Are We More Self-Absorbed Nowadays?

In my old post called You Have to Make People Give a Shit, I wrote:

[In school] you know your classmates and professor are going to read your writing — no matter what. It’s their job. … School, then, might breed a bad habit for aspiring writers and thinkers: the illusion that people will always read your entire essay just because it’s you.

The so-called real world is super competitive. Nobody will read your stuff (well, other than your mom) just because it’s you. The real-world reality is: No one cares what you think. It’s up to you make people give a shit.

From the Joseph Epstein essay on Kinderarchy, he also discusses the dangerous levels of self-importance of an over-parented generation:

So often in my literature classes students told me what they "felt" about a novel, or a particular character in a novel. I tried, ever so gently, to tell them that no one cared what they felt; the trick was to discover not one’s feelings but what the author had put into the book, its moral weight and its resultant power. In essay courses, many of these same students turned in papers upon which I wished to–but did not–write: "D-, Too much love in the home." I knew where they came by their sense of their own deep significance and that this sense was utterly false to any conceivable reality. Despite what their parents had been telling them from the very outset of their lives, they were not significant. Significance has to be earned, and it is earned only through achievement. Besides, one of the first things that people who really are significant seem to know is that, in the grander scheme, they are themselves really quite insignificant.

In other words, his students think that just because they have a thought it’s important.

I want to pile on, a little bit. It’s remarkable how many conversations in college are not conversations at all but rather the participants taking turns sharing their own opinion or experience, as opposed to probing on or advancing the prior point. For instance, the other week I had lunch with a college student. I raised the topic of education. I said that I’m not sure formal schooling is for everybody. She responded, "Well, see, I love school, and I’m thinking about graduate schools in these areas…" Off she went. Again. It was totally self-involved, and I’m afraid by now an unconscious, well-ingrained habit to immediately seize any opportunity to present a personal reflection and exploration.

Epstein focuses on youth, but it’s not just adolescents who suffer from everything-I-think-is-important syndrome. Adults similarly afflicted mask it with a whiff of social grace. The other day I met a professional, successful woman who overvalues her own airtime. After her monologue she said, "Enough about me. Tell me about yourself, Ben, where are you from?" She interrupted my answer to begin yet another self-centered philosophical session, an act which revealed the emptiness of her socially polite question. We all encounter these types of people.

The question is, do we encounter them more often? Is anything new? Is all that Epstein says and that I echo above unique to the current moment? I have no idea if now is a more narcissistic age, but if it is, I can think of a couple reasons why.

Some argue technology is a culprit in the sense that new technology can help a person enact an echo chamber around them that magnifies their own views. Or that technology facilitates, for example, twice or thrice daily phone calls between teens and parents, a frequency which — when aided by the over-parenting instincts of today’s boomers — nurtures self-obsession on the part of the teen. Or that blogs, such as the one I’m writing on right now (a noted irony!), enable a level of public disclosure that’s unhealthy because it can create a micro-celebrity effect. And when was the last time you met a celebrity (micro or macro) who wasn’t an egomaniac?

Some argue the rise of therapy culture contributes to the rise of self-centeredness. In 1980, Americans spent $2.4 billion on professional psychotherapy services; by 1997 the figure was an eye-popping $44.5 billion. It’s no secret that much of these services involve talking about yourself (often, it seems, to a point of circular misery).

Those seeing therapists a bit more serious than mere "counselors" — namely, therapists of the psychoanalytic Freudian tradition — indulge in themselves even more, as they embark on a twisted quest to re-interpret childhood events and draw connections between the most bizarre of symbols that Freud concocted with zero scientific basis. (For a fascinating screed on therapists and particularly Freudian ones, see the book Therapy’s Delusions: The Myth of the Unconscious and the Exploitation of Today’s Walking Worried by Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe.)

To be clear, I respect and value a strong sense of individuality and admire people who think they have ideas worth sharing. Self-knowledge and reflection and a rich interior life: I respect all these things as well. And I’m not a technology cynic or against all forms of therapy. I’m just wondering aloud whether we’re witnessing increased levels of self-absorption nowadays, as Epstein suggests, and if so, why.

23 comments on “Are We More Self-Absorbed Nowadays?
  • I’ve observed more than a few classes at a few different schools and I’ve noticed differences in the phenomena of which you speak. Here’s a simplistic generalization:

    Ivy League classes had the *worst* offenders of this sort. Every time they opened their mouths they viewed it as an opportunity to demonstrate geniosity to their peers.

