The world is too big for us. Too much going on. Too many crimes. To much violence and excitement. Try as you will, you get behind in the race. It's an incessant strain to keep pace and still you lose ground. Science empties discoveries on you so fast that you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment. Everything is high pressure. Human nature cannot endure much more.
                                            --Atlantic Journal editorial, May 16, 1833

[I] attribute the social and psychological problems of modern society to the fact that society requires people to live under conditions radically different from those under which the human race evolved ...
                                           --The Unabomber

Over the past few centuries humanity has witnessed the most dramatic and rapid cultural and social transformations ever known. Indeed, the defining characteristic of modernization is continuously accelerating change. So great has this rate become that generations now alive absorb within their lifetimes the social and technological change that traditionally occurred over the course of many centuries.

Jean Twenge's "The Age of Anxiety? Birth Cohort Change in Anxiety and Neuroticism, 1952-1993"
Gene Shackman's Social Change page


According to social scientists, owing to massive urbanization, economic globalism, multiculturalism, rapid change in transportation and communication technologies, secularization, and the accelerating growth of the knowledge industries, the developed nations of the planet are entering a new evolutionary stage in the human condition--one they oxymoronically refer to as "postmodernism." (For overview of theories and measurements of social change see Gene Shackman's site.) Supposedly fundamentally altered is the very game board of social life, with new rules, new strategies, new players, and a new realm of unintended consequences.  Such change has supposedly led to "future shock," and perhaps accounts for our current millennial angst. As far as I can tell (perhaps the obtuse descriptions of postmodernist writers reveal the essence of their message), this new condition features:

Postmodernism represents the final break between the social and natural orders, where individuals' central motives and activities focus exclusively on social relationships rather than reacting to the life challenges posed by Mother Earth. In other words, the everyday realities preoccupying most individuals most of the time are largely man-made--often the simulated realities of various mass mediums.

Typologizing the new kinds of people produced by this new kind of society has preoccupied a number of social observers. They are described as being increasingly individualistic, other-directed, narcissistic, atomistic (Robert Putnam bowls alone rather than on a team in a league), and unable to develop intimacy with others.  Their identities are continuously in flux as they constantly move through changing relationships (as opposed to growing up and growing old with the same supporting cast). These new people go through new childhoods: at least in the middle class, a life stage largely bereft of socially-meaningful (and contributive) roles (instead of dealing with the ever-present chores of the farm--ol' Bess can't wait to be milked at 5 a.m. and 6 p.m.-- what is an urban child to do in a service-oriented economy?).  And those now "elderly" are trailblazing a newly-guaranteed life-cycle stage: old age.

Let's consider the responses to the following statement posed to a random sample of Americans in the 1993 NORC General Social survey: You have to take care of yourself first, and if you have any energy left over, then help other people. Fifteen percent of Americans strongly agreed with this statement, 47% agreed somewhat, 11% neither agreed nor disagreed, and the remaining 27% either disagreed somewhat or strongly. Among the correlations we find:


The theme of these pages is the profound interrelationships between mind, self and society. Is it not interesting that in an era when we are witnessing the rapid shrinking of our planet due to international communications, transportation, and trade--and at a time when we are appreciating the increasing interdependencies between peoples and between ourselves and the environment--we simultaneously see a retreat into the self and the infusion of psychologically-based explanations of behavior in the social sciences? In our service-oriented economy, the soul industries--i.e., counseling, psychotherapy, industrial psychology--are among the fastest growing.  Online personality tests have become a source of entertainment.

