S1E28 Individualism and Politics

As we end another cycle of a U.S. election, we are all feeling like we’ve had enough. The split between the country during this election cycle was palpable. In this episode, Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete define and compare the values of individualism (dominant in the U.S.) and collectivism (often dominant in eastern cultures and traditions). They discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each value, and their perspectives on how individualism might explain some current voter behavior.




Nikki: We are recording this episode still in the midst of election week.

Pete: When will it end?

Nikki: It's Friday, November 6, when we're, not releasing, but recording this episode. Important just to note, based on the topic that we're going to be discussing today, since we don't know the outcome yet of the American election, and what Pete and I want to talk about is individualism and politics. And individualism is something I actually talk about a lot with friends and colleagues, because it's such a central value in America and the United States.

Pete: And it is making us all feel stressed still. So we're going to definitely talk about that.

Nikki: That too.

Pete: Sure, we're seeing it all over the place. I mean, not even clinically, just think about your life socially.

Nikki: There's nothing it's not touching right now, I would say. I don't know about you, but I'm very tired.

Pete: Yeah. I'm tired for other reasons, and that. But also, I've done a really good job of boundary myself around it. So I will pat myself on the back and say, I've allotted a certain amount of time just to read this stuff. I'm not on it all the time. I don't have the TV on in my house in general in that way. So I'm accessing information in a way that's healthy. So I'll give some example.

Nikki: I'm laughing because...

Pete: Because you're not.

Nikki: Because I'm not. I'm doing a skillful job at taking care of myself in terms of meditating and practicing yoga. And this is a good example of why I don't use social media, is I am using all my all my news sources and just refreshing like you wouldn't believe so I'm not being very skilled.

Pete: So don't do what Nikki's doing; if you want to do it healthily, you could do it the way I'm doing it. So what I do is in the morning, after meditation, I'll read a little bit. And usually I start with BBC, I do a local thing.

Nikki: Smart, yeah.

Pete: And then quick, like apple because they're annoying, and they want me to pay for it. I will eventually, probably, but I don't want to yet.

Nikki: Right.

Pete: And then maybe by the end of the day, but I don't do it after eight o'clock at night.

Nikki: Very Smart.

Pete: After eight o'clock at night, I don't look at any. I used to put my phone away at nine, now I'm doing eight. Of course I'm compelled once in a while to pull to the phone.

Nikki: Yeah, the urge.

Pete: Yeah, the urge is there.

Nikki: You're a human.

Pete: Oh, thanks.

Nikki: You have great sleep hygiene as we've done on the podcast before.

Pete: I do, yes.

Nikki: So let's weave our way back here to this idea of individualism and politics. Because I do think it's really relevant to what we're beginning to see. So at this point in time, obviously, we're seeing a very close race, and there are a lot of discussions about, I guess the way to frame it, is that why people continue to support Donald Trump, what are sort of the reasons behind that?

Pete: Well, let's also highlight that that's from a certain perspective,

Nikki: Correct, yes, thank you.

Pete: There are other people that are saying, why do people want Biden in the office?

Nikki: Sure, that is absolutely fair.

Pete: So perspective taking.

Nikki: Perspective taking, and also just sort of observing different lenses here.

Pete: And I'm just going to be vulnerable for a moment, can I?

Nikki: Well, of course.

Pete: Because, again, I think we've said that this is not a political podcast, and it's not. So we're going to talk about the behavioral science, so we're going to get to into individualization. But what we're saying about perspective taking is right now, as I sit here today, with a rational mind, my rational mind, I don't understand how a Trump supporter is not thinking this is irrational. Because behaviorally, I've never seen a politician act this way, which is a thing that's really motivating, base in a weird way, this is part of individualization that we’ll get to.

Nikki: Individuals, yeah. And I think to sort of add to that, Pete, I'll also be vulnerable here,

Pete: Go forth.

Nikki: That I'll share that, again, I'm sure some people are going to hear this, what you and I are saying and view it through a political lens. Though, I am being very honest here, the behavioral observations that we make about Donald Trump, these behaviors in any other context outside of the political arena from a psychological perspective,

Pete: Right,

Nikki: We would call these aggressive and,

Pete: Yes,

Nikki: Verbally abusive behavior. And in fact, and this is the vulnerable part I'll share is that, lots of people, years and years and years before Donald Trump who was ever in politics, when I was teaching courses as a professor, both adjunct professor at Columbia and at yeshiva, when discussing narcissistic personality disorder, he was the example that I would use. Now I'm not diagnosing him, in terms of I never met Donald Trump,

Pete: By the way, I think we're going to have how many other psychology professors would say that that's who they've used.

Nikki: Right.

Pete: Marjorie of us.

Nikki: I would just use that as what would be sort of like a pop culture example.

