Will Storr (@wstorr) is an award-winning investigative journalist and author of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us.
What We Discuss with Will Storr:
- What is the neoliberal self?
- Are we born with innate self-obsession, or is it picked up along the way?
- What happens when our fictionalized sense of self clashes with reality?
- Why do we overprivilege and credit select individuals for the accomplishments of many while blaming ourselves for not living up to their impossible examples?
- The dangers of perfectionistic thinking.
- And much more…
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Is self-obsession intrinsic to human nature, or is it a quality acquired from constant exposure to the vapid media darlings of the moment — magnified by modern methods of comparing ourselves against them?
Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us author Will Storr joins us to examine the origins of this phenomenon, its societal consequences, and what we should be doing to address it. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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More About This Show
In Western culture, we idolize and idealize the concept of the individual. But as hard as we might try to deny it (even to ourselves), we really do care what others think about us. We want to be like the people we see in the movies and on TV — successful, charismatic, and powerful — and we want others to see us in this way as well. We play the leading role in the story of ourselves so fully that we’re disoriented when we catch a glimpse of reality at odds with this fantasy we’ve constructed.
But we’re not even confined to just one story. As Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us author Will Storr explains, “We have a self for work and a self for home, a self for lonely restaurants and a self for roadside diners; a self for Twitter and a self for Facebook, a self for the plumber and a self for the mayor…”
But is this constant need for external validation coded into our human DNA, or is it something we picked up along the way?
The Neoliberal Self
In the 1980s, world leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began pushing for a societal shift away from collective and cooperative toward individual and competitive — a neoliberalism that prevails today.
“It really was kind of a victory of money over politics,” says Will. “It was this idea that politics should be as small as possible and we should allow the money markets to rule the world.”
On paper, the neoliberal self — which is our modern Western cultural construction of what a person should ideally be under these circumstances — might look pretty heroic. Will describes him or her as “an extroverted, slim, beautiful, individualistic, optimistic, hard-working, socially aware yet high-self-esteeming global citizen with entrepreneurial guile and a selfie camera.”
What’s wrong with this? “If it’s true that we hold within us all the power we need to succeed, then it naturally follows that if we fail then it’s our fault and our fault alone,” says Will. Boiled down, the neoliberal story of the self and its limitless potential is ultimately antisocial.
“Who you have to be in order to get along and get ahead in a neoliberal environment is a hustler,” says Will. “You’ve got to push yourself forward. There’s no union to help you out, really. There’s no job for life anymore. There’s no great pension scheme for you; you’ve got to push, push, push — and of course that creates a world of pushy people for want of a better word.”
Listen to this episode in its entirety to learn more about the upsides to individualism and neoliberalism, how we overprivilege select individuals by crediting them for the accomplishments of many (e.g., Steve Jobs, Beyonce, etc.), the dangers of blaming ourselves for not living up to the impossible (and inaccurate) standards of these individuals, the dangers of perfectionistic thinking, the universal preoccupation humans have with status (and how this preoccupation differs across cultures), how social media weaponizes our tribal instincts, why self-esteem makes a poor social vaccine, and lots more.
THANKS, WILL STORR!
If you enjoyed this session with Will Storr, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us by Will Storr
- Will Storr’s Website
- Will Storr at The Guardian
- Will Storr at Twitter
- Neoliberalism — The Ideology at the Root of All Our Problems by George Monbiot, The Guardian
- Greenspan Shrugged by Christopher Hitchens
- The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism by Amanda Ruggeri, BBC Future
- Number of Men Referred for Eating Disorder Treatment Rises by 43 Percent by Laura Donnelly, The Telegraph
- Roy Baumeister: The Man Who Destroyed America’s Ego by Will Storr, Medium
- The Newcastle Personality Assessor
- TJHS 22: Deep Dive | How to Stop Comparing Yourself to Other People
- Who Are You, Really? The Puzzle of Personality by Brian Little, TED2016
- TJHS 28: James Fallon | How to Spot a Psychopath
- What Does the Michigan Fish Test Say About You? by Esther Inglis-Arkell, io9
- Richard Nisbett Says Culture, Not Heredity, Guides Our Intellect by Jamie Chamberlin, Monitor on Psychology
Transcript for Will Storr | Avoiding Self-Obsession in the Age of the Selfie (Episode 33)
Will Storr: [00:00:00] We kind of tend naturally to credit the individual with all the success. We forget all the hundreds of people around Beyonce, for example, that work on making Beyonce, Beyonce. But the dark side of that is that when we fail, we do the same thing. So we're very blameful people when we get things wrong and when we don't succeed, when we don't become the next Steve Jobs, we don't become the next Beyonce, which let's face it is the story for 99.999 percent of us, we do the same thing. We blame ourselves and we turn in ourselves and that's extremely dangerous.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:28] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger as always. I'm here with my producer, Jason DeFillippo. On this episode, we're talking with Will Storr, author of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us. Don't be misled by the title. This is a deep, thick kind of dense read. And today, we'll explore the idea that we really care what others think about us. No surprise there. We want to be like the people who are more successful or thinner than we are. We each create our own narrative and these are often highly fictionalized narratives about who we are. However, the trouble can really erupt when our heroic self-stories clash brutally with reality, and we've all experienced that in some way or another.
