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What Is The Effect Of Asking Americans To Think About The Greater Good?


When President Obama recently called for stricter gun control laws, he started out by saying this.


INSKEEP: The land of the free, he said. But he added this.


INSKEEP: So there were two parts of the president's message, and that shift in rhetoric from one to the other may have important consequences for the success of the president's gun control initiative - at least that's according to NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who follows social science research and is here to explain.

Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: OK. So is it a problem that the president is saying those two things at once?

VEDANTAM: It might be, Steve, because we actually have many examples of what happens when politicians make appeals to individual rights versus when they make appeals to the greater good. This isn't a left or right thing, by the way. Obviously, on the case of guns, conservatives are much more likely than liberals to espouse the cause of individual rights. But when you think about gay marriage or abortion, it's liberals who are arguing in those situations that individual choice ought to matter more than the views of communities.

Now, the reason all of this is of interest to social scientists is that we've known for a very long time that Americans have this very strong streak of independence. I spoke with MarYam Hamedani. She's a researcher at Stanford University. Here's how she put it to me.

MARYAM HAMEDANI: When you look at American culture, independence is really foundational. From the founding documents of our nation to the heroes and the stories we tell, we really focus on the independent individual.

VEDANTAM: So Hamedani and her colleagues decided to ask a really interesting question, Steve. Given that Americans have this streak of independence, what is the effect of asking Americans to think about the greater good?

INSKEEP: Which is something that the president is doing on quite a few issues, if you're talking about taxes and spending, if you're talking about gun control or gun rights. There are a lot of issues where the president is urging people to think about the community.

VEDANTAM: Exactly right. So Hamedani and her colleagues have just finished a series of experiments. They give volunteers messages about individual liberty or ask them to think about the greater good. And what she finds is that when people are asked to think about the greater good, it actually undermines their performance on a variety of mental and physical tasks that people actually work harder, try harder when they're asked to think about themselves as being trailblazing individuals.

And she also finds, interestingly, the same thing happens with attitudes toward policy. When she asked volunteers to think about an environmental policy, for example, people were more willing to support the policy when it's framed in the language of individual liberty. But when they're asked to think about the greater good, this has a backfire affect, and it undermines their willingness to think about this policy supportively.

INSKEEP: Same policy, just a different way of talking about it.

VEDANTAM: Exactly. And MarYam Hamedani finds that this backfire effect, where talking about the greater good undermines your support, is strongest among European-Americans.

HAMEDANI: Taken together, our studies show that, in fact, interdependent behavior can be a barrier to motivation for European-Americans, and that this can have important consequences in terms of how they support social issues.

VEDANTAM: She finds that Asian-Americans are not turned off when you appeal to the greater good. And here's her theory: Everyone in America is raised to value independence, but there are some groups that are also raised to value interdependence. When you talk to those groups about the greater good, your message works just fine. But when you speak to people who've been raised on a diet of individualism and liberty and you ask them to think about the greater good, it creates this clash with this internal voice they have in their heads which says: March to your own drummer.

INSKEEP: I wonder if this is why, when it comes to gun violence, people are talking about stopping gun violence now instead of talking about gun control.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. Americans, in general, are not receptive to being told they have to control anything. And, in fact, the gun lobby, very smartly, has focused its message on individual rights and freedom. Basically, what the bottom line is, in America, when you make an appeal that goes against individual liberty, in the long run, almost always, you're going to lose.

INSKEEP: Which is why both political parties are advocates of freedom against the other party, which is about state control.

VEDANTAM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks very much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: You have complete freedom to follow Shankar Vedantam at Twitter. He's @HiddenBrain. You can also freely follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep, among other addresses. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.