By David Brooks, New York Times, March 10, 2011
In a variety of books and articles, Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia have collected data suggesting that American self-confidence has risen of late. College students today are much more likely to agree with statements such as “I am easy to like” than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a “very important person.” By the ’90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were.
In short, there’s abundant evidence to suggest that we have shifted a bit from a culture that emphasized self-effacement — I’m no better than anybody else, but nobody is better than me — to a culture that emphasizes self-expansion.
Writers like Twenge point out that young people are bathed in messages telling them how special they are. Often these messages are untethered to evidence of actual merit. Over the past few decades, for example, the number of hours college students spend studying has steadily declined. Meanwhile, the average G.P.A. has steadily risen.
Some argue that today’s child-rearing and educational techniques have produced praise addicts. Roni Caryn Rabin of The Times recently reported on some research that found that college students would rather receive a compliment than eat their favorite food or have sex.
If Americans do, indeed, have a different and larger conception of the self than they did a few decades ago, I wonder if this is connected to some of the social and political problems we have observed over the past few years.
I wonder if the rise of consumption and debt is in part influenced by people’s desire to adorn their lives with the things they feel befit their station. I wonder if the rise in partisanship is influenced in part by a narcissistic sense that, “I know how the country should be run and anybody who disagrees with me is just in the way.”
Most pervasively, I wonder if there is a link between a possible magnification of self and a declining saliency of the virtues associated with citizenship.
Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise. Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation. I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project.
Perhaps the enlargement of the self has also attenuated the links between the generations. Every generation has an incentive to push costs of current spending onto future generations. But no generation has done it as freely as this one. Maybe people in the past had a visceral sense of themselves as a small piece of a larger chain across the centuries. As a result, it felt viscerally wrong to privilege the current generation over the future ones, in a way it no longer does.
It’s possible, in other words, that some of the current political problems are influenced by fundamental shifts in culture, involving things as fundamental as how we appraise ourselves. Addressing them would require a more comprehensive shift in values.
The current restraint over a no-fly zone in Libya is a sign that, at least the President and his advisers are not drowning in a magnification of the national self. And that is a good sign.
There could be an underlying paradox about this dynamic also. It could be that an expansive self is really just a mask for an unacceptable, untold and very troublesome truth: that I really do not matter at all to anyone.
Only by signing on as my own sole and best cheerleader will I even have a chance at being noticed.
And, since everyone else is doing it, as if everyone were drinking from the same cup of "star-power" to enter the same kind of "american idol" competition, regardless of the specific theatre or stage, then I must be doing the right thing. And at least it feels good while I wear the appropriate costume, and the appropriate make-up and drive the appropriate car and 'wear' the appropriate smart phone, and carrry the appropriate tablet....