Pete: Everybody knows, yeah.

Nikki: Yeah. So that's just to say that just basic, foundational observational clinical information, that's what we received.

Pete: That's right. Well, and so my vulnerability was like, I'm technically a registered Republican, which, I can't even believe I just said that out loud. Because, of course, all my colleagues, in the world of academia, I am by far, like a huge minority. And I'll say, that's why I'm also a Mets fan. So I was raised this way. I think my entire system has shifted somewhat.

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: But not really, there's still people in my family that still hold some of those ideals. So it's definitely, we're in a family system that we can't really talk politics often,

Nikki: Of course.

Pete: And I am middle road,

Nikki: You are, yes.

Pete: I am middle road, and why I stay registered as Republican. I feel like I can have some input on, say primaries, or be like a voice of reason within, sometimes otherwise irrational voices, because I feel some of those conservative politics, for me, go against human rights.

Nikki: Yes. And I was going to say, and I'll share too, so again, I don't think you'd be surprised, I'm a registered Democrat, and have been, and come from a family of Democrats. And I'll say like, when Pete and I first met, and I learned that he was a Republican, I was very surprised.

Pete: Shocked, I had to pick her chin up off the ground.

Nikki: Shocked, yeah. And I think the reasoning being that, Pete and I share most values,

Pete: Yeah.

Nikki: So what that shows is that while we, historically, maybe differ on some policy beliefs,

Pete: Right.

Nikki: And again, we don't differ on all policy beliefs, on some. I think what that demonstrates is that, when we're approaching our belief system from place of values, as opposed to a place of,

Pete: Right and wrong.

Nikki: Yes, ESP,

Pete: There it is.

Nikki: Yeah, righteousness, we can often find that there is more overlap and,

Pete: Of course.

Nikki: And again, like you're saying humanity,

Pete: I really liked that we're doing this now. Because I know that we wanted to avoid this. But I do think that that highlights why this is purposeful and effective. Because we're still friends.

Nikki: We are, very close friends at that.

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: And I honestly feel very sad that we're not able to converse with people of differing viewpoints, Pete and I have talked about this, for example, in other ways, different and similar topic of like, when we talk about white supremacy that exists in psychology.

Pete: Sure.

Nikki: And there's all predominantly white psychologists and I said, there's lots of reasons why that's problematic, obviously. But one I'll say is, I don't want to be in an echo chamber of a bunch of people that have my experience,

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: That doesn't help me gain perspective or learn or come to synthesis, in terms of new ideas and moving things forward. That's true in anything, and so we're not able to do that well.

Pete: Well, I think this comes to, so I would say that within my identities, or how I was raised, one of the things that would set me apart is that I'm more collectivistic in how I approach, which is also part of my Buddhist training and understanding. So I think that'll come back, because I think no matter what side you're on right now, you're like, "wait, 70 million people voted for Trump?" "Wait, 74 million people voted for Biden?" You're questioning how that's even possible,

Nikki: Yeah.

Pete: We're breaking records, like the most votes ever, which is really exciting.

Nikki: It is, yes.

Pete: I think for a democracy, which is awesome.

Nikki: And,

Pete: And,

Nikki: And, so I appreciate you bringing the collectivistic approach here, which I wanted to find these values to sort of weave in what we're discussing. I want these to be a framework for people to understand a little bit more about potentially some reasons, not all opinions about why Pete and I, and again opinions,

Pete: Not truth.

Nikki: Not truth, we haven't done any scientific,

Pete: We have no fact checkers, as a part of our producers,

Nikki: Rights, just us here. Why some people have made some of these choices. So Pete, if you could define what collectivism is as a value. And remember, and I guess before you and I have you do that, let me just say, remember, for our listeners, values are not goals, values are like directions. There's no end point to them, there's no right or wrong values, values differ based on our own personal experiences, we get to choose our values, and there's something that we feel connected to, they give us like a sense of meaning or purpose or fulfillment, vitality, connection, among others. So, explain what collectivism is as a value.

Pete: So collectivism is a focus on community, I think is a probably easier way to really access that for us, where it's not just me. And community is many different levels, we have things like Bronfenbrenner, where we think about all these levels of how individuals are experienced. A part of collectivism is about your family, is a collectivist, or could be part of how you make decisions and your behaviors and your culture. Also your community in which you live, maybe your religious identity in your society in which you live, your nationalism, so you kind of keep going greater and greater. And then the way I actually see this even more universal, where it's literally just this universal, like human collectivism. Sure, which I think I've shared on here that I had one friend recently, who is as his age has become, like far and far more conservative, and we've had some interesting conversations. And he said, "well you're like one of those liberals, because you care about people." That was literally the words out of his mouth. I was just like, "well, if that's what it is, then yeah. Because I do care about people."

