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”.