Are the concepts of free choice and personal responsibility fundamentally different in Germany and the USA?

A research proposal

Research Paper (postgraduate) 2016 11 Pages

Psychology - Social Psychology


“Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Free choice is a gain as well as a burden for humans. As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre put it, freedom does not just give you the gain of free choice but also the burden of being responsible for all your actions. This proposal wants to explore the concepts of free choice and personal responsibility in two individualistic countries, namely Germany and the USA. For introduction, let me present the controversial topic of abortion as an example.

The Freedom of Choice Act was passed in 2007 by the American Congress. This bill protects the right of women to choose if they want to bear a child (Guttmacher Institute, 2016). This basically means that women can have an abortion until the fetus is able to live on its own. It is important to notice that the Freedom of Choice Act is only legal in seven states of the US. For all arguments, it holds true that laws vary very much from state to state. Anyway, the important point is that most states allow abortion within a certain time frame and the woman has to make the final choice. She has full responsibility for her decision.

In Germany, abortion is technically always illegal. Nevertheless, there are exceptions within the first 12 weeks that make an abortion free of punishment (Strafgesetzbuch §218). A pregnant woman has to undergo a pregnancy conflict consultation which is offered by social institutions. The consultant talks with the woman about her wish to get an abortion explaining her about the consequences of an abortion and informing her about all the possibilities she has, e. g. adoption, governmental support etc. In the end, the woman receives a confirmation about undergoing this consultation. With this confirmation she can have an abortion. So in both countries, the reality is the same. Within a certain time frame, woman have the legal freedom to have an abortion. The idea behind is different: In the USA, full responsibility lies with the woman. In Germany, noticing that abortion is a troubling situation for a woman, the state takes responsibility to inform her about all possibilities so that she is able to make a responsible decision on her own. Hence, the USA applies a radical view of free choice resulting in total personal responsibility. Germany applies a more egalitarian view of free choice resulting in socially embedded personal responsibility.

Is free choice a specifically individualistic concept?

Free choice is a widely studied in Psychology, in Western Psychology mostly. Iyengar & Lepper (1999) were one of the first psychologists to rethink the value of choice in a cultural way. They emphasize the deep roots of free choice in American culture and refer to a big amount of research that has connected free choice to psychological well-being (Iyengar & Lepper, 1999; Markus & Schwartz, 2010). Iyengar & Lepper (1999) could show that Asian American children performed worse on a task when they had to make their own choice than when their mother made a choice for them. For Anglo American children the results were reversed. This is just one of the experiments that lead to the conclusion that free choice is not a universal concept (Markus & Schwartz, 2010). Nonetheless, the concept of free choice is a value connected to Individualism (Inglehart & Oyserman, 2010; Heine, 2012). For that reason, it is valuable to have a closer look at free choice in individualistic countries.

Individualism vs. collectivism is a common dichotomy to describe cultural values in a country. A lot of research in Cultural Psychology has mostly used the USA as a representative for the West and Japan as a representative for the whole collectivistic world. In fact, research has shown that there are cultural variances among collectivistic countries as well as among individualistic cultures. In the case of emotions, it could be shown that Japanese follow the way of “keeping face” which is why they show shame but not anger in emotional situations. Turks however have a culture of “defending honor” which is why they show shame as well as anger in emotional situations (Boiger, Güngör, Karasawa & Mesquita, 2014). Comparing two individualistic countries came to the same conclusion: The emotions of shame and anger are experienced differently in Dutch-speaking Belgium and the USA. With Belgium having an egalitarian individualism and the USA having a competitive individualism, anger was more beneficial for Americans and shame more beneficial for Belgians (Boiger, De Deyne & Mesquita, 2013). Competitive individualism refers to the cultural idea in the USA to stand out in the crowd. Achievement, self-esteem and self-enhancement are highly valued character traits with which individual can achieve the American Dream. Egalitarian individualism refers to the cultural idea in Belgium and Western Europe that individuals are integrated in a social network of equal rights, and not just equal opportunities like in the USA. Western European countries apply a welfare state to help the unfortunate and in which individual goals sometimes have to step back for a greater cause. Based on the assumption that the USA has an individualism that distinguishes from individualism in Western Europe, it is valuable to compare two individualistic countries.

Cultural background of free choice and personal responsibility

Freedom and personal responsibility are two concepts that cannot exist without each other (Huster, 2012). The US American as well as the German constitution secure the right of every individual to design your life with sole responsibility. But not just freedom is unthinkable without personal responsibility, personal responsibility goes along with freedom. If there is free choice for everyone, individuals are responsible for their choices. This logic holds true for both countries represented here (Inglehart & Oyserman, 2004; Bierhoff et al., 2005; Markus & Schwartz, 2010; Heine, 2012; Huster, 2012). The Cambridge Dictionary defines freedom as a condition or right to be able to do whatever you want without being limited or controlled. Free choice is therefore not determined by external factors. In line with this, Bierhoff et al. (2005) define personal responsibility in relation to freedom: Personal responsibility includes weighing up alternatives against each other in order to make an intentional choice that leads to the pursuit of personal goals.

