Update from Italy: On America and Cultural Psychology

Coming or going? Emigrating or staying put?
Photo by Brígida Lourenço Guerreiro on Unsplash

Last weekend I posted a piece about the American work ethic that struck a nerve. Along with my congenital nosiness, I am also dogged, wielding the scalpel of Why against blur and confusion. Why does America harbor, indeed nurture, this work ethic that seems to undermine our very stability? Have we exchanged one set of values – peace family, community – for another – career, salary, prestige? Do we long for one while working for the other, and if so, why? Where does the American restlessness, the seeking, the striving – and with the flip side of that, the fear – come from?

Does America wonder why other countries in the world do not out their children through active shooter drills at their school, armed with bulletproof backpacks? Why other countries are not struggling with a breathtaking opioid epidemic? Why the very term trigger warning originated in America and never caught on anywhere else, much less its prescribed usage?

I have thought a lot about this. Years of research and reading in cross-cultural communication and cultural psychology have framed my professional discussions and internal musings about the nature of a culture’s collective personality. A few years back, a spate of articles came out about the so-called Wanderlust Gene. Go on, read the summary and evaluate for yourself. If you’re American, you very likely carry a copy of the variant of the DRD4 gene, labelled 7R by some unimaginative lab tech (I might have gone with Woohoo!; the writer of the article opts for the Wanderlust gene – but “Dirty Four” is funny), estimated to be present in 20% of the genpop. (Global genpop, surely – I am convinced it is far higher in America). The variant is suspected to be a predictor for novelty seeking, risk taking, and new experiences. Not like you’re necessarily BASE jumper, or an adrenaline junkie, but maybe even someone who feels restless, internally and externally, and often. The allele reduces dopamine receptivity, so its carriers may prioritize and seek out experiences that offer a greater dopamine release. (Flying from my home in Seattle to Rio de Janeiro in the South American midsummer on frequent flyer miles in 2001 and being promptly pickpocketed in the Metro comes to mind, but that might be a story for a different post. More importantly, why did I envision the trip as an entertaining endeavor, even as it tickles my memory today)? The 7R variant is also a possible marker for ADHD and substance dependency as the person with a higher dopamine threshold seeks to calm themselves with external interventions or experiences.

Anyone who was barely awake in school in the US has learned the story of early immigration to the US. People seeking a better life. Puritans going into exile from an intolerant England. Irish who could not wait for another crop to fail. Scandinavians fed up with thin topsoil, Russian incursions, and seasonal affective disorder. Germans in search of, I don’t know, farmland beyond a single terrace planted with Riesling. Dutch farmers tired of living below sea level in search of higher land at a lower cost. (I am going to set aside the facts of the slave trade for a moment, as people who were human trafficked into unpaid labor from abroad did not opt into this choice based on their preferences, to put it mildly.) In short, people were presented with choices, and they went all in. They picked up and left for good.

People who opted in to (non-forcible) emigration to the US from elsewhere had a different psychological profile than their neighbors at home. They tolerated a greater level of risk, and were willing to take that chance. And, after they landed in their new home, perhaps the 7R allele went quiet for a generation or two, but then it came back to life, hopping and skipping through generations, popping up here and there as the restless brother, the hotheaded sister, the aunt with the attention span of a housefly, the head of household who moves in search of an incrementally better home, greater gain, and more. Now when I meet people who tell me they can’t stand change, hate it when things change, I don’t adapt well, I quietly wonder if they have a recessive gene for a raised dopamine threshold. When people recount travel adventures, times they made a seemingly rash decision (whether or not it worked out), or start dreaming big in casual conversation with me, something deep in my spirit starts thrumming and I think, yes. I know exactly what you mean.

