America Vs Europe: A Philosophical Difference

Whether European or American, one of the most frequent questions I get asked by my friends on either side of the pond is: “What are the major differences between Europe and America?”

Yeah…pretty big topic.

While there are several interesting and often quirky differences between the two, there is one underlying philosophic difference that seeps into every aspect of our daily lives: Attribution.

In Psychology, researchers have identified a phenomena they refer to as “Attribution Theory“.  Put simply, Attribution Theory states what many of us already know. When people observe an event they attempt to identify a causal explanation. For those of you with little kids, this is known as the infamous “Why?” question. ” Why is his room bigger than mine? Why is her hair brown? Why is the zombie apocalypse a foregone conclusion?”. After thousands of studies, psychologist have observed that the explanations  people develop typically fall into one of two categories: Dispositional and Situational. Or for those of you who don’t speak nerd: Internal explanations and External explanations.

Whoa…I just wanted to read about The Royal Wedding and shit. Maybe a few pictures of Big Ben. What the fuck is all this technical stuff?

The fundamental difference between Europe and America is lies in the fact that Europeans primarily view the world through an external lens while Americans primarily view the world through an internal lens.

Think of  the sentence: John is poor.

When Americans see John they think:

” We are all masters of our own fate. America is the land of opportunity where we regularly see stories of people who came from nothing and made something out of themselves. If John put in enough effort and hard work he can go to school , get a good job, or start his own business.  Life is tough but no one gave me a handout and I’m doing alright. John is poor because he hasn’t worked hard enough.”

When Europeans see John they think:

“There are several institutional factors working against John that keep him in poverty. John was born into poverty where his parents could barely afford enough food to feed him. He went to a failing school everyday hungry and unable to learn.  When his parents passed away he was forced to drop out of school and work two jobs to support his brothers. John is trying to better himself by applying for apprenticeships but because John is an Arab Muslim from the wrong side of town, employers won’t hire him because they assume he’s either a terrorist or a thug.”

Attribution also affects our basic understanding of fundamental concepts like freedom and liberty. Ask a European person how they feel about gun ownership and they’re typically appalled. It’s not that Europeans don’t support gun ownership. It’s goes deeper than that. Europeans can’t even fathom the idea of individual gun ownership.  They would sooner wrap their head around the idea that the sky is actually purple before they came to grips with a society permeated with widespread gun use. “In London even the police don’t carry guns!” is a frequent retort I hear when discussing this issue. In their eyes guns represent danger. And by removing guns from their society, they safer and more free.

As you can expect, Americans tend to have a different perspective on the issue. For many, Americans,  guns represent self reliance. “If a criminal breaks into my house, why should I have to wait for the police in order to defend my family?” is what one often hears. Or “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Preventing law abiding citizens from owning guns doesn’t stop criminals from using guns.” In the eyes of the millions of pro gun Americans, the right to bear arms is critical to ensuring their safety. Collective bans on guns, as seen in many European countries takes power out of the hands of individuals and places it in the hands of the government, or worse, criminals.

By this point, I’m sure many of you are saying “But that doesn’t apply to me. I’m a European/American and I don’t believe that.” Of course there’s a certain element of generalization in this post. With 60 million people in the UK and 300 million in the US, no one point applies to everyone. Particularly in the US where one of the two major political parties is more sensitive to situational explanations versus dispositional.  While the difference in attribution is most often seen in the legislative dynamics of each country, it’s not limited to political ideologies.  Let’s talk about a subject everyone loves to hear about: Food.

When I tell my European friends that food in the United States is much (much much much) better they don’t believe me. “But Americans are so fat and their food is all junky and filled with preservatives!” Never mind the fact the UK pretty much invented the idea of deep frying shit that doesn’t need to be deep fried( …I’m looking at you Twinkies… ) they do have a point. There is a metric shit ton of crappy food available in the US. But you know why? Because there’s 300 million people living in a country that’s so big that millions of people still live 10 to 20 miles from their closest neighbor. Also known as too close to their closest neighbor according to my friend John Abel. (Go Pokes!)