The importance of personal choice has been connected to Protestantism (Inglehart & Oyserman, 2004; Heine, 2012). One idea that emerged from Protestantism is an individualized relationship with God as well as to work hard for the purpose that God has determined for every individual. Therefore, work became like a spiritual task, working hard meant to become advanced in your own special “calling” (Heine, 2012; Bierhoff et al., 2005). According to sociologist Max Weber these ideas formed the basis of modern capitalist states (Heine, 2012). From a psychological view, these Protestant ideologies influenced the development of individualism and independence (Inglehart & Oyserman, 2004). Research did not just show that hard work and economical wealth is especially high in countries with Protestant tradition (Heine, 2012) but also that the value of self-expression and individual choice is especially important in Protestant regions (Inglehart & Oyserman, 2004). When it comes to the Protestant religion, Germany and the USA share history as the Protestant movement was born in Germany with Martin Luther. The German immigrants brought this religion to America beginning with the 17th century.

Radical concept in the USA, egalitarian concept in Germany

In the USA, the “have it your way”-style is a basic part of culture. For example, US American marketing relies heavily on the assumption of making your own individual choice. The individual choice is seen as a way to express your independence, form your identity and to exert your autonomy (Markus & Schwartz, 2010). A syllogism seems to describe the American idea of choice: “The more freedom and autonomy people have, the greater their well-being. The more choice people have, the greater their freedom and autonomy. Therefore, the more choice people have, the greater their well-being” (Markus & Schwartz, 2010, p. 344). The idea is straightforward: If individuals have free choice, they can control their life by making the choice that is right for them.

USA is a nation that was born with the Declaration of Independence. The creation of this nation has widely been characterized by distinguishing itself from the Crown. Immigrants often had one reason to come to America: They could not live the way they wanted to where they came from, e. g. having the religion of choice or being oppressed by other’s want. The life of immigrants in the USA was characterized by identifying one’s self as different from their origin and from other immigrants. This was only possible by having freedom. All the freedoms that Americans have fight for and valued since the Declaration of Independence can be summarized as freedom of choice (Markus & Schwartz, 2004).

This total freedom of America also has consequences for personal responsibility. With choices available comes the need for individuals to stand up for the consequences of their choices (Heine, 2012). As Americans see individuals as free agents, they are much more likely than other cultures to attribute causality to individual aspects of a person. When comparing journalistic articles about finance scandals in American and Japanese newspaper, it was found that The New York Times made much more references to the individual’s fault than the Asabi Shinbun which made more references to the circumstantial context (Menon, Morris, Chiu & Hong, 1999). Therefore, the American newspaper tended to search personal responsibility in the individual.

One way to see how a country views personal responsibility is to have a look at the criminal justice system. The USA does not just have a bigger prison population than Germany in general, with USA having the highest incarceration rate of the world (698/100.000 adults) and Germany having one of the lowest (78/100.000 adults) (International Center for Prison Studies, 2013), the USA also applies harsher punishments than Germany. While the limit for the highest amount of time a criminal can be sentenced to except life is 15 years in Germany, there is no limit in the USA. Voices in the USA argue that even juveniles should be held fully responsible for their crimes. Until 2005, it was even legal in the USA to give juveniles the death penalty. From the age of 13, it is possible to trial a child as an adult when the crime is especially heinous. In Germany, no person under the age of 14 can be held accountable (Dammer & Albanese, 2013). This means a 13-year-old in the USA can be sentenced to life without parole while the same person in Germany would not be held responsible at all.

Germany is influenced by its history of being divided between Capitalist and Socialist ideology. Constitutive in Germany are democracy and market economy on the one hand and a welfare state on the other hand. This means that there needs to be a constant balance between personal and state responsibility (Roller, 1999). That is expressed in the German economic system: The social market economy is a unique concept in Germany that combines a free market economy - where individuals have space to achieve (the basic concept of “from rags to riches” in the USA) - with state restrictions in order to maintain a social welfare state. This concept of social market economy is sometimes shortened under the phrase “Freedom with Responsibility” (Nicholls, 2000). The economy system is deeply connected to Germany’s history. The term first came up after the war in West Germany when the destroyed country needed to build up a new economy as well as a welfare state. New importance came up after the German unification when the former Socialist organizations of East Germany needed to be integrated into the West Capitalist system (Roller, 1999).



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İzmir University of Economics – Psychology
Cultural free choice responsibility individualism collectivism freedom protestantism autonomy




Title: Are the concepts of free choice and personal responsibility fundamentally different in Germany and the USA?