Last summer, our of a surfeit of nosy and dogged curiosity, I completed hours of research on my own family – the Sharps. I knew nothing about our origin story, but as I looked into it, I became more and more interested in how significant life choices repeat through generations. My eighth-great grandfather, one William Sharpe, signed an indenture contract and boarded a ship in Leith Harbour, Edinburgh, bound for East New Jersey in 1685. The generations of Sharps before him painted a picture of lost inheritances, failed farms, an attempt to build a new life in Aberdeen that didn’t quite work out. William and two of his brothers went to East New Jersey – John and George went first, in 1684, followed by William the year after – and there the family farmed for a few generations. William’s son and grandson farmed the same land that William purchased once he completed his contract, receiving a parcel of the same land he’d worked off his ship passage on the banks of the Raritan River. William’s great-grandson Solomon, born in 1765, picked up the 7R thread and moved around the east coast and the expanding American frontier like a wild hare compared to his more rooted father and his dissolute grandfather (perhaps in a variant expression of 7R). Solomon moved from the Raritan River in East New Jersey, to Cape May, in the southernmost tip of New Jersey, to Pennsylvania, to Kentucky in the space of thirty years, finally landing in Ohio, where he was buried. He never knew his great-grandfather, but the life arcs of the two men match. I am sure if they had known one another they would have been strikingly similar, and would have demonstrated a similar dopamine threshold. Some of my ancestors stayed rooted on the farm, but others were more peripatetic, their roots loosely bound.

It seems Americans are convinced they exercise a great deal of control in their daily life, in their work, in the world, and around the globe. We seek experiences that reinforce this belief. But how much control do we have really, versus how much control we believe we exert over circumstances? Our ancestors and instincts would have us believe one way, but experience proves otherwise. Regardless the actual outcome of our quick and comparatively risky American decisions, the identity takeaway for our collective culture is that, in the moment, when presented with the decision, we took the risk. I will say also from experience that this openness to changing one’s whole life in a moment, throwing all the pieces in the air to assemble some new, just-now-seen puzzle that lands on the table, is a uniquely American approach that truly confounds the landed descendants of people who never emigrated. They just do not get it.

An old memory from Spain in 1993 comes to mind. A Spaniard my age named Antonio who begged me to admit that nothing made me feel calmer than picking up a handful of dirt from my home and smelling it.

I was revulsed. Are you kidding? I need a boarding pass! I responded. Pack me a suitcase! I gotta see stuff!

What do you mean, you have no home? he demanded.

I stared. If I knew where my home was, I would tell you.

He judged me coy. I knew I was candid. Thus did two perspectives fail to intersect that time, but I always remember it. He was right, and I was right, but we each thought the other was being dishonest, I am sure of it.

America is anxious. Maybe more anxious than most places in the world. America has anxiety and fear on tap. The weight of history and memory of all those disasters, the risks our forebears took that didn’t work out, the hope always that the next risk (frontier, farm, job) would work out. American? It’s not your fault if you’re bouncy, nervous, prone to risk-taking and possibly also substance abuse, overeating, obsessive exercising, extreme opinions, doodling (I have never seen people doodle like an American in a boring work meeting) and non-stop social media doomscrolling. It is easy to trigger an American because most Americans are always on edge. But why are we all on edge? Ask why.

I think, as an assiduous layperson and not an academic, that it’s because the dopamine threshold in the collective American personality is set, through our history and its people, at a much higher level than the rest of the world. The memory of want and famine and war are strong (I might write another piece on epigenetics and how responses to these crises got switched on in us in past generations). It’s not that Americans want to be overweight, or addicted to opioids, or frantically anxious, or changing jobs every year, or getting divorced again, or taking manic roadtrips. I am amused that a NYT article (co-written by Tony Blair, of all people) that keeps popping up for me headlines, We need to start travelling again! One might ask the question first, how do we continue to cope responsibly with an unprecedented pandemic? Is travelling really more important than the collective survival of the human race?

There are motivators deep within us that constantly press on us to do such things. Now, the question is, do we compulsively address these responses, pulled by an invisible thread in a trancelike state, blaming ourselves for our failures? Or do we consider a alternative version of reality in which we are not in control, in which we humbly admit there are forces at work within us that we must learn to work with harmoniously? Do you think you carry a genetic variant that raises your dopamine threshold? Why or why not?

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