    By comparison, the classes a small, barely-accredited liberal arts college in vermont contained honest discourse and the least amount of ego.

    Further examination of the student demographics, particularly their motivations for going into higher education and their choice of instituion, might provide further enlightenment on the topic.

  • My own reflexive reflection on what may partially contribute to this overestimated sense of self-worth is that most people at university, and those in many occupations, have no real idea where they fit into the great cosmic array of human life. They have no conception of world history, no realization of how lucky they are to be born in a time that is endowed with such an extensive spectrum of different ideas, which they can then build upon further. Once one reads and begins to recognize how the societies of the past have developed into those of the present, and realizes who contributed to the ideas that led to the present structure of our civilization, then I think they would have a more humble sense of where they fit in, that if they truly want to be a significant person then they must first contribute something of value, rather than thinking that they are valuable merely for breathing. Most people will never realize this, but those who are really worth impressing already do.

  • In general, I am always suspicious of anyone who argues that human nature has changed from the good old days. Human nature doesn’t change, at least on the human lifespan timescale.

    The old always think the young are self-absorbed because they forget just how self-absorbed they were during their own salad days. I don’t believe for a second that the Yalies of the 1800s were smaller assholes than the Yalies of the 2000s.

    The main difference today is that we have enough material wealth and prosperity to allow the luxury of self-absorbtion.

    Any behavior that is maladapted to survival or reproductive success is apt to be bitchslapped out of existence by Mother Nature, pronto.

    Because we have such a greater margin of safety in 21st Century America than at any other time in history, more of us have the opportunity to luxuriate in the soothing balm of our own vooices.

    If you want to see this principle at work, just look at the relative morality and cultural contributions of the European royal families over the past 1,000 years. Power and material wealth don’t necessarily make you a self-absorbed asshole, but without them, an asshole isn’t likely to live long enough to reproduce.

  • Males in the U.S., of whatever ethnicity, are generally the most egocentric, self-regarding assholes on the planet– but this is endemic to that subset of humanity, not a symptom of over-parenting by baby boomers, as Epstein absurdly maintains.

    The number of boomer parents with college degrees, the ones most likely to nurture an unhealthy self-absorption in their children and thus to create anti-social little tyrants, is a minority.

    If it weren’t for the ‘new’ child abuse laws on the books, I believe a majority of the overworked, underpaid proletariat in this country would still be punishing its progeny with belts and switches– a good number do so anyway, as the court dockets tell us.

    The unconscious is hardly a myth, even if psychoanalysis is an outdated inefficient mode of therapy. Psychiatric ‘treatment’ that could last years and still not reach resolution was always a luxury of the leisured class, not a panacea for the masses.

    Freud was more artist than scientist– his over-emphasis on the Oedipus complex was a mistake– but there is a powerful, and very true, subtext to all those ancient Greek myths that is universal. That’s why they’ve endured, and still exert such a strong influence in western literature and culture.

    The psychiatrist as modern witch doctor may be an overworked cliché, but it still holds as a metaphor for the outsized prestige he’s enjoyed for far too long.

    Psychotherapy and counseling can be legitimate and useful, but foolish people, who really should know better, are being exploited by the pop-psychology industry.

    The great irony of the rise of therapy culture is that all those lost souls are looking outward to fix what’s wrong with their lives, rather than inward, where they could find all the answers.

  • I knew a talented student at Dartmouth who had started a small tech business and knew a lot of interesting people and was involved in a lot of interesting activities. Typical Ivy League story…

    Anyway, I sat down to chat with him at some point, and he revealed to me that he had started working on a book about “mythology in modern culture.”

    I was floored. There was, of course, no way that this junior in college could write such a scholarly treatise. But what struck me is that he had no concept of this reality. He was used to succeeding at what he attempted. In class, he was probably used to getting good grades on his papers and having his ideas accepted.

    Along the way, he had never been forced to confront why he, at that early stage in his education, was not on equal status, in terms of quality of ideas or writing, with a celebrated scholar. No professor had ever said to this student, whom I’ll call Peter: “That’s an interesting idea Peter, but let me explain why, compared to what these scholars have written, it really is hopelessly naive and poorly formulated.”

    I don’t know how one might integrate this education into a broader liberal arts curriculum, but, at least at certain schools, it would be sorely needed…

  • Having gone through therapy, I would say that more therapists subscribe to cognitive/behavioral theories than Freud, so your comment about therapy seems antiquated. Those who lack any sense of self esteem, who are frequenters of therapy, may not even be all that much into talking about themselves. In other words, your argument falls apart at the end.

  • All these self absorbed comments make your point for you, Ben. Just go through and count how many times they type the word “I”.

    Yes, they are overly focused on themselves. Its more than their speech and the way they share their ideas. Walked down the sidewalk lately and encountered others walking the other way? How quick are they to yield to you if you are walking with someone?
    How many times have you had to wait on another driver to leave a parking lot entrance because they were smack in the middle of the lanes and there wasn’t room for any other cars to enter?
    Have you noticed that pedestrians are beginning to yield to cars in parking lot situations because they know that the driver is not willing to give right of way to them?
    Its evident in all their interactions with the world. Self absorbed idiots. And then they wonder why everyone else is an asshole to them. Its because they only think they are important, with their limited minds, lives and capacities.

  • “All these self absorbed comments…”, my ass.

    If anyone commenting here sounds self-absorbed, it’s Jon, in his disjointed way. And he apparently can’t count very well, either.

    He contemptuously dismisses what everyone else has to say, and pulls just the kind of rude maneuver, verbally, that he decries in the “self absorbed idiots”.

  • There are couple other reasons why people might bring up personal anecdotes when making a point.

    First of all, personal experiences are easier for other people to connect to. Many people who are unmoved by logic or statistics are swayed by personal narratives. A conversation with someone who lost a family member to a drunk driver is more convincing to the average person than an article on the number of deaths caused by drunk driving.

    Also, many people aren’t interested in having an intellectual conversation per se. In lots of cases, they just want to get to know you. They use the framework of an intellectual discussion in order to share their experiences (with the hope that you will do the same).

    I totally agree about the therapy thing though. I question whether endlessly rehashing one’s past really helps.

  • Thanks guys for the thoughtful comments. I would agree with most of them.

    To be clear, I think Freudian psychotherapy does have its place in some people’s lives.

    I am also interested in more thoughts on how tech might be affected all this — most comments focused on therapy.

  • I agree with what you said about tech creating an echo chamber around people. It’s so easy to just select the exact things that you want to pay attention to (news about your circle of friends on Facebook or MySpace, websites that are tailored to your interests, etc.) and ignore the rest. I’m always surprised at how many people know almost nothing about current events, like they live in a bubble.

    Could the rise in self-centeredness also be related to the decline of religious values in society? The major religions strongly emphasize humility, which many of us seem to lack.

  • I think it is dangerous to warn too much about this self-absorption…many of the best writers might actually be driven away if they realize how little their work really matters. What we have right now is many people who expend effort to get their work noticed, and it is hit or miss (mainly miss). But, I think expressing Epstein’s view may lead many people to undershoot. I remember Bill Gates said that had he known the difficulty and the riskiness of starting Microsoft when he was in college, he probably never would have tried. I think that’s a legitimate danger.

    I don’t see the point of Epstein’s article. Should it motivate us to come up with more original thought, or to second-guess our initial ideas? The world does this for us…people read interesting stuff and ignore boring stuff. I think that there is a fine line between the overoptimism of today’s writers and the over-pessimism of tomorrow’s.

  • Perhaps there is a divide between an “opinion” or “feeling”, not always substantiated and often prejudiced (pre+judice), and a well-substantiated point on an issue, that draws on evidence and counter-points, and is based on internally consistent and valid reasoning?

    The latter is remarkably rare in the virtual speak-easy of the blogosphere, where the cost of airing opinions is close to zero, and any challenges one raises are at one’s own peril. Self absorption has a potentially global stage on the web, as you note (the noted irony) and it probably leaks into the real world too.

  • Shouldn’t the parameters on the “We” in the title be defined? South of middle middle class, children are generally on the backburner.

  • Julianna

    Isn’t that a self-selecting parameter? After all, parents of those children on the backburner are hardly reading and opining here…

  • I keep hearing about these supposedly ubiquitous over-parented, self-absorbed young people, but I hardly ever seem to encounter them.

