The Problems With Individualism and “Me” Society

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Antifragile" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

What are the problems with individualism? How can we overcome this fragile thinking?

One of the problems with individualism is that it promotes fragile thinking. When we act as individuals, we’re concerned about ourselves rather than the survival and betterment of everyone. But we can overcome that with empirical thinking.

Read more about the problems with individualism below.

The Fragility of “Me”

Another modern trend—only dating back to the Enlightenment—is the fear of death. Ancient literature is filled with stories of great heroes seeking not immortality, but a good and honorable death. 

People back then saw themselves as part of the larger whole of humanity, defined by what they contributed to the world and the children who survived them. The idea that the individual is the most important thing, and that each individual should be preserved as long as possible, is quite a recent one. An individual life is naturally a fragile thing. It has to be, in order for the species to be antifragile—remember that antifragility can only occur after damage. Though scientists continue to artificially lengthen life, and some even seek the keys to immortality, we’re not meant to live forever as the sick, fragile animals that we are. We’re meant to live well, and then die to make room for others.

Empiricism Trumps Theory

One major way we could avoid such risks is to take an empirical, rather than theoretical, approach. In other words, to acknowledge that we know what happens, and it doesn’t matter why it happens.

Consider what happens when you lift weights: Your muscles become bigger and stronger. One explanation is that your muscles experience microtears and increase in size as they heal. A more recent idea has to do with hormonal signaling in response to stress. No doubt at some point in the future, there will be other theories. However, none of that changes the empirical observation that lifting weights makes you stronger.

Proceeding based on what we know to be true, rather than what we think are the reasons behind it, would avoid the problem of relying on fragile theories and models. For example, people found that eating fats and carbohydrates together led to weight gain. That was the empirical observation. 

However, upon an analysis of that fact, doctors and mathematicians decided that the fats were to blame. This led to the “fat-free” craze in food service and marketing. However, they made an elementary statistical mistake: When two factors are jointly responsible for an observed outcome, sometimes it seems that only one of them is to blame. 

In short, we need to accept and understand that there are—and probably always will be—things we don’t know. In trying to reduce calories in food, scientists developed and introduced all kinds of artificial sweeteners, only to learn later that they caused everything from weight gain to cancer. The theory was that, since calories are associated with gaining weight, reducing the calories would make the food healthier. However, the things they didn’t know—the side effects—outweighed those benefits. 

The Problems With Individualism and “Me” Society

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "Antifragile" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Antifragile summary:

  • How to be helped by unforeseen events rather than harmed by them
  • Why you shouldn't get too comfortable or you'll miss out on the chance to become stronger
  • Why you should keep as many options available to you as possible

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *