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Mental Health Center

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Americans More Self-Interested Than Ever, Study Finds

Look at State of the Union addresses since 1790 found egotism rising during 20th century

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Robert Preidt

HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, May 9, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Americans' focus on themselves has been steadily rising since the turn of the 20th century, according to a new study.

University of Michigan researchers assessed self-interest (egotism) in the United States by using a special software program to analyze presidential State of the Union addresses from 1790 through 2012. In each of the speeches, the program measured the number of words that related to self-interest and those linked with concern for others.

Egotism was relatively low in the United States shortly after the country declared independence from Great Britain, the study found.

"The focus seemed to be on the needs of other people, rather than on the needs and desires of the president or people close to him," Sara Konrath, a social psychologist, said in a university news release.

Self-interest remained low during the 19th century but rose steadily throughout the 20th century, according to the study published recently in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

"We found that self-interest tends to peak after economic booms," study author William Chopik, a doctoral candidate in psychology, said in the news release. "In the 20th century, it peaked after World War II and again in the 1970s."

Self-interest did fall slightly after the 2008-09 recession, perhaps because "the challenges facing the country increased the nation's sense of togetherness and focus on the needs of others," Chopik said.

Why has Americans' self-interest steadily increased?

"Historical changes are complex, and it is hard to point a finger at one specific cause. However, with increasing prosperity for many Americans, there could be more emphasis on 'me, me, me,' with personal needs and desires taking precedence over community needs," Chopik said.

"And there may also be more pressure to succeed over the past couple of centuries. In some ways, we've become a more competitive society, and perhaps what we're seeing in presidential addresses is a reflection of this trend," he added.

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