    They must be at home lying on the bed in their skinny jeans, earbuds in situ, listening to Panic At The Disco or Fall Out Boy.

    The high-schoolers who ring up my groceries at the supermarket are as friendly and as self-deprecating as any of the old fart check-out ladies.

    And despite their generation’s media-trumpeted, fearsome reputation as natural-born geeks, most of them don’t seem to be all that tech-savvy.

    A 17-year-old skater dropping in on the street, cellphone deployed, doesn’t look any more self-absorbed than a middle-aged George Cortina powering down the sidewalk, all casual business, mobile stuck on ear and cigarette in hand.

  • Ben- I’m a bit confused as to where you draw the line between drawing upon personal experiences to add to a conversation versus pulling a Tyra Banks and making any discussion all about yourself.

    I’m also interested in hearing about the levels of self-absorption that you’ve seen in different countries. I’m sure the US is the most out of control, but what have you noticed elsewhere?

    I can definitely see how cell phones and emails would add to this high level of narcissism. The constant stream of text messages and email can make you feel important. And Facebook allows you to have a page that’s ALL about you. Pictures of you, your interests, favorites, etc. It’s like a virtual shrine that you make for yourself.

    But I think Twitter really feeds into this, as well. People put pointless messages on there to update their friends on trivial stuff that’s going on in their lives. And if people comment back a lot, it can trick you into thinking you’re really significant.

  • Technology, over the years has been extremely enabling in advancing the presentation of unabashed self-worth. An ultimate recognition for snarky self love that is not necessarily malignant. Ego surfing, hyperlinking, twitter streams, blog citations, social networks, lifehacking et al survive purely on the strength of user ego; and the need to secure external acknowledgement for unequal brilliance that demands excessive self adulation. No wonder several successful applications have been woven around it.

    Had Freud been around, he would have certainly put social media to far better use –than just rely on questionable technique of scanning dreams to draw insights into unconscious desires. Even some of his theories would have undergone several revisions not because of Gestapo visits – but thanks to a more derivative and instant response culture of the blogosphere 😉

    Now to some truism. Self-love is so much like greed. It is seen as bad only when others practice it.

  • Charlie – I’ll do another post on conversation skills.

    John – I think you make an excellent point re: writers.

    Annette – I actually think religion may make people MORE self-absorbed.

  • From what I’ve seen, Facebook, Myspace, etc. seems to significantly contribute to narcissism among it’s users. It appears the subconscious feeling is that if its online for everybody to see, it must be of value and it validates their life as significant in some way. As Charlie put it, it has never been so easy to create a shrine of yourself to have others view.

    Examples include those irritating surveys in which pointless and minute details of ones life are shared. Do you actually think that your life is so important to me, that I actually care what color socks you’re wearing today, or who the last person to text you was!? I also notice how many who receive an event invite on Facebook feel it is necessary to share with everyone else why they can’t make it. A simple “no” RSVP will do, thank you. Not to mention the endless posting of pictures of every social outing.

    I appreciate Annette’s question on how the decline in religious values might be a contributing factor. Whether it be religious or some other sort of organization, I have found that being reminded of the value of humility and of selflessly serving others is a great combatant of narcissism.

    Thank you Ben for the post. While I try not to be egotistical and pretentious, I think I can make improvements in this area.

  • Perhaps what we all are seeking is validation. For once, after sharing an idea or thought or related anecdote, the populus of readers of countless blogs and participants and leaders of lectures would say, ‘ya know, that’s a novel idea.’ Then go on to discuss (or not at all) how that idea or thought shared could be applied, without even a hint of disagreement or even elaboration. Offering only acceptance and truly visceral validation.
    Would the self absorbed have anything more to say or would they begin to see how they fit into society as a participant instead of the center around which it all spins?

  • You’re not describing self-absorption, except to the same degree that people have been self-absorbed throughout history.

    You’re describing people who don’t know how to engage with others’ arguments, criticize, construct reasoned arguments, and lay out their support. It’s not just that they don’t engage with others, but that they don’t know how to support their own ideas.

    That’s a product of a generation where criticism is not allowed or practiced, but it’s more of a rational defect than an emotional defect.

    It’s one thing to think yourself significant; quite another to have no idea that other people don’t credit you with significance. That’s not self-absorption so much as blindness and ignorance.

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