In part, this cultural focus on the self--as opposed to its dynamic interrelationships with society--is a consequence of individualism, whose Romantic legacy views human motivations deriving from mysterious, hidden forces from within. It is also a consequence of the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis and the growing use of the mind as a mechanism of social control.  Historically it was the church that had a monopoly over "soul knowledge," the recipes for making sense out of one's identity. Religious knowledge provided coherence, continuity, and overarching comprehensibility to the meanings of socio-historical and personal-biographical events. It provided the schemata by which one's past experiences could be sedimented so as to reveal the sacred story implicit in one's biography (as Peter Berger observed, "the experience of conversion to a meaning system that is capable of ordering the scattered data of one's biography is liberating and profoundly satisfying").  However, with the increasing differentiation and specialization of individuals' life worlds, life plans became increasingly pluralized. With changes in the division of labor, the church became increasingly unable to retain its monopoly over "soul management" when challenged by scientifically-legitimated experts such as psychiatrists, job counselors, and gerontologists. The sacred-profane distinction became transformed into a healthy-unhealthy dichotomy. And with this service sector absorption of biographical recipes came the idea that any "social improvement" occurs not through institutional reconstruction but through the modification of individuals, with, as Ivan Illich observed, "health, education, personal mobility, or psychological healing ... [becoming] defined as the result of services or `treatments.'"

Signs of the time:

PBS' Frontline documentary "Medicating Kids," on the widespread diagnosis of and drug treatments for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) among American children


Perhaps the greatest demographic phenomenon the the past century has been the massive urbanization occurring throughout the world. Nearly nine out of ten Americans now live within an urban context, one-half within just thirty-seven metropolitan areas. Within these man-made environments new ways of thinking and acting have evolved.

What are the social psychological effects of living in urban milieus? Cities represent sizable populations, high densities, and considerable heterogeneity of residents. They are places that intensify life's stimulations (hence their attractive power on artists and intellectuals) and that deindividualize social interactions. Cities are also places that supposedly liberalize (or relativize) individuals' moral outlooks. They are also places, as Ferdinand Töennies observed in the 1880s, of weakened kinship ties, contractual relationships, extreme individualism, and where traditional bonds of shared sentiments and religious faith are replaced by monetary obsessions.

Let's investigate the supposed liberalizing effects of urbanization: the impact of where one was living at age 16 on attitudes toward premarital sex. As can be seen, the more urban individuals' roots the less likely they believe that premarital sex is always wrong, even when their education is controlled for? But have we really demonstrated an environmental effect on moral outlooks? Consider the other factors that might account for these differences:

Summarized below is the relationship between where one was raised and attitudes toward premarital sex both in raw percentages and when the data is standardized controlling for sex, age, religiosity, and education.


FARM 46% 36%
RURAL 28% 29%
< 50K 27% 27%
50-250K 23% 25%
SUBURB 16% 22%
250K+ 20.5% 21%


Among the supposed hallmarks of the modern mind is the reliance on scientific ways of knowing whereby fiction can be separated from fact.

In this supposedly scientifically enlightened era, the results of a basic science survey, reported in 1996 by the National Science Foundation (n=2,006) are most intriguing. Less than 50 percent of American adults understand that the Earth annually orbits the sun, only one in five could explain what DNA is, and but 9 percent knew what a molecule is. Nevertheless, Americans respect scientists and doctors more than most other professionals; roughly 40 percent of those surveyed expressed high confidence for scientists and medical workers.

Let's examine the relationship between Americans' scientific knowledge and their confidence in the leadership of the scientific establishment. To gauge scientific knowledge, we here focus on what probably is the best-supported scientific theory: the theory of evolution. In 1993, the NORC General Social Survey included Americans' responses to the following statements (with percent falling into each category of response):

It is interesting to note that while more than six out of ten American adults either agree or strongly agree that nature's game is the survival of the fittest, more than half disagree that humans evolved from earlier species. This ambivalence toward human origins is evident in the weak relationship between FITSURVIVE and HUMANEVOL: of those agreeing in the survival of the fittest, 51% believe it is definitely or probably true that humans evolved from earlier species, compared to 44% of those disagreeing or neither agreeing or disagreeing with FITSURVIVE.

Of the two measures of belief in the theory of evolution, HUMANEVOL has the stronger relationship with confidence in scientific leadership: those believing (either definitely or probably) that humans developed from earlier species are 13.5 percentage points (or 40 percent) more likely to have a great deal of confidence in scientific leadership (47.1% so having) than those not believing (of whom 33.6% have high confidence).

Examining this HUMANEVOL-CONSCI relationship further we find that this percentage difference (which, again, is 13.5% in total) in high confidence among believers versus nonbelievers in human evolution:

Click here for further analyses of Americans' attitudes toward science and their concerns about global warming.

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