The great sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote that religion was “eminently social.” In his view, religion and ritual were the scaffolding that held societies together, bound individuals into collective units, and wove the fabric of culture. Since Durkheim’s era, many findings have confirmed that there is a powerful link between religiosity and sociality. For instance, atheists tend to be more individualistic and less interested in conforming to social norms than believers, and the countries where religion has declined the most rapidly are also among the world’s most individualistic. But recently, a new study has found that individualism is on the increase across the world. If Durkheim was right, this shift could have profound implications for religiosity worldwide.
Psychologist Henri C. Santos, alongside collaborators Michael E.W. Varnum and Igor Grossman, ran analyses on 51 years of global data on indices of individualism across 78 separate societies. They measured individualism using two methods. First, they took data from individual countries’ censuses to determine the prevalence of divorce, single households, and older adults living alone, as well as the mean family household size. Each of these measures was taken to indicate individualistic “practices,” or individualistic behavioral trends. For example, societies with low median household size and high proportions of adults living alone probably impose fewer family obligations, freeing people to pursue their own careers and agendas.
Second, the researchers used items from the World Values Survey, a worldwide survey that includes representative samples from nearly 100 different countries over more than 35 years, to determine the extent of individualistic “values.” The items asked about the relative importance of friends versus family, how important it was for children to learn independence, and how strongly respondents valued self-expression. Countries in which respondents valued friends over family, valued independence in children, and preferred self-expression were coded as holding more individualistic values.
In their analyses, the researchers only used countries that offered three data points for each item. For individualistic practices, this meant at least three censuses since 1960, while for individualistic values it meant three representative sample waves in the World Value Survey over 10 years. All in all, 41 countries were included in analyses for individualistic practices, 53 for individualistic values, and 16 countries in both analyses.
To determine what factors might influence longterm changes in national individualism, Santos, Varnum, and Grossman also examined socioeconomic variables, the number of natural disasters, the prevalence of disease, and climate data for each country. Countries with greater economic development and more white-collar workers were expected to become more individualistic over time, in part because economic development can liberate people from dependence on tight in-groups, like extended families. Beyond that, other researchers have found that the particular demands of blue-collar, mining, or farming work encourage people to be more collectivistic and rule-following. By contrast, white-collar jobs that require lots of education generally socialize people to be more independent, individualistic, and creative.
Natural disasters, meanwhile, can affect the ways people organize and invest their time and energy, potentially affecting rates of individualism. Similarly, high rates of disease can make people more collectivistic and encourage them to associate preferentially with their own in-groups rather than outsiders, possibly because this parochialism slows the transmission of germs across different groups. Finally, poor climate – including extreme average temperatures – can make survival more difficult, forcing people to depend on one another more and reducing the prevalence of individualism.
We Are 12% More Individualistic than Our Parents Were
As they expected, the researchers found that both individualistic practices and values have indeed increased worldwide over the past few decades. Specifically, individualism on both measures increased, on average, about 12% everywhere in the world. This longterm change didn’t erase well-known differences between cultures – for example, East Asian societies were more collectivistic than Western societies in the 1980s, and they’re still more collectivistic today. Instead, individualism increased in parallel across both regions over that time, preserving relative differences between regions while attesting to the growing sway of individualism across cultural boundaries.
Next, Santos, Varnum, and Grossman analyzed the economic and ecological predictors to determine whether changes in socioeconomic or ecological context could influence individualism over time. As expected, increased socioeconomic development strongly predicted increases in both individualistic practices and individualistic values. Specifically, countries whose economies grew and whose citizens became more educated and white-collar at time A had more single-family households and more divorce, and valued friends more over family and independence more over conformity, at time B.
Statistically, the effect of economic development explained a significant proportion of the general increase in individualism across societies. This longitudinal (that is, extending across multiple years) study design offers evidence that the relationship between individualism and economic development is at least partly causal, not just correlative, in nature. Economic changes appear to actually cause shifts in people’s values and practices.
Decreased rates of disease also predicted higher subsequent rates of individualism, although these effects were much smaller. In line with previous research, countries where pathogen and disease rates declined at time A showed slightly more individualism at time B.
Perhaps counterintuitively, increases in the frequency of natural disasters at an earlier time predicted increases in individualistic practices – but not values – later on. Santos, Varnum, and Grossman suggested that the reason for this odd correlation might be that experiencing disasters may reduce people’s “attentional scope,” focusing their attention on the here and now rather than on broader contexts and relationships. Since individualism is associated with a narrower, less contextual social outlook, this reduced attentional scope may encourage individualism. However, this explanation was only tentative.*
Finally, in countries with a harsher, more extreme climate, socioeconomic growth was disproportionately associated with increased individualism. In other words, residents of countries with harsh climates were even more collectivistic when economic development was minimal, and even more individualistic when economic development was extensive, than were inhabitants of countries with friendlier climes.
