We Americans take fierce pride in our individualism, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at our subdivisions and shopping malls. From Boston to Burbank, we buy the same nationally advertised products at the same chain stores and restaurants, happily embracing conformity as we proudly proclaim our uniqueness.
Why does our self-image fail to reflect reality? Researchers led by University of Virginia psychologists Shigehiro Oishi and Felicity Miao offer an intriguing answer. They argue our willingness to move far from home leads us to crave the comfort of sameness in our immediate surroundings.
Or, as Alan Watts grumpily observed:
We want to abolish the limits of time and space. We want to get rid of space. We call it the conquest of space. We want to be able to get from San Francisco to New York in nothing flat. And we are arranging to do just that. We do not realize what the result of doing that will be: San Francisco and New York will become the same place, and then it will not be worth going from one to another.
When you want to go on vacation, you want to go someplace that’s different. You might think of Hawaii, where you imagine sandy beaches, the lovely blue ocean, and coral reefs. But tourists are increasingly asking of such a place, “Has it been spoiled yet?” By this they mean, “Is it exactly like Dallas yet?” And the answer is “Yes.” The faster you can get from Dallas to Honolulu, the faster Honolulu is becoming the same place as Dallas and the less reason there is to make the trip. Tokyo has become the same place as Los Angeles. As you go faster and faster from place to place on the earth, they are all becoming the same place.