[00:01:08] Today, we'll discuss self-esteem as a social vaccine. This idea, it started earlier in the ‘60s, it turns out to be wrong after all. If it's true that we hold within us all the power we need to succeed, then it naturally follows that if we fail, it's our fault and our fault alone. And this is causing a lot of distress and unhappiness, not only in America but in Western society in general. So do we have a reason to challenge the American or Western belief that we can do anything we want just because we believe in ourselves? That's what we're talking about here today with Will Storr, enjoy.
[00:01:39] So for an investigative journalist, this topic seemed kind of interesting because it's almost like, well, okay, well I'm going to investigate myself now, which in some ways almost seems a little bit antithetical to the book because it's about how people are too obsessed with themselves, I guess in some way. And here we are writing about ourselves, or at least are ourselves in general, and the book itself entitled Selfie, it's not as sort of simple as I thought it was going to be. I thought, okay, he's going to talk about how we're all obsessed with ourselves and we're all narcissists, dot, dot, dot, the end. But it gets quite a bit deeper than that. And as it turns out, not every society is as obsessed with itself as we are.
[00:02:18] So we start with a little bit of deep philosophy, like the neoliberal self. But I got to be honest, whenever I hear complex stuff like that, I kind of zone out and think it's probably over my head. So I'd love a definition here to kick things off.
Will Storr: [00:02:30] Yeah, okay. So neoliberalism is, it's really weird. They're liberalism because it's this ideology we've been living under since the 1980s. And it's sort of this thing that nobody's really heard of much. They certainly don't talk about it much. And it's like we've been living in the kind of fascism or communism and nobody really knows what it is. But neoliberalism is essentially in the 1980s, Reagan and Thatcher over here in the UK decided to kind of change really how society was structured. They decided that they were going to increase kind of competition everywhere as much as they could. So that meant getting rid of the welfare state as much as possible, getting rid of the unions, privatizing public industries because they just wanted to make a few in life is massive competitive game. And that's essentially what neoliberalism is, is this new freedom.
[00:03:16] So we are all going to be kind of free individuals to sort of go forth into the world and make money and profit. And it really wasn't kind of a victory of money over politics. It was this idea that politics should be as small as possible and we should allow the kind of money markets to kind of rule the Western world or the world itself, actually.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:03:34] It's very Anne Rand or Ayn Rand, I never know how to pronounce that. It's both.
Will Storr: [00:03:40] It's both, yeah. Exactly, yeah. And actually that's a really good point because Ayn Rand is a massively influential figure and remains so today. And her influence feeds through into the modern world in various different ways. And one of the most powerful is that she had as a kind of one of her disciples sitting at her feet as she was rising out of the shrub, took kind of big kind of classic novel, was this, he’s got Alan Greenspan. And, of course, Alan Greenspan was massively inspired by Ayn Rand's ideas about capitalism being this, not just an economic system but a moral good like as a moral quest. And, of course, he went into run the American economy for so long, and people call him the banker of neocapitalism. It was the root of the guy that encouraged this idea and kind of mothered through this idea right up until it all kind of start to blow up around the time of the great financial crisis.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:30] So how do we get from Ayn Rand to, okay, I've got to have a lot of Instagram followers and a selfie camera and a stick, so that I can show people that I'm at the beach. How do we go from that to this?
Will Storr: [00:04:44] Well, it's a really fantastic question. And the answer comes from psychology and psychologists. And psychologists have long been sort of wondering about how does our environment, how does the kind of world in which we live influence us and how much kind of does it end up kind of creating our sense of who we are? And the answer is a lot. So we're born as humans with kind of half formed brains. You know, genes do a lot of the work until we born kind of half wide up. But the human brain knows that it's going to get lots of information from its environment, from the world it finds itself in when it's born. So it's like the brain artists, I have a question when we're born, you asked itself, “Who do I have to be in this environment in order to get along and get ahead?” And that's what we want to do is you want to get along with other people. We also wanted to get ahead of them too. And you know, for most of history the answer has been, well, what's the ecology like, what's the landscape like? Do you have to hunt? You have to fish? Do I have to go on with people, kind of thing?