The point being, America is a ginormous country with a crap ton of people from diverse backgrounds.  Lots of people + Lots of Diversity = Lots of options. And quite frankly, that’s how we like it. If someone wants to eat McDonalds every day and get fat.  God bless you son, you’re an American. If you want to be a hippy vegan who eats tree bark all day while playing hop scotch and singing give peace a chance…well I hate hippies but god dammit that’s your right as an America.

In America freedom equals choice. When I go to store and see 14 different types of deodorant I wipe a tear and start humming “God Bless America.”  When I get breakfast and they ask me how many eggs I’d like in my omelet I stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance. This isn’t an issue of gluttony or excess. In the eyes of Americans we have the right to choose the decisions that govern our lives and the more options we have the greater our access to freedom.

Where as Americans define freedom individualistically, Europeans tend to view freedom as protection from affliction. Emphasis isn’t placed on choices it’s placed on removal of “bad options”.


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4 responses to “America Vs Europe: A Philosophical Difference”

  1. Charlotte says :

    You argue that the Europeans tend to ‘remove bad options’, compared to Americans who allow their citizens more choice. You cite gun control as your example of this. Actually I’d argue that in many ways the US is much more keen to ‘remove bad options’ than European nations. What about the stringent alcohol laws, draconian drugs laws (albeit with exceptions) and federal age of consent of 18? In the UK and around Europe, you are given the choice to drink from when you become an adult at 18 – or even earlier – whereas in some US states, many counties completely prohibit the sale of alcohol. Prison times for drugs offences tend to be shorter in Europe generally, and most of the time possession of small amounts of even class A drugs is met with confiscation or is just ignored.

    (Also this is Charlotte from Uni – the one who likes cognitive psychology. Nice blog I like it!)

    • phillipallen66 says :

      The primary purpose of a central governing body, let alone The Rule of Law, is to restrict certain individual freedoms in order to create a coherent civlized society. If your definition of collectivist society is predicated on the existence of laws, then you are woefully missing the point. Considering the fact that every recognized Nation-State in the world has a prohibition on murder, your definition would preclude any country from being considered collectivist.

      My argument, one I made in the post but worth clarifying here, is that in order to determine collectivism vs individualism you have to look at both political and social attitudes. This is the point I was making when I spoke about food and American vs European definitions of freedom. There’s a reason why the slogan “Have it your way” originated in the US.

      Even when you look at the academia in both countries the difference becomes apparent. In American Social Psychology the focus is primarily on that of the individual whereas Europe Social Psychology focuses primarily on the overarching societial contexts. Look at the approaches to crime. North American social psychology focuses on the personality traits that cause a person to commit crime where as European social psychology questions the environments that produce criminals.

      More to your specific points:

      1. There is no federal age of consent in the US. Age of consent is determined at the state level and generally mirrors Europe where the age of consent is typically 16-18.

      2. The average legal drinking age in Europe is 18. In the US it’s 21. Three years can hardly be considered stringent, especially considering the massive amounts of drinking that takes place among high school and college students. The three year difference also does not qualify as removing bad options since its just a difference in opinion on when that act should be permitted. I agree though, the law is silly and should be changed.

      3. You’re about 20 years behind in your point about drug laws .The criminalization of drugs is largely similar in both the US and Europe. Hard drugs are illegal and “soft drugs” are typically decriminalized, legal in some areas, or “illegal” but culturally acceptable. The difference that does exist between Europe and the US is how we handle enforcement of our laws. In the US there’s a greater disparity in prosecution of drug laws and the punishments are far more strict. However this strictiness originates in the American conception of the individual. Whereas in Europe, society looks at a heavy drug user and examines the situational conditions that lead to their use, in States we view their drug use as a rammification of their own actions and decisions.

    • phillipallen66 says :

      Also, thanks for commenting Charlotte from Uni 😉

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