The sense of empowerment that is part of American individualism benefits Americans. People who feel empowered, able to shape the world, and responsible for themselves tend, social psychological research shows, to act more forcefully and succeed more often than people who feel themselves to be at the mercy of others or of larger forces. Confidence is often a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. But there is another side to such an empowered world view: self-blame.
To be sure, a healthy level of egoism—also part of the individualistic world-view—protects Americans from blaming themselves too much. Americans tend to take credit for their successes while sidestepping fault when things go wrong more often than other peoples do; Americans tend to be especially “self-enhancing” (see, e.g., here, here, and here). Nonetheless, the sense of personal responsibility can lead many Americans who face repeated difficulties to beat up on themselves.
Two recent articles in the Spring issue of Contexts stimulated this post. Jennifer Silva reported on her interviews with 100 young working-class Americans who described their struggles to get a foothold in the job market and start families. Susan Sered reported on her interviews with several dozen Massachusetts women who had been incarcerated and for the most part kept living on the margin. Both researchers were struck by the extent to which their interviewees faulted themselves and people like themselves for not having succeeded, the degree to which the desperate asserted that they have to get themselves together by themselves.
Silva and Sered believe—though most Americans would disagree—that the people they talked to grew up in circumstances that made success not unheard of but highly unlikely. In an economy with nine jobs for every ten workers, with dysfunctional neighborhood schools, coming from broken and stressed families, and with other disadvantages, their respondents faced daunting odds. Yet, those respondents strikingly insisted on blaming themselves. A generation ago, political scientists Kay Scholzman and Sidney Verba were similarly struck by the results of a national survey they conducted comparing unemployed to employed Americans, struck that the unemployed tended to blame themselves, not the economy or the system, for their condition.
It is well-known that Americans more than other westerners blame the poor for being poor and otherwise insist on interpreting what happens to people as caused by the person rather than by the situation. A new, close-grained study by Ofer Sharone compares the experiences and accounts of unemployed white-collar workers in the United States and in Israel. (I quote from the dissertation which was turned into a 2013 book.) Sharone shows that American-Israeli differences were not a matter of simple ideology, but emerged from subtly different employment systems that embody the cultural differences.
U.S. employers and counselors expect unemployed workers to demonstrate personal qualities that entitle them to a job, while the Israeli system stresses credentials and their fit to the jobs. Although the American unemployed started their job searches with great energy, when they encountered difficulty they got discouraged and substantially slowed down. The Israelis who encountered problems got angry and kept persevering. How each attributed blame mattered. To quote Sharone:
The dominant intermediary institution in the American labor market is the self-help industry, which works symbiotically with corporate human resources departments. . . . Illustrating the sharp difference between the Israeli discourse focusing on skills and market demand for skills and the American self-help approach, the author of the best-selling American book What Color is Your Parachute . . . claims: “The key [to finding work] is still doing extensive homework on yourself, not the job market." . . . American job seekers describe feeling personally rejected, and blame their continued joblessness on a flawed self. Israeli job seekers increasingly blame their continued joblessness on a flawed “system.” . . .
[Americans] begin to exhibit a distinct subjectivity of self-blame, typically starting to feel like they “have a character defect.”. . . These dynamics are . . . not mere reflections of an abstract ideology of individualism but of . . . a job search . . . which [highlights an] ultimately seemingly flawed self as the focus of the blame. . . . Too much “empowerment” may boomerang and backfire [and] sets the stage for later self-blame and curtailment of effort and engagement.
When things go well—say, when the job market is booming—Americans’ sense of personal empowerment and responsibility can indeed empower them. When things don’t go well and their ego defenses are vulnerable, as is more often the case with less-advantaged individuals, then the notion that “it is all in your hands” can lead to self-defeating self-blame.