What is it going to take to make this work?
This is a question that I often ask in the final lecture of personality psychology, a class that is both advanced degree fulfillment and crash course in human nature. The question is a reflection on just that—our nature. But it it is an increasingly difficult question to answer…
In many ways, it is the question that has motivated much of my writing for years. It is a question that has motivated a great deal of writing by a great many people for a very, very long time. And it is a question that we need to keep asking ourselves, perhaps now more than ever.
What leads to this question in my personality class is the recognition of a constellation of recent social/psychological developments which are, I believe, of concern to us all, no matter where we find ourselves in this ever-changing world. On the surface, and when considered in isolation, each is at least mildly disconcerting. When considered together, in all their likely mutual influences and shared origins, they are a call for serious change. Yet such change is not possible without fostering some awareness of what needs to be changed in the first place.
For me, this conversation started with an acknowledgement of what appears to be a rise in narcissism. It was a 2008 study led by Jean Twenge, a psychologist and researcher from San Diego State University, that first brought attention to this alarming shift. There was statistical evidence that, however conservative the interpretation, narcissism had been on the rise among American college students since the 1980s. It’s a conclusion that was criticized by many for being exaggerated in its significance (and admittedly some studies have questioned its validity), but the corroborating evidence has continued to mount over the years (see this summary of supporting research by Twenge), and the trend is not isolated to the United States. Narcissism also appears to be rising in China, for example, among more affluent young people living in dense urban areas.
There is also convincing evidence that empathy has been declining in Western society over a similar time period. A 2016 paper by Konrath and colleagues reported that empathic concern had dropped by nearly 50% between 1978 and 2009; perspective-taking had dropped by 34% during that period, again among American college students. These are essential components of any fulfilling relationship, any meaningful social transaction—never mind a healthy society.
What else is changing? For one, the world seems to be becoming more individualistic in its practices and values. In practical terms, this means that people are placing more importance on themselves as individuals, and less on themselves as members of families and communities—less on their connections. This was the conclusion made by Henri Santos and colleagues in a 2017 paper reporting rising individualism around the world—even in many historically collectivistic cultures. Other research has similarly suggested that agentic values, or those which involve greater focus on the self (often as special and unique), are increasing in Western society.
But the constellation is larger still. We also have evidence of increasing materialism (Opree and Kuhne, 2016) and consumerism (Cisek and colleagues, 2014). And not at all surprisingly, these changes correspond with increasing social media use (Gnambs and Appel, 2018).
Though the interrelationships among these trends can only be theorized (at least in full—there is some evidence of causal associations, such as the one between narcissism and materialism, or the one between social media use and narcissistic tendencies), the picture that emerges is one of a dire social transformation. Each of these parts—rising narcissism and social media use, declining empathy, increasing materialism and consumerism—are reinforcing of one another, and yet the broader trend has no name or identity. It may be best described as a current of sorts, or perhaps it is something internal within us. Perhaps it is something to do with our nature.
If it is, it is undeniably the result of an interaction with the unique times in which we find ourselves. (Never can we truly separate ourselves from our environment.) Considering that the rise in narcissism in the United States is also highly correlated with rising inequality (over approximately the same four-decade period), we may gain some insight about the potential underlying role of unique sociocultural factors. (And inequality is by no means worsening only in the United States. According to a 2020 UN report, rising inequality is affecting more than 70% of the world population.) There is even evidence that making gains in one’s social status fosters narcissistic behaviour, likely due to the mutually functional role of social dominance.
It it is worth mentioning two other corresponding trends: on average, we are also experiencing higher rates of anxiety (APA, 2018) and greater feelings of loneliness (Cigna, 2018). Although their place in the constellation may be complicated, psychological research can offer some insight. A number of studies, both experimental and correlational, have demonstrated links between more frequent social media use and both anxiety and loneliness (as well as anger and reduced life satisfaction). But it’s not just social media—it can’t be that simple. In their research on increasing individualism, Santos and colleagues also found that economic development was a predictor of rising individualism. Perhaps some of the changes in this constellation are more difficult to avoid than others, as we cannot reasonably fathom halting progress of this kind. Yet economic development, however unavoidable, is a interesting consideration. As any economy grows, opportunities increase for people to (a) move up the social ladder and (b) acquire more material goods. There may be an associated increase in access to technology as well, and importantly, a reduced reliance on neighbours and community in activities of daily living.
In turn, people may become more concerned with themselves as individuals, and with their place in it all; and accompanying this may be a greater motivation to compete with others. There is an obvious superficiality inherent to narcissism, consumerism, and materialism, and these trends make sense within the context of a competitive society. It is also worth mentioning a 2018 study by Sun and colleagues which suggested that insecurity in relationships leads to materialistic values. A different kind of insecurity—the kind that involves anxiety and worry over one’s status in comparison to others—has previously been associated with social inequality (see work by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson).
Perhaps the constellation I’m drawing is complicated enough at this point. And though it indeed has no name, it is almost intuitively easy to grasp in its entirety. Even if we have overlooked key factors, and even if the causal links are less direct than it seems, the underlying current is apparent nevertheless. It is right there in front of us; it is all around us.
What remains unknown is the root of it all. Maybe it’s our technology, which has reduced human interaction to the superficial clicks of likes and emojis. Maybe it’s our selfie-obsessed Instagram culture, which motivates the best of us to photograph our eggs and toast with an artist’s pride. Maybe it’s the fact that ‘Self-Help’ sections of bookstores have continued to grow while ‘Other-Help’ sections have never seen the light of day. Maybe there are too many of us fighting for attention, frustrated by what we perceive as a lack of truly meaningful social roles. Maybe it’s the proliferation of unconditional self-esteem programs which have fostered fragile egos in our children. Maybe it’s the complex history that underlies our patriarchal and consumerist society. Maybe it’s money itself. Maybe’s it’s education. Maybe it’s politics.
There is no clear answer at this point, and it is highly short-sighted to expect only one root cause to be at play. But this constellation—this current—is a big one, and my senses tell me that it’s only going to get worse. One need only consider the recent rise in populism and nationalism around the world to get a sense of just how big it all is. And it’s consequential—this current has real consequences.
So I will leave you with the question I started with: What is it going to take to make this work? It’s the question that’s always mattered, and it’s the question that really matters in all of this. Whatever the causes or contributing factors, we need to shift this tide. So let us limit opportunities for grandiosity—too long have we needed to brag and be seen. Let us stop reinforcing narcissistic and egocentric behaviours—too long have we overlooked the power and strength in humility. Let us foster more empathy in ourselves and in others—too long have we swooned over crassness and unabated individuality. And let us remind ourselves of the undeniable value of real, authentic human interaction.
Let us stop seeking attention—and start seeking connection.
This is the state of us…