[00:05:35] But it caused, in the modern ages, it's a lot of that is down to the economy. The answer is how do I make money? Really? So the best way of it kind of showing is the massive effect economy has on us is to think about who we were in the West in 1965, which is basically a bunch of hippies sitting around in an anti-materialistic, anti-corporate, anti-job, very communal in their thinking. And then fast forward just 20 years, just a hop of year time to the 1985, and then were these yuppies, we will running around In red braces with Filofax is try to make as much money as possible and talking about greed being good. So that, that's simplistic, but it's a huge transformation in who we are in only 20 years. And what happened is the exact sort of midpoint between those two periods is the economy changed. Neoliberalism happened.
[00:06:21] And in fact, in 1991, when Margaret Thatcher had just before really with ramping up all these programs. A journalist over here in London asked her, “You know what your plans, Margaret Thatcher, what was the big idea?” And she said, “Oh, the things annoyed me about all the policies that have been passed over the last few decades.” “Is it always been about more collective ideals, but in our thing that's wrong?” And she said, something really quite sinister. She said, “The project is economics, but the object is to change the soul.” She said, “I want to use kind of an economics. Did you going to change who we are in the West?” And that's amazing, and she said that before a lot of this psychological work that's been done showing that who we are is so much a product of our environment.
[00:07:04] And that's exactly what it does happen. Very quickly you began to see culture changing and rapidly got to moving to accommodate the new economy. Like in 1992, you start seeing something weird happening in hospital wards. For generations, Moms and Dads are just caught their kids, normal names like Jennifer, Graham, Brian, whatever. And then suddenly in 1992, it started happening quite slowly, but it started happening was that people started giving their kids like weirdly spelled names or names that you've not heard before. And it was like the researcher said that, they wanted their kids all of a sudden to stand out and be a star because that's how you had to get along in this new world. Similarly, the keep fit revolution happened around this time. The Jim'll Fix It in the United States, and there's similar guy that he called the woman called the Green Goddess. These big kind of figures that became known for being, having healthy fit, sexy bodies. And that became a thing, which again has never really left us. We still have these crazy spelled names. We still have this obsession with the physical body.
[00:08:00] So it was really like there's a massive, massive change, and that's the big story I think and how we've got from there to selfie sticks because who you have to be in order to get along and get headed in a neoliberal environment is a hustler. You've got to push yourself forward. There's no union to help you out, really. There's no job for life anymore. There’s no great pension scheme for you; you’ve got to push, push, push -- and of course that creates a world of pushy people for want of a better word.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:25] So we obviously care a lot what other think about as if we're inventing crazy names for our kids and then our kids are growing up and going to the gym all the time, so that we can look like cartoon characters or just super fit and sexy people. And we want to be, we want to be like the people who are more successful on social media or thinner than we are, whatever. So we create this narrative of ourselves and I've caught myself doing this. I've certainly seen other people do it, because of course it's easier to see other people do it than to see ourselves doing it. And people turn themselves into these brands, and it's kind of funny that I'm saying this because I find that people say, “Oh, well your personal brand is good, this, that.” And I'm just like, wow, this is something that I didn't think about when I started a podcast where I was just sort of talking about my own problems really in the beginning. And so we create these narratives, and often these are fictionalized. Do you know the run through bias, they're run through social media now.
[00:09:20] They're run through all these different sort of filters and they're fictionalized. They’re fictionalized. These are narratives about who we are. But what happens when the story of myself as the hero clashes with reality, right? What happens then?
Will Storr: [00:09:35] Well, when things go wrong, I mean said that it's a really good question. I mean the thing about individualism and a neoliberalism, really is a kind of accelerated concentrated form of individualism. And think about individualism is, in a way, it's amazing. I mean the West has done amazing things and especially for people on the left, we are to complain about the Western points out its flaws and of which no doubt there are many. But also they shouldn't distract us from the fact that we are the place where lots of people want to live now. Human rights starts in the West.
[00:10:03] We've achieved amazing things. We've made amazing things. We've built amazing things. And a lot of that is down to individualism, and all of that is down to down to us telling each other you can do anything. You're an incredible individual, you have huge amount of human potential. Go for your dreams. And if you succeed, you will be rewarded with money and attention. I mean, that's a great system for progress and achievement and all that stuff. But it has a really dark underside because we over privileged the idea of the individual. We are the generation that thinks Steve Jobs invented the iPhone. I mean, my God, the amount of people that worked on that iPhone, and the in the public consciousness is that there was Steve Jobs made that thing, like in a shed somewhere. And I know he didn't, we kind of tend naturally to credit the individual with all the success.
