Nancy Reagan, Nike, and American Culture

Nancy Reagan, Nike, and American Culture

What could these three possibly have in common? In 1986 Reagan offered a message of restraint—“Just say no”—recalling a moral perspective that had been central to American culture for most of the country’s history. In 1988 Nike coined a new slogan—Just do it”—that (intentionally or unintentionally) summed up the contrasting perspective of indulgence that was introduced in the 1960s and remains dominant in American culture.

What exactly were the effects of the change from an emphasis on restraint to an emphasis on indulgence. Some expected that they would be mainly positive—for example, increasing freedom of thought and action and allowing people to pursue rather than suppress their talents. Others expected the opposite—that an emphasis on self-indulgence would end self-discipline and weaken the motivation to achievement. Which assessment is more accurate?

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s scholarly study, The Triple Package, provides a partial answer. It focuses on three factors that research has shown to be most responsible for the success of individuals and groups in a wide variety of times and places. One of the factors is impulse control, a near-synonym for restraint; the others are a superiority complex and insecurity. I will take the factors in the order the authors present them.

The authors define Superiority Complex, as “a deeply internalized belief in [one’s] group’s specialness, exceptionality, or superiority”; Insecurity, as “an anxious uncertainty about [one’s] worth or place in society” and about the adequacy of one’s talents and efforts; and Impulse Control as “the ability to resist temptation, especially the temptation to give up in the face of hardship or quit instead of persevering at a difficult task.”

The groups that had or have this “Triple Package,” according to the authors, include the Han and Ming Dynasties in ancient China; the ancient Greeks; Puritans, Mormons, and Jews; and immigrants from India, China, other Asian countries, Iran, Lebanon, Nigeria, the West Indies, and Cuba.

As one might imagine of a book that presents the findings of scholarly research, the book is full of insights. The following ones are among the most interesting:

People often wonder whether the reason Chinese-American students (and those from other Asian countries) dramatically outperform most American-born students academically and in career achievement. It is not that they have higher IQs. It is rather that they work significantly harder, and the main reason they do so is their desire to honor their families.

The children of Holocaust survivors “frequently describe a pressure to do well in life in order to redeem their parents’ hardships, to make good their sacrifices” and “to bring joy, pride, and pleasure into their parents’ lives.” And they do not regard the suffering their parents endured as a matter of shame, “but of pride.”

Benjamin Franklin was the son of Puritan parents and his extoling of “moderation, self-control, industry, saving for the future, never wasting time, and refusing to give up in the face of diversity” is not only a result of parental influence, but also a classic example of restraining one’s impulses.

By aiming to eliminate insecurity, the welfare system may have diminished people’s motivation to seize opportunities for achievement and thereby “destroyed the work ethic.”

Newcomers from Africa often comment on the “defeatism” of Black Americans. As one Nigerian said, the problem is that they are blocked from success by “the mentality that the whole system is against us,” whereas Nigerians “feel they are capable of anything,” which enables them to succeed.

Because it is “well established” that “increasing self-esteem does not improve academic performance,” the decades-long emphasis in American education on raising students’ self-esteem has been a costly mistake.

American culture teaches Americans “Everyone is equal; feel good about yourself; live in the moment,” whereas the successful groups discussed by the authors teach their members, “You are capable of great things because of the group to which you belong; but you, individually, are not good enough; so you need to control yourself, resist temptation, and prove yourself.” [Emphasis added] The reason for the difference is that “a core insight of the Triple Package is precisely that not feeling good about yourself—or not feeling good enough—is part of what drives success.”

“America today spreads a message of immediate gratification, living for the moment. But all of America’s most successful groups cultivate heightened impulse control.”

Triple Package deserves a large, attentive audience, and I recommend it enthusiastically. However, it has one shortcoming: two of the terms chosen to identify the factors of success are discordant with the book’s positive message. The term Superiority Complex carries the negative connotations of arrogance and psychological disorder, which I am sure the authors did not intend. Similarly, the term Insecurity suggests a lack of something important. What makes this shortcoming especially unfortunate is that more positive terms are available.

In place of Superiority Complex I recommend Pride of Heritage. Not only does this term fit the authors’ research findings; it also reflects their own definition of the phenomenon, which emphasizes not individual superiority, but instead group superiority. More importantly, my recommended term is consistent with the authors’ warning that the factors in the Triple Threat can “have truly toxic effects” when “taken to an extreme.” I submit that a superiority complex is an extreme form of pride of heritage. Further, that a superiority complex is incompatible with humility, whereas Pride of Heritage is perfectly compatible.

Instead of Insecurity I would say Determination to Succeed because, when insecurity is present, it is as a byproduct of the determination to meet an obligation (for example, of family honor) or to fulfill a destiny.

Parents, educators, counselors, authors of self-help materials, and members of the communications and entertainment media would do well to ponder Chua and Rubenfelds’ explanation of the perspective that fosters success in individuals and groups because that perspective has been largely missing in American culture for the last half-century.

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero