Involution and Its Effect on Anxiety

October 22, 2023

Betty and Ming Feng at Sacramento Waldorf School’s Harvest Faire, October 2023.

My translator and friend Minfeng Wang spoke of the word Involution, which, in China, has become a buzzword affecting all aspects of life. In particular, it affects high school students who are struggling to gain a place in the limited number of university spots. The stress this creates leads to mental health issues and despair. After researching the word and what it means, I found it not only meaningful for China but for everywhere.

The term “Involution” was coined by anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser to describe a culture that cannot or does not adapt and/ or expand its economy but continues to develop only in the direction of internal complexity. He describes how traditional agricultural practices preserved a balance between population rates and the carrying capacities of the ecological system. However, when these areas were colonized the practices tended toward exploitation of raw materials going to the colonizers while the farmers lived in a subsistence economy. The result was that many farm laborers escaped to the cities, and the land was misused.

The term for involution has become increasingly widely used among new generations of Chinese people to describe their current high-pressure academic and work conditions. They regard this kind of stress as irrational, meaning there is little they can do about it. It started with high school students engaged in academic competition for better scores and expanded to other areas of life, including higher education, work, and even marriage.

In China, students in ninth grade take an examination that decides whether they will attend a high school to prepare for university or be directed to vocational education and become part of the labor force. Competition is fierce.

The theme “Involution and anxiety” was the subject of a study of Chinese college students. Students developed three types of behavior affecting their motivation: achievement motivation, reward orientation, and passive engagement. As a former high school teacher. I experienced my students’ anxiety every Spring when college acceptances arrived in the mail (now online). I was keenly interested in what the study found.

1. Passive Involution — Those who came from rural areas, poor neighborhoods, or who attended community colleges did not have high hopes of success. They feel forced to compete because they don’t want to be surpassed by peers. The battle is to try to outperform peers in order to stand out, be recognized, or dominate, but this group has fewer resources to help them do this. They tend to “lie flat” or give up, and they develop extreme anxiety.

2. Reward-Oriented Involution — Students are focused on the outcome. They will do whatever is necessary to avoid being overtaken by peers. They are motivated from outside for limited resources. They develop fear and anxiety because they are relying on recognition from outside. No matter how hard they work and intensify their efforts, they seldom get to their goal. When they fail, they have no inner capacity to deal with loss. Others take on that attitude into their adult life, in their work life, or in social situations.

The result of this kind of involution or irrational competition complicates students’ interpersonal communication, generates mutual hostility, and increases the breaking of rules and compromising moral ethics. It can lead to depression, anxiety, and emotional breakdown. For adolescents to be healthy they need to engage in interpersonal relations, cooperate with each other, and look to the greater good. Instead, they are engaged in a dog-eat-dog battle which may include cheating, lying, and doing anything it takes to succeed. They are at high risk of anxiety and mental health issues.

3. Achievement-involution—These students recognize that while this kind of competition is unfair, they understand that by participating, they will improve their learning and their skills. Their inner strength allows them to engage in the competition without becoming unstable and anxious. Yet, they also can get worn down and may begin to move into award-motivation.

It was not surprising that students in elite universities had less anxiety because they had access to many resources to help them succeed, while those in the less elite educational places lacked that kind of support either in their families or in their schools.

While students in China and in some other highly competitive countries fight for university spaces, I was interested in how it is expressed in the U.S. There is no question that all three levels of motivation exist here. Students from poorer families and schools lack the assistance to find their way. It takes one helpful guidance counselor or older friend to make a huge difference in helping them. Students in very competitive high schools and families who are driven to have their children enter elite universities do feel this kind of irrational pressure. So much depends on whether they are reward-motivated or achievement-motivated.

However, the community college system in the U.S. offers the opportunity to transfer to a university after two years. Students are not locked out and left behind. This makes all the difference. They can take more years to work through their education so they can also get jobs to support themselves while going to school. It is not a black stain if a student chooses to go via the community college system route, and many very successful people have done so.

While I am not downplaying the effect of competition in American high schools, I am pointing out they still have options. It does not seem so in China and other countries where students have a limited amount of time to take that next step.

What does China have to do? It is presumptuous of me to give advice, but it seems a starting point is to increase the number of universities and develop a community college system that allows for a transition. Without doing that, the stress on Chinese teenagers to pass the exam is extremely anxiety-producing and socially unhealthy.