Of the many values that typify the American dream, surely one of the most cherished is that of rugged individualism. The “go-it-alone” mentality characterizes all sorts of indispensable American icons, including the brave revolutionaries of 1776, the lonely cowboy on the open range, and the craggy pickup-truck driver in a recent TV advertisement who, the ad declares, is at the age of “knowing how to get things done” (the ad is for Viagra). Bucking the trend, flying solo, doing one’s own thing, being a maverick: each of these aphorisms demonstrates American culture’s approving attitude towards ditching the “we” in favor of the “me.”   

Implicit in this worship of individuality is the assumption that the best way to find yourself, to control your destiny, is on your own. No one is more courageous or empowered, the idea goes, than the person who casts off the ropes of group mentality and strikes out alone. Hence the obsession with the story of the iconoclastic CEO who drops out of college and starts a technology revolution.

But despite this received wisdom, advances in social psychology call into question the unmitigated supremacy of the freewheeling solo act. One recently published article suggests, instead, that people’s greatest source of strength may not lie in their sense of unbridled autonomy but rather in their sense of belonging and pride in their community—known as group identification. (Class rings, national flags, college sweatshirts—all are signs of people high in group identification.)

The researchers examined the effect of group identification on something known as perceived personal control — how much power and influence people feel they have over their lives. It is important because it can help people recover from setbacks. Instead of throwing their hands up and admitting defeat, they are better able to cope with challenges, which ultimately increases their happiness and wellbeing.

The researchers predicted that, far from causing people to be weak and ineffectual, group identification can actually boost people’s perceived personal control. As a preliminary test of this hypothesis, they turned to the
World Values Survey—a large-scale project spanning 62,000 individuals across forty-seven countries. The researchers noticed that the more people identified with different groups—their local community, their country, and humanity in general—the more control they felt they had in their lives. Moreover, perceived control also positively influenced people’s overall happiness.

To further investigate this idea, researchers conducted a study in which they asked average American citizens how much they identified with their political party (Republican or Democrat) in the time surrounding the 2012 Presidential Election. Again, those who identified with their political party had higher perceived control and life satisfaction—evenafter their candidate lost the election.

But these studies were only correlational, making it difficult to know for sure what caused what. So the experimenters conducted another experiment to help determine the causal pathway. To do this, they utilized a subtle psychological instrument designed to temporarily shift people’s group identification. The experimenters randomly assigned Americans to one of two conditions: high identification and low identification. Those in the former condition they asked a series of questions that made it very easy to disagree with negative statements about their country (e.g., “I feel no affiliation with the United States”) and agree with positive (e.g., “In general, I like living in the United States.”). Those in the latter, by contrast, were asked questions that made it very easy to agree with negative statements about their country (“There are some things I don’t like about the United States”) and disagree with positive (“I identify very strongly with the United States”).

The experimenters reasoned that answering these questions would cause a temporary shift in people’s sense of national identity. And sure enough, those in the “high identification” condition reported being more proud to be an American than those in the “low identification” condition. Additionally, the more identified as American, the more control they felt over their lives.

But the most important finding emerged when the experimenters asked participants to write about an experience in which they felt totally powerless. This sort of writing exercise can cause a temporary negative mood. And indeed, people in the “low identification” condition exhibited various negative emotions consistent with depression. On the other hand, those in the “high identification” condition showed no significant decrease in mood. Their feeling of national pride had bolstered their perceived personal control, which in term buffered them against dejection.

Overall, then, this research suggests that belonging to a community—whether it’s your family, your workplace, your religious organization, or your country—can help you deal with life’s challenges. This cuts against the pervasive notion in American culture that the best way to find yourself is to strike out on your own. Ironically, the more you give yourself over to the group, the more personal control you will feel. As the researchers write, these findings highlight “not only how groups can help people, but how groups can help people help themselves.”