Between 1965 and 1985, the Western self was transformed. We turned from anti-materialistic, stick-it-to-the-Man hippies into greed-is-good yuppies. We would be surprised if an individual went through such an extreme metamorphosis. But an entire culture did. What could have caused such a dramatic shift?

While the origins of such changes cannot be reduced to a single source, I believe we can point to a dominant one: the economy. In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rewrote the rules by which we had once lived. And that, with stunning rapidity, changed who we were.

Psychologists attest to the enormous power of environment over culture. Many focus on differences between the individualistic West and the collectivist East. The story goes something like this: The Western self was born in Greece, a pointillist realm of around 1,000 city-states, where the land was poor for farming. Getting by meant hustling — tanning hides, making olive oil, fishing. This individualistic economy created an individualist ideal of self. The Greeks sought singular fame and glory. They gave birth to the Olympics, that celebration of individual competition, and an astonishing era of democracy.

Compare that with ancient China, an undulating landscape in which getting by meant being part of a large farming community. Survival depended on the group rather than the individual. For Confucius the “superior” person “does not boast,” preferring instead “the concealment of his virtue” — nothing like the glory-seeking Greek. A different landscape made a different kind of human with different values. One prioritized the individual, the other the group. One saw reality comprising individual objects, the other a web of forces.

uch cognitive differences have been found in the lab by the psychologist Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan. The research conducted there showed that an Asian person looking at a video of a fish tank is likely to scan the entire scene, while a Westerner will tend to focus more narrowly on the dominant fish. Asked what they thought of that singular fish Westerners tended to identify it as the “leader” while Easterners felt sorry for it because it was not part of the group.

Read the full article at the New York Times.