How a Recession Changes Our Behavior

Recessions impact more than our financial stability. From baby names and music lyrics to who gets laid off and how we treat strangers, evidence of how bad economic times change our attitudes and behaviors can be found in unusual places.

In more individualistic societies, such as the United States, there is an emphasis on standing out from others, being different, and expressing one's uniqueness. In more interdependent or collectivistic societies, there's an emphasis on not standing out, on being part of a group, on attuning to the needs and interests and goals of the group, and on ensuring that the group is successful. Individualism is a core part of identity in the United States and that has increased over time. Over time, Americans have become increasingly individualistic and currently, the United States typically scores higher on individualism than any other country.

Associate Professor of Organization & Management Dr. Emily Bianchi's research into whether people become less individualistic in times economic hardship, reveals that when the economy is worse, people are more likely to embrace interdependence and collectivism. Examples include parents giving children more common names and articulating that they wanted their children to exhibit such behaviors as helping and getting along with other people, over being independent and standing out from others. Her research also revealed that during bad economic times, American music is less individualistic and more collective, as exemplified by more songs that had more first-person plural pronouns (we, us, ours) than singular first-person pronouns (I, me, mine).

In short, in better economic times, Americans, seem to be more self-focused and during worse economic times, they are more interdependent. 

Interdependent behaviors and attitudes have limits and can result in derogation of others

Even when people are more interdependent or collectivistic, they are not more interdependent towards everyone in society. People are typically more interdependent towards people who are similar to them or are in their in-group. That often is associated with greater derogation of dissimilar others. In societies that are very collectivistic or very interdependent, there is often a great deal of wariness of outsiders.

Interdependence – leaning on and taking from other people – is one way people manage uncertainty, including economic and financial uncertainty. Another way is to look for perceptual order, which can involve seeing things in rigid terms, such as being more likely to see people who are not very different from them as being “other.”

Racism can be greater during difficult economic times

In examining state economies, Dr. Bianchi and her colleagues found that in states hit hardest by the Great Recession, there was a greater spike in Whites' negative attitudes towards Blacks. In states that were less hard hit, there wasn't as much of a change.   

Racial wage gaps increase during recessions, making diversity efforts crucial

Dr. Bianchi has also conducted research that revealed that the racial wage gap increases during recessions, regardless of industry, education level, age, and other factors. Moreover, African American employees are more likely than White employees to be fired during a recession and take a greater hit in salary when they are hired or rehired. She concludes that its crucial for businesses to maintain their diversity efforts in recessions and other difficult economic times.  

© 2020 Goizueta Business School