Four Things That Set Americans Apart and Why They Matter

Global Values Survey Reveals What Makes Americans Unique

A young hipster man stands before an American flag. Find out what makes Americans stand out from others.
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The results are in. We now have definitive proof of what values, beliefs, and attitudes make Americans unique when compared with people from other nations--especially those from other rich nations. The Pew Research Center's 2014 Global Attitudes Survey found that Americans have a stronger belief in the power of the individual, and believe more so than others that hard work will lead to success. We also tend to be much more optimistic and religious than people in other rich nations.

Let's dig into these data, consider why Americans differ so greatly from others, and what it all means from a sociological perspective.

A Stronger Belief in the Power of the Individual

Pew found, after surveying people in 44 nations around the world, that Americans believe, far more than others, that we control our own success in life. Others around the world are far more likely to believe that forces outside one's control determine the level of one's success.

Pew determined this by asking people whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: "Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control." While the global median was 38 percent disagreeing with the statement, more than half of Americans--57 percent--disagreed with it. This means that most Americans believe that success is determined by ourselves, rather than outside forces.

Pew suggests that this finding means that Americans stand out on individualism, which makes sense.

This result signals that we believe more in the power of ourselves as individuals to shape our own life than we believe that outside forces shape us. Ergo, the majority of Americans believe that success is up to us, which means we believe in the promise and possibility of success. This belief is, in essence, the American Dream; a dream rooted in the belief in the power of the individual.

Anyone who has taught sociology has come up against this belief and struggled to break through it with their students. This common belief runs counter to what we social scientists know to be true: a litany of social and economic forces surround us from birth, and they shape, to a large degree, what happens in our lives, and whether we achieve success in normative terms--economic success. This does not mean that individuals do not have power, choice, or free will. We do, and within sociology, we refer to this as agency. But we, as individuals, also exist within a society composed of social relationships with other people, groups, institutions, and communities, and they and their norms exert social force on us. So the paths, options, and outcomes from which we choose, and how we make those choices, are influenced greatly by the social, cultural, economic, and political circumstances that surround us.

That Old "Pull Yourself up by Your Bootstraps" Mantra

Connected to this belief in the power of the individual, Americans are also more likely to believe that it is very important to work hard to get ahead in life. Nearly three-quarters of Americans believe this, whereas just 60 percent do in the UK, and 49 percent in Germany.

The global mean is 50 percent, so others believe it too, but Americans believe it far more than anyone else.

A sociological perspective suggests that there's circular logic at work here. Success stories--widely popular in all forms of media--are typically framed as narratives of hard work, determination, struggle, and perseverance. This fuels the belief that one must work hard to get ahead in life, which perhaps fuels hard work, but it certainly does not fuel economic success for the vast majority of the population. This myth also fails to account for the fact that most people do work hard, but do not "get ahead," and that even the concept of getting "ahead" means that others must by necessity fall behind. So the logic can, by design, only work for some, and they are a small minority.

The Most Optimistic Among Rich Nations

Interestingly, the U.S. is also far more optimistic than other rich nations, with 41 percent saying they were having a particularly good day.

No other rich nations even came close. Second to the U.S. was the UK, where just 27 percent--that's less than a third--felt the same way.

It makes sense that people who believe in the power of themselves as individuals to achieve success by hard work and determination would also show this kind of optimism. If you see your days as full of promise for future success, then it follows that you would consider them "good" days. In the U.S. we also receive and perpetuate the message, quite consistently, that positive thinking is a necessary component of achieving success.

No doubt, there's some truth to that. If you don't believe that something is possible, whether it's a personal or professional goal or dream, then how will you ever achieve it? But, as honorary sociologist Barbara Ehrenreich has observed, there are significant downsides to this uniquely American optimism.

In her 2009 book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, Ehrenreich suggests that positive thinking can ultimately harm us personally, and as a society. In an interview published on Alternet in 2009, Ehrenreich said of this uniquely American trend, "On a personal level, it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out 'negative' thoughts. On a national level, it’s brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster [regarding the subprime mortgage foreclosure crisis]."

