Psychology Magazine

The Metamorphosis of the Western Soul

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds
I want to point to an article by Will Storr "The Metamorphosis of the Western Soul" that has been languishing for over a year in my list of references that might become the basis of a MindBlog post. Storr presents a nice distillation of the story of how Between 1965 and 1985, the Western self was transformed. Storr's basic point is that economic forces are the dominant reason for these changes.
We turned from anti-materialistic, stick-it-to-the-Man hippies into greed-is-good yuppies... While the origins of such changes cannot be reduced to a single source, I believe we can point to a dominant one: the economy. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rewrote the rules by which we had once lived. And that, with stunning rapidity, changed who we were.
Storr proceeds review the historical story of how citizens of the individualistic West and the collectivist East have developed fundamental cognitive differences - largely adaptations to different physical landscapes - in how they view the world through collectivist versus individualistic filters. But, there is plasticity:
Humans are born incomplete. The brain absorbs huge amounts of essential information throughout childhood and adolescence, which it uses to carry on building who we are. It’s as if the brain asks a single, vital question: Who do I have to be, in this place, to thrive? If it was a boastful hustler in ancient Greece and a humble team-player in ancient China, then who is it in the West today?
The answer is a neoliberal...After the economic chaos of the 1970s, it was decided that the United States and Britain had become too collective. Previous decades had seen the introduction of the New Deal, which included the Social Security Act, strict regulations on banking and business, and the rising power of the unions. This collectively tilted economy sired a collectively tilted people...For Mr. Reagan and Mrs. Thatcher, saving ourselves meant rediscovering our individualist roots.
They cut taxes and regulations; they battled unions; they shrunk the welfare state; they privatized assets and weakened the state’s safety nets. They pursued the neoliberal dream of globalization — one free market that covered the earth. As much of human life as possible was to become a competition of self versus self...In 1981, Margaret Thatcher said “Economics are the method: The object is to change the soul.” And that’s precisely what happened.
Before 2008, it felt as if neoliberalism was basically working for most people. But since the crash, millions have come to see the system as broken...We have seen the neoliberal Hillary Clinton falter and the antiglobalist Donald Trump triumph. Britain’s Brexit was secured by antiglobalist arguments....The perception of a broken, rigged economy has left us angry and increasingly tribal, which might explain this recent trend toward “us” over the narcissistic “me.”
If this is correct, it’s yet more evidence that who we are is powerfully influenced by where we are. Humans want to get along and get ahead and will become whoever they need to be in order to do so. In the 21st century, those rules are no longer set by our physical landscape. Today, the deep and enormously powerful controlling force is the economy.

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