hofstede model is called indulgence versus restraint. In restrained societies, people tend to suppress bodily gratification, and birth rates are often lower; there’s also less interest in things like foreign films and music. In indulgent societies, more people play sports, while in restrained societies, sports are more something you watch. The most indulgent country in these rankings is Mexico, at 97 out of 100; the most restrained: Egypt, at four. The U.S. comes in on the indulgent side, at 68.

NEAL: I often think about how the U.S. has historically thought about freedom and how, say, the Soviet bloc had talked about freedom. 

That, again, is Mark Anthony Neal, from Duke. 

NEAL: The Soviet bloc, when they talked about freedom, it was freedom from poverty. It was freedom from hunger. It was freedom from all these debilitating things because the state would be able to provide for you. In the U.S., it was freedom to do whatever the hell that you wanted to. So you could over-eat and over-indulge and over-drink. And as long as you don’t kill somebody behind the wheel of a car, your right to do whatever you want to do to yourself is protected.

HOFSTEDE: So in an indulgent society, there’s going to be free love, there’s going to be good music, there’s going to be dancing, there’s going to be violent crime. And in a restrained society, there’s going to be suicide. There’s not going to be violent crime. Life is going to be hard. Happiness is going to be lower, but crime, too.

DUBNER: Although the U.S. is relatively high on suicide and homicide, so are we an outlier in that regard as well?

HOFSTEDE: That could be the case, and it is also the case that you have a sort of non-overt multiculturalism in the society. So I would be very interested in knowing whether there’s any data on the ethnic component of homicide and suicide. And by the way, in that sense, the U.S.A. is also a huge laboratory of society formation, hopefully, which is by no means finished. I have a professorship in Joburg in South Africa, too. And I could see there, a little bit similarly to the U.S., how the various ethnicities are trying to live together. And it’s by no means easy. It’s very, very hard to do. So yeah, the U.S. has that assignment ahead of it.

NEAL: As someone who specialized in the African-American experience, and is African-American myself, I often fall back on the way the late Amiri Baraka described Black culture as a “changing same.”

Mark Anthony Neal again.

NEAL: So it’s always evolving, it’s always developing, but there’s some core principles. There’s some D.N.A. that’s always there. Hence the term, “the changing same.” I think there are historical moments that are transcendent. Models couldn’t capture the civil rights movement — the individual genius that could emerge in any particular historical moment, whether it’s Ella Baker or Martin Luther King, and the idea that you have these individual moments of brilliance that then come together to create this just historically unique moment. I think the models don’t account for that because you can’t account for that, right? Those are the things you can’t necessarily plan and account for in building models of how you expect people to react in different situations.

Neal is making a couple of compelling points here. The first is that a model of anything even nearly as complex as a national culture is bound to miss a lot of nuance. Even Gert Jan Hofstede suggests that his model shouldn’t be seen as overly deterministic.

HOFSTEDE: You could say these six dimensions of culture, they are perimeters to our sociality. They determine the boundary conditions before which we become angry or flattered or whatever.

The other point is a reminder: It’s good to be humble about our ability — our inability, actually — to predict how a given culture will change. Or if it will change at all.

GELFAND: This has always been the big question, the myth that with the internet and globalization we’re going to become more similar.

That, again, is the cross-cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand.

GELFAND: Sometimes people actually revert back into their cultural chambers. They’re threatened by that interdependence, and they want to assert their cultural identities. It’s also important to recognize that even though we’re really connected, still people are largely in their echo chambers, interacting with people who they know.

I asked Hofstede what he would advise if a given country did want to change its culture?

HOFSTEDE: It’s rather futile to advise somebody what their national culture should be because there’s no way you can change it.

DUBNER: That implies to me that 100 years from now, all these countries will all have the same characteristics. But there must be, I would think, evolution across time, yes?

HOFSTEDE: Yes, of course. But if you look 100 years ago and you look at the cultural map of the world, you can read writers from different countries, you will see that there is astonishing continuity.

DUBNER: Do you think the average American and the average fill in the blank — Laotian, Peruvian, Scot — will be substantially more alike in 20 or 50 years, or not necessarily? 

HOFSTEDE: In a cultural sense, no, I don’t think so. 


HOFSTEDE: So you’re asking about cultural convergence. There is no evidence for convergence other than if countries become equally rich, they all go to more individualistic. But the Chinese, even rich, will be a lot more collectivistic and a lot more long-term-oriented than the Americans. 

DUBNER: So I have to say, Gert Jan, you’ve made me feel kind of terrible about being American today. I know that wasn’t your intention. 

HOFSTEDE: Okay, well, don’t. It is still the case that you did have the summer of love. You had Woodstock, and you’re going to have this kind of stuff happening again. It’s waiting to happen because people in this individualistic, indulgent society, they want to be merry. They want to be happy. They’re longing for it. All that it takes is to get out of their cages of bickering and anxiety. So I am actually optimistic. I don’t want to be a doom thinker. I do think that humanity as a whole is sort of evolving to being more reflective. I personally expect at some point in the not very far future to have another wave of youthful optimism and find a way to say, “Look, guys, we can do it, the future could be bright. We just need to do it.” And you could have a perfect storm in that direction. And also, of course, people listening to this: Make it happen, come on. Go out there and make it happen. Why not?

Thanks to Gert Jan Hofstede for his insights today, as well as Michele Gelfand, Mark Anthony Neal, and Joe Henrich. Take care of yourself — and, if you can, someone else too.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Brent Katz. Our staff also includes Neal CarruthGabriel Roth, Greg RippinZack Lapinski, Rebecca Lee DouglasMorgan Levey, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Jeremy Johnston, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric BowditchJacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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  • Gert Jan Hofstede, professor of artificial sociality at Wageningen University.
  • Michele Gelfand, professor of psychology at Stanford University.
  • Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University.
  • Joe Henrich, professor and chair of evolutionary biology at Harvard University.



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