Economics, Individualism, and Culture
Overall, Santos, Varnum, and Grossman found that one of the major causes of increasing individualism worldwide is probably economic development. As nations urbanize, grow rich, and educate their citizens, the bonds that keep people bound into tight in-groups such as kin networks or religious communities grow weaker. People begin to emphasize rules and loyalty less, and to value self-expression and freedom more. This shift didn’t occur in all countries – there were a handful, such as Mali, Cameroon, Ukraine, Armenia, and China, in which individualistic practices or values slightly declined over recent decades. But these trend-busting countries were largely economically underdeveloped, or were facing significant social or political challenges during the decades when data was collected. It’s not surprising, then, that they didn’t follow the global pattern of increasing individualism.
The authors were careful to point out that it wasn’t just economics that explained changes in individualism. Rather, cultural transmission probably also played a role. That is, changes in economics can affect the values that get passed down from generation to generation, so that long-term shifts in how people make their livings – such as the transition from farming and manufacturing to white-collar jobs – can encourage parents to teach their children new values.
As I’ve previously discussed, white-collar jobs tend to reward individualism and creativity, whereas blue-collar and production jobs generally reward rule-following, predictability, and adherence to clear social norms. It makes sense, then, that the global shift from an overwhelmingly agricultural and production-based economy to one based increasingly (although by no means exclusively, or even dominantly) on white-collar professions and consumerism would lead parents to teach their children more and more to act and think like individualists.
So where does that leave us with religion? Well, both Durkheim and loads of demographic and social scientific evidence tell us that religiosity is intimately bound up with collectivism, in-group loyalty, and conformity to norms. As the world gets more individualistic, religious patterns may change, with secularism increasing and religiosity declining, right? That’s certainly the story that advanced countries in the West seem to tell: as economies have grown and life has become safer and more based on consumer values, religiosity has declined in countries like Sweden, the United Kingdom, and – increasingly – the United States.
But some global demographic projections – such as this one by Pew – suggest that religiosity is actually set to increase throughout the world as a whole over the coming three decades, even as it continues to decline in Western Europe and North America. This is in part because inhabitants of less-developed countries tend to have more children, and so the bulk of population growth is likely to occur in areas where religion is popular and individualism isn’t.
The Future of Individualism
But another factor that neither Pew nor Santos, Varnum, and Grossman’s study take into account is something that systems scientists have long been discussing: limits to growth. In the 1970s, a coterie of cyberneticians, computer programmers, and ecologists led by environmental scientist Dana Meadows built a computer model to test different scenarios of the use of resources by the world’s economies in light of increasing population growth. Their original models produced harrowing results: two of the three major scenarios predicted resources overshoot and global societal collapse by the mid- to late 21st century. Only one scenario predicted an eventual equilibrium state without collapse.
Since then, subsequent studies have compared the predictions of the original model with real-world data from today, and found that the trends seem to match the “business-as-usual” forecast, in which worldwide economic growth continues until about the mid-2010s, and then begins to decline. This decline is followed eventually by increasingly rapid declines in industrial output, resource production, and, eventually, population.
Of course, this forecast is just a computer model prediction. It’s not a guarantee that we’re about to pitch forward into economic and ecological decline. But unfortunately, it’s not absurd either. The world economy depends on resources and political stability. Political stability isn’t looking so hot right now, and we know that resources are limited. It’s a real possibility that the social and ecological conditions that enabled nonstop economic growth for the past few generations could weaken in the coming years. In that case, the global trend toward increasing individualism would probably stop, or even reverse. And, as my own research team’s computer models have demonstrated, secularization would probably grind to a halt, too.
The worldwide increase in individualism is a fascinating find. In some ways, it vindicates the liberal-democratic narrative, just when that narrative most needed a little boost: as we advance toward the future, we’ll become more liberated from outmoded traditions and parochial ties, less bound up in restrictive obligations, and freer to pursue our own unique visions of the good in life.
But that narrative has always depended on a few basic assumptions that usually go unexamined, including in Santos, Varnum, and Grossman’s paper. Namely, increased liberation and individual freedom depends on economic development. And economic development depends on abundant resources and stable governments. Technology can stretch resources further, but it can’t ultimately replace all of them. And many of us have taken stable governments for granted for so long that we can barely understand how dependent we are on them. Ultimately, behind every proud individualist, a lot of invisible things are all running smoothly, from farms that produce food to mines that produce ore and governments that organize it all. For individualism to continue increasing, those invisible things have to stay invisible. Time will tell how likely that really is.
* And I’m not very convinced by it. Other studies have shown that victims of natural disasters tend to become more religious afterwards, at least for a time, and as we’ve seen, religion is associated more with collectivism than individualism. Any kind of stress, including climate stress or poverty, could also lead to reductions in attentional scope – essentially narrowing people’s focus to be attuned only to survival in the here and now – and yet those stressors seem to decrease individualism. That said, I haven’t yet delved into the citations that Santos, Varnum, and Grossman offer for this explanation. If anyone has something intelligent to say about this, I’m all ears.