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New psychology research: changing self-concept can lower well-being

Alan Flurry

American culture values the freedom to change and reinvent one’s self. A new study, however, reveals that Americans who do change tend to report a lower sense of well-being.

University of Georgia psychologists compared individual self-concepts between Americans and Japanese counterparts and uncovered this essential contradiction about the heroic myth of American individualism:

“In Western and particularly American culture there is a notion that we have a lot of freedom, and that you can reinvent yourself and that’s a positive thing,” said Brian Haas, associate professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of psychology and lead author on the new study. “But when you apply it to one’s self-concept and reinventing one’s self, are they better off? Are they happier than people who do not change? We found that it’s not the case.”

The researchers sourced publicly available longitudinal self-reported personality data from the United States and Japan, and found that in the United States, any type of self-concept changes occurring over the course of several years tended to be associated with a marked decrease in well-being. Conversely Japanese respondents did not show a similar link between self-concept changes and decreased well-being. Self-concept refers to how individuals think about their identity.

“One way to think about this is in political debates, where one of the worst things you can call somebody out on in the United States is being a flip-flopper,” Haas said. “Changing your mind, and not being consistent, tends to be thought of as a very negative characteristic in the United States political culture. We found that when people change their identity and likely change their minds, there are many profound negative consequences in our culture.”

These notions contrast sharply with cultures such as Japan that tend to have an interdependent identity within a relatively collective culture.

Insightful new work from Haas and Vandellen that broaches broader concepts like individualism and adaptability in ways that challenge our cultural assumptions and provide an opportunity to perhaps reconsider them.



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