Nikki: Yeah, which again, we're going to hope that that's universal. So collectivism specifically, though, is sort of like an emphasis, as you're saying, more on a community oriented approach. And I guess I would add, that would have been helpful for me to see a moment ago, all things in the world dialectically, there are advantages and disadvantages to all experiences. So we might say, obviously, some advantages of a collectivistic worldview or value is that there's an emphasis on the well being of others, and contribution. There are disadvantages sometimes, that we can,

Pete: Well, I guess you're saying this, even how we're going to define individualistic versus collectivistic is also dialectic, and very polarized in and of itself. So these two constructs.

Nikki: Exactly, it's like that. And I'm saying this piece is that just want everyone recognizing, again, there's no right or wrong, there's no best or worse, they're just different approaches. And they're each going to have pros and cons, so to speak. So disadvantages to collectivism can be that it can, sometimes the needs of the community overtake the needs of the individual, and one's own desires,

Pete: And can lead to like compassion fatigue. So if I'm like a nurse who's just giving and giving during COVID, I'm going to feel exhausted right now.

Nikki: Absolutely. I'm thinking about different cultures where collectivism is more of a dominant value that sometimes, like for example, I'm thinking of, I don't know, if in the dominant culture, the view is, I don't know, belief that, for example, homosexuality is believed to be wrong,

Pete: Right.

Nikki: Somebody personally isn't sure they are gay, and then they're saying, "Well, I guess I can't be out because the community is saying that this is wrong".

Pete: So like one famous would be like an Orthodox Jewish or like a Hasidic community, which has been several documentaries on, where it is not accepted. And so somebody who has that identity automatically feels like something's wrong with them. So give us the individualistic because I think this is part of what we're experiencing right now, the distress we're feeling is because of this. So go.

Nikki: Yeah, so individualism is the example I often use with patients, when I'm trying to talk about how we each get to choose our values, I'll say, United States culture, highly values individualism, which is linked to independence, it's slightly different, they're similar and different. Individualism prioritizes the needs of the individual person over the needs of the community. And of course, this makes a lot of sense in historical context, if we think about how the United States was formed, that we were separating from England, there was a revolutionary war that was fought. And then relatedly, we can even go back further to colonization, and sort of, obviously, what happened, I guess I'm going to use the word, the genocide against the native Americans, and manifest destiny, which is about like, 'what I need, and I'm going to take what I believe to be mine', that's in its most extreme form. So I'm beginning to err on the disadvantages of individualism here, when I shared that. So advantages, of course, would be that, somebody wants to grow up in a family, I don't know, again, I use kind of a trite example, maybe they grew up in a family of physicians, and they want to be an artist, and they say, "Well, I'm going to pursue my dream is being artists, because this is what was important to me, and I need to step out on my own." That's a very small, sort of like micro...

Pete: It's not so small.

Nikki: Sure.

Pete: For us [inaudible-15:34]

Nikki: Yeah, totally.

Pete: It's a big deal.

Nikki: Right. So that, in American culture, if you are an American, or actually even if you're not, you may or may not value individualism. And again, it's not bad, and it's not good. It's just a different worldview.

Pete: Right.

Nikki: Anything that you would add to that description, Pete?

Pete: No, but I like that you own that you really started, you leaned in with the [inaudible-16:00]

Nikki: I did, and obviously, I think that's because, and this is a conversation I've been having a lot with lots of colleagues, that I think we're in an era where the downsides, the disadvantages of individualism are being highlighted. And I'll share that I haven't always noticed that as much, honestly. I mean, I'm an American, I grew up in this country,

Pete: Well, and you human.

Nikki: And I'm human, right. So I focus on, and I highly value collectivism community, though, of course, I focus on...

Pete: Well, you and I were probably raised more individualistic, truthfully, I don't speak for you, but I definitely was,

Nikki: Absolutely,

Pete: Especially, maybe also just as like, middle upper class white folks. I think that's probably a big piece of our culture.

Nikki: Yes, absolutely. And, I was to say, and then just being Americans, you know what I mean?

Pete: Well that for sure,

Nikki: That I mean, there's just no way.

Pete: Oh, the entitlement. I'm going to tell you some stories about my students.

Nikki: Listen to our title one episode. So I think that understanding this as a central, dominant lens, individuals in American culture may help some people don't understand why someone would vote for Donald Trump. Or people that say the only reason that someone voted for Donald Trump is because they're racist, we hear that a lot. It's not true.

Pete: Well, it's not true. And there's some truth to it. Because I think as I look,

Nikki: Sure.

Pete: Because as I look at these data, now, the data are really showing that the majority of Donald Trump's votes are from white people,

Nikki: White people, yes.

Pete: I think it's like 70%, whereas almost 80 to 90% of people of color, and Latinos have voted for Biden. So race is a definite part of this.