Part of the problem with positive thinking, per Ehrenreich, is that when it becomes a mandatory attitude, it disallows for the acknowledgement of fear, and of criticism. Ultimately, Ehrenreich argues, positive thinking, as an ideology, fosters acceptance of an unequal and highly troubled status quo, because we use it to convince ourselves that we as individuals are to blame for what is hard in life, and that we can change our situation if we just have the right attitude about it.

This kind of ideological manipulation is what Italian activist and writer Antonio Gramsci referred to as "cultural hegemony," achieving rule through the ideological manufacture of consent.

When you believe that thinking positively will solve your problems, you are unlikely to challenge the things that may be causing your trouble. Relatedly, late sociologist C. Wright Mills would look on this trend as fundamentally anti-sociological, because the essence of having a "sociological imagination," or thinking like a sociologist, is being able to see the connections between "personal troubles" and "public issues."

As Ehrenreich sees it, American optimism stands in the way of the kind of critical thinking that is necessary to fight inequalities and to keep society in check. The alternative to rampant optimism, she suggests, is not pessimism--it is realism.

An Unusual Combination of National Wealth and Religiosity

The 2014 Global Values Survey reaffirmed another well-established trend: the richer a nation is, in terms of GDP per capita, the less religious is its population. Around the world, the poorest nations have the highest levels of religiosity, and the wealthiest nations, like Britain, Germany, Canada, and Australia, the lowest. Those four nations are all clustered around a $40,000 GDP per capita, and they are also clustered around the figure of 20 percent of the population claiming that religion is an important part of their life. Conversely, the poorest nations, including Pakistan, Senegal, Kenya, and the Philippines, among others, are the most religious, with nearly all members of their populations claiming religion as an important part of their lives. 

This is why it is unusual that in the U.S., the nation with the highest GDP per capita among those measured, more than half of the adult population says that religion is an important part of their lives. That's a 30 percentage point difference over other rich nations, and puts us on par with nations that have a per capita GDP of less than $20,000.

This difference between the U.S. and other rich nations seems to be connected to another--that Americans are also far more likely to say that belief in God is a prerequisite for morality. In other rich nations like Australia and France this figure is far lower (23 and 15 percent respectively), where most people do not conflate theism with morality.

These final findings about religion, when combined with the first two, smack of the legacy of early American Protestantism. Founding father of sociology, Max Weber, wrote about this in his famous book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Weber observed that in early American society, belief in God and religiosity were expressed in large part through dedicating oneself to a secular "calling", or profession. Followers of Protestantism at the time were instructed by religious leaders to dedicate themselves to their calling and work hard in their earthly life in order enjoy heavenly glory in the afterlife. Over time, the universal acceptance and practice of the Protestant religion specifically waned in the U.S., but belief in hard work and the power of the individual to forge their own success remained. However, religiosity, or at least the appearance of it, remains strong in the U.S., and is perhaps connected to the three other values highlighted here, as each are forms of faith in their own right.

The Trouble with American Values

While all of the values described here are considered virtues in the U.S., and indeed, can foster positive outcomes, there are significant drawbacks to the prominence of them in our society. The belief in the power of the individual, in the importance of hard work, and optimism function more as myths than they do as actual recipes for success, and what these myths obscure is a society cleaved by crippling inequalities along lines of race, class, gender, and sexuality, among other things. They do this obscuring work by encouraging us to see and think as individuals, rather than as members of communities or parts of a greater whole. Doing so prevents us from fully grasping the larger forces and patterns that organize society and shape our lives, which is to say, doing so discourages us from seeing and understanding systemic inequalities. This is how these values maintain an unequal status quo.

If we want to live in a just and equal society, we have to challenge the dominance of these values and the prominent roles they play in our lives, and take instead a healthy dose of realistic social critique.