pioneersDid you know that it is now possible to determine the frequency with which particular words have been used in over a million books published over the course of several centuries? The tool that enables such an amazing possibility is Google Books Ngram Viewer.

I’ve never used it, but UCLA scholar Patricia Greenfield has. She theorized that as the US has become more urban and less rural from 1800 to 2000, cultural values have become more individualistic and less collectivist.

As nations become more individualistic, they increasingly value “choice, obtaining things for oneself, child centeredness, psychological-mindedness, and the unique individual self.” Decreasing collectivism implies less valuing of “obligation, duty, obedience to authority, social belongingness, giving to other people, religion, and action.” [my emphases: bold to highlight individualism and italics for collectivism]

Therefore, over the past two centuries, American books should include more instances of the word choose and fewer of obliged; more of get and fewer of give; more of feel and fewer of act; more of individual, self, unique, and child, and fewer of authority, obedience, belonging, and pray. In her analysis of more than 1.1 million American books published between 1800 and 2000, Greenfield found evidence for all of those predictions.

I first learned about the study (and Google Books Ngram Viewer) when I was on a Los Angeles “To the Point” public radio show (KCRW) along with Greenfield and Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld. The topic was the rise in single-person households, documented still again by the latest Census Bureau report.

Connecting the increase in single people and solo dwellers with the rise of individualism, can we say that single people are self-centered types who care mostly about themselves and not about their connections to other people?

I bet you can guess how I feel about that.

I tossed out my one-word whimsical summary of why I think it is married people, and not single people, who are self-centered: Weddings. Single people never create such orgies of self-absorption and display. (See chapter 6 of Singled Out for more on the wedding theme.)

I also pointed to all the research suggesting that single people are more connected to siblings, parents, friends, and neighbors than married people are, and that when people get married, they actually become more insular than they were when they were single.

I do agree, though, that the rise of single people and of solo dwellers is part of the growth of the choice component of individualism. I think it is part of our great, good fortune as 21st century Americans to be able to choose to live single and to live alone, and to have a good and meaningful life while so doing.

I also think that the practice of individualism and collectivism can come together in the lives of single people who choose the people who are important to them, and how deeply connected they will be to them. They are not stuck with the default option of marrying, having children, and focusing primarily on nuclear family ties.

Reference: Greenfield, P. M. (2013, in press). The changing psychology of culture from 1800 through 2000. Psychological Science.

Pioneer family moving west image available from Shutterstock.