Nikki: Absolutely.

Pete: Because the people are feeling threatened. People don't like differences. I think you also talked about that within the individualization. And so I think that right now, while I agree with what you're saying about the individualization versus collectivism, I do think that race is a big part of this, as well. And,

Nikki: Well it goes back to people's own, but if we leave it to the individualism, it's because, and we can't, of course, neatly tease these things apart,

Pete: No,

Nikki: Because humans are complicated. This is maybe a more helpful way to phrase it, the reason why race can be intertwined with that is because privileges can be intertwined with individualism.

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: Which is to say, somebody is going, 'I'm thinking about my own needs over those of others', like I hear quotes of like, I've read things this week, where people say, "Oh, I don't like what Donald Trump says, or I don't like him as an individual as a person. And yet, my taxes are lower, so I'm going to choose that." And so, okay, what does that tell us? That there's this super focus on the needs of the individual over the needs of the community?

Pete: Yeah, and like all of us want our bank accounts to be effective, but at what cost?

Nikki: Yeah,

Pete: I think that's what a collectivist is going to look at, is what is the cost of that, is the cost that then we're going to bully people out? Because frankly, that's what it feels like right now. And so that's what I've been saying is like my middle path, and what I feel is a pretty objective lens. I think when you're in the middle path, you can be a bit more objective says, How does anyone from a behavioral perspective, not look at some of these behaviors and say, it's irrational? Now, what I'm going to say is, I feel like I could do that with a lot of behavior on Capitol Hill.

Nikki: Absolutely, and I've also said to many people, what we're witnessing isn't like a Republican or a Democrat issue. It's a human brain problem issue.

Pete: Well, the human brain problem, I think systemically, again, this is getting a little political. But, I feel like we need to have term limits. I don't think politician was ever really meant to be a career.

Nikki: Yeah, and this is where, and look, we can obviously go on many tangents of political beliefs. But if we come back to just like, and maybe I'm going to use a different word instead of like, rational versus irrational is fact based. Just non judgmental fact base as opposed to emotion based, and we're living in a society right now, where emotion based decision making, what we, I'm going to air quotes this since if you guys aren't watching our YouTube channel, you can't seem to do this, quote, unquote, what we feel is right.

Pete: That's right.

Nikki: And that's kind of like CBT 101. I was like say tis to patients, if someone says, "I feel like it's not going to turn out well, for me," or "I feel like this is the right thing". We go, "ha-ha". But feeling, that's not a feeling, that's a thought.

Pete: That's a thought, yeah.

Nikki: And thoughts may or may not be accurate. And in fact, what we know, and Pete and I talked about this a lot, our brains are not well equipped to assess reality accurately. And mindfulness and behavioral science gives us tools to cultivate a curiosity, and be open to saying, 'is what my mind saying based in reality, based on data?' And sometimes what the reality is, and what the data is, is something that's uncomfortable to us.

Pete: A lot of times, yeah.

Nikki: A lot of times, and there's no way that we're going to be able to hear people, or move things forward, if we're not willing to be in the discomfort of acknowledging that there are different perspectives and different worldviews.

Pete: Well, I like that you just said that, and I like that we're linking this with individualization because as we're talking, I'm also thinking, I know we typically say politicians are high level people, have narcissistic traits. And there's truth to that, when I work with professional athletes, it's one of the things we do in the first or second session is just validate that. It's like, yes, you have a golden spoon. However, if I think about politicians, maybe it's really more about the individualization, because they're thinking more about, and that's why my career politician thing is like, they're thinking more about their own career, their own identity, and the emotional connection is what's fueling their decisions, not their quote, unquote, all air quote, what go to the YouTube channel, the constituents, because they're all saying, "Well, I'm making this decision for my constituents", are you though?

Nikki: Right, and so it's like, we would all, and this goes beyond politics, this goes beyond our country. It's that as humans, and this is what again, I think the eastern traditions do a really skillful job at teaching, is that, can we be more compassionate to one another? Can we practice perspective taking? Can we be curious about different experiences without judging, one is right or wrong? And also, are we willing, and I know Pete and I come back to this over and over again. So here it is, to step into discomfort. Are we willing to step into discomfort in the service of moving something forward, in the service of growing and learning?

Pete: I love that you give that advice as we're wrapping it up. I feel like we could have just went on and on on this.

Nikki: I know, we probably will.

Pete: Let's do like a part 2, 3, 4, 5 coming up. Tune in.

Nikki: Yeah. So, for those listening, I'm going to ask everybody to see if you can come back to grounding yourself in facts, cultivating curiosity, and willingly stepping into discomfort in the service of evolving, growing and maybe understanding and connecting with other humans a little bit more effectively.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin,

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.