Op-Ed: The people claiming to be ‘freethinkers’ in the pandemic might actually be sheep

A demonstrator carries a U.S. flag and another flag that reads "Don't Tread on Me"
A demonstrator at a protest against vaccine and mask mandates near the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., on Aug. 20. Social researchers find that American individualism is just another norm determined by the group.

(Cedar Attanasio / Associated Press)

Now two years into the pandemic, we continue to hear constant fights about the fundamental antagonism between being an independent individual and being a good group member. You must be either a “freethinker” or a “sheep”!

But research suggests this is not the case and that the two often go hand in hand. Indeed, individualism may be the ultimate form of American conformity.

Individualism is a core part of American identity, with individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. This contrasts sharply with the collectivism expressed in other parts of the world, where the needs of the group are often prioritized over individual rights.


Yet even in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville in “Democracy in America” noted an apparent paradox in the American way of life: an unprecedented individualism was combined with mass involvement in “voluntary associations.” Far more than citizens in his native France, Americans were joiners, belonging to “associations of a thousand … kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive.”

As we found in our research, the groups we identify with, including our nation, shape our understanding of what it is to be a person. The ways in which we strive to be an independent self are influenced by the norms of the groups we care about. Over time, these values fundamentally become part of who we are. As philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has said, “In constructing an identity, one draws, among other things, on the kind of person available in one’s society.”

American identity has strong norms of independence, emphasizing personal autonomy, responsibility and individual rights. Does this mean that American individualism is just another norm determined by the group?

Research suggests that indeed it is. In one study, for example, social psychologist Jolanda Jetten and her colleagues measured how much American and Indonesian citizens identified with their respective countries. Respondents were asked, for example, how glad they were to be an American or Indonesian and how connected they felt to their fellow citizens. The researchers then assessed these citizens’ levels of individualism by asking them how much they agreed with statements like, “One should be independent of others as much as possible” or “When faced with a difficult personal decision, it is better to decide yourself rather than follow the advice of friends or relatives.”

American citizens were more individualistic than Indonesians, which aligns with a large body of research on cultural differences. Crucially, Americans who were strongly identified with their country reported higher levels of individualism than Americans who identified less. It was the opposite in Indonesia, where citizens who identified strongly with the nation were less individualistic than those who were weakly identified.

In other words, it was identification with their nation — intersecting with the nation’s social norms — that determined individualism.


This study is entirely consistent with what social scientists and commentators have long noted about a paradox in American identity. In the memorable phrasing of art critic Harold Rosenberg, individualistic norms can create a “herd of independent minds” — people who strive for independence are often doing it to fit in.

It also turns out that autonomy and interdependence are highly intertwined. A study of 42 nations (as well as comparisons across the 50 U.S. states) found that in places where people are more individualistic, they also become more dependent on others.

This counterintuitive pattern might appear surprising. But it occurs because the more individualized and specialized our roles, the more dependent we become on other people to function effectively.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark reminder of just how interdependent we all are. Our individual vulnerability to COVID-19 is highly dependent on the actions of the people around us and, with the rise of variants, responses around the world. As we noted in an April 2020 study, fighting a pandemic requires large-scale cooperation — which means having people get vaccinated, wear masks and take other precautions to protect their communities.

A major problem with public health communication during this pandemic has been the failure to dispel the false choice between personal freedom and collective well-being. New Zealand, for instance, found that the populace acting collectively to mitigate the virus early on has actually allowed far more freedom overall during the pandemic.

Evidence suggests that countries with norms that place greater value on independence, like the U.S., (what the social psychologist Michele Gelfand calls “loose cultures”) have had a harder time coordinating their citizenry and slowing the spread of the virus, ultimately suffering higher rates of infection and mortality. Yet the autonomy people believe they are proving by refusing to conform to health protective behaviors is largely an illusion, itself a type of conformity.

Independence and interdependence are not antagonistic, and we need to exercise both at the same time. It is our collective strength that allows for our individuality to flourish. There’s no clearer example of this fact than what we’re living through now.

Dominic J. Packer is a professor of psychology at Lehigh University and Jay Van Bavel is an associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University. They are authors of “The Power of Us: Harnessing our shared identities to improve performance, increase cooperation, and promote social harmony.”