One of the central themes among American values is the stress on personal achievement, especially in respect to occupational achievement. The "success story" outlook and the esteem accorded to the "self-made man" are distinctly American traits. The American society maintains the value of fierce competition and glorifies "winners" -- whether this be the queen of a beauty contest or the farmer raising the finest cattle. Perhaps what has been said about American life is true, namely, that the values of the businessman dominate and permeate national life. Economic success has been so heavily stressed as to impose a widespread and persistent strain upon institutional regulation of permissible means for the attainment of this goal. In some extreme instances, only questions of technical effectiveness have entered into the choice of means for the success goal, and slogans such as "business is business" have been the apology of the "Robber Barons," much of organized crime, vice, and racketeering.
On the other hand, the proverbial generosity of the American people toward individuals, collectivities, and other countries facing catastrophes such as earthquakes, floods, famine, and epidemics is sincere and almost exaggerated. It is a real index of the religious or philosophical theme of the brotherhood of man. This polarity of competition and cooperation can be found to be a part of many specific situations in American life, including recurrent situations that involve young people. For example, in American schools, which are largely coeducational, boys and girls become aware very early that they are competing with one another, presumably for academic achievement, although it is probably more often for social prestige. The typical American grading system, the "on-the-curve" method, automatically converts boys and girls into competitors. Yet, on the other hand, they are expected to show mutual cooperation and helpfulness when it comes to other aspects of interaction, such as dating, courting, and marriage. The necessity of frequent abrupt switches from one style of interpersonal relation to another and the unclarity of when and how to do so introduce a high degree of stress and confusion into the boy-girl, and later the man-woman, relationship.