[00:10:46] We forget all the hundreds of people around Beyonce, for example, that work on making Beyonce, Beyonce. But the dark side of that is that when we fail, we do the same thing. So we are very blameful people when we get things wrong and when we don't succeed. When we don't become the next Steve Jobs, we don't become the next Beyonce, which let's face it is the story for 99.999 percent of us, we do the same thing. We blame ourselves and we turn in ourselves, and that's extremely dangerous. When we start thinking like that, that's when we start getting into these difficult territories. We get depressed, we start getting suicidal, we can trigger up behaviors like self-harm, like eating disorder. So one of the really interesting studies that's come out recently, actually it came back this year by some researchers over here in the UK. They study 40,000 people in the UK, the US, and Canada.
[00:11:30] And they found that the over the last sort of, since the 1990s, levels of perfectionistic thinking of it really goes up significantly. And perfectionistic thinking is really interesting. So if you're thinking perfectionisticly, which most of us do, from now and then. What you're doing is your setting a really high bar for your definition of success. You’re saying success is right up here. And, of course, what happens when we do that, is that we kind of failed to meet that bar. We start getting really anxious and we started getting really upset against ourselves.
[00:11:57] One of the definitions of perfectionism is it somebody that is very sensitive to signals of failure. So we are constantly being triggered into feeling like a failure. And so the idea is neoliberalistic environment, as good as it's been for lots of things. The thing that is bad about is it tends to make us feel like failures. It tends to sort of drive this perfectionistic thinking. It sets a really high bar for success. And in a now we started sort of deep into this idea, I'm gen X, the children are the millennials, and then we've got gen Z. So we're two or three generations into neoliberalism now. And I feel like it's becoming a bit toxic. We're seeing really big rises and suicidal ideation. We see rises in self-harm, rises in eating disorder, but risers in body dysmorphia. And I think a lot of that is down to this, the economy.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:40] So we'll talk about the sort of economics of that in a second. I agree that this sort of social perfectionism and the unrealistic expectations that people get burdened with can be really dangerous. And it seems like the studies that you cite in the book, the rise of social media, and the correlation of an increase in eating disorders and body dysmorphia even in men. I mean guys are getting. And that, I guess I shouldn't sound so surprised, but I think a lot of men are like, well, wait a minute, I've never heard of a guy with an eating disorder. But we all know one or two women with one, but maybe guys just don't talk about it, and it's certainly on the rise.
Will Storr: [00:13:14] Yeah, there's an amazing statistics. So between the UK edition of this book coming out, about less than a year ago, and the U S edition, which came out a couple of weeks ago. A new statistic came out in the UK. So in the last two years, it's been a 43 percent rise in hospital admissions for men with eating disorders, 43 percent in two years. I mean, that is unbelievable. And I think a lot of it is down to how we measure status. So one of the fundamental things about humans, and this is biological, this is true for all humans all over the world, is that we are preoccupied with status and our own sense of status.
[00:13:46] So that's universal. We’re all obsessed with status. I mean that's something defines us as this kind of tribal primate species because you in tribes status is fluid. Just like chimpanzees, people rise and fall in status. We're obsessing relative status kind of where we fit on that particular ladder. And I think it was interesting as you go around the world, is there a different ways and even through different times. There are different ways of measuring status, and that's been one of the big changes in my lifetime. So when I was a teenager we were all kind of going to venues, watching bands, smoking and drinking pints, the status was in the kind of grungy era, and they kind of gen X here. It was measured by almost by how little you are scruffy you look, do you know how many punched you could drink.
[00:14:30] And now, especially for men, it's changed in a status is measured for young men by kind of the physical appearance of your body. And that's a real shame in a way because so now men are increasingly suffering from the same bloody nightmare that women have had to deal with for so long. Almost feels like we're going backwards in a sense that rather than learning from the kind of horrible pressures that young women very often feel to look perfect physically. Men are now increasingly suffering from those same problems.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:58] Yeah, I think once we used to have to keep up with our neighbors, keeping up with the Joneses is a cliché for a reason. It meant essentially measuring ourselves against the other people in school or the people that live near us. And today, with technology, we have this inexhaustible number of Joneses in every category of our lives. So it's not just the house and the car.
Will Storr: [00:15:20] Yeah, and Jordan is not even the Joneses, the Kardashians for keeping up with now. One of the psychologists that I interviewed who studies social media, she said that, “Back in the day, back in the ‘40s, ‘50s, they called them stars. The idea was that they're up in the sky, they're miles away from you. They're these exceptional godlike beings. And now, in kind of neoliberal post reality TV era, the idea is that we have to keep up with the Kardashians. Everybody feels like they have to look like a celebrity, live like a celebrity, drink champagne like a celebrity. Not everyone, that's obviously an exaggeration, but lots of us do. Even that just the physical thing of going through Instagram, one of the fundamental ways, because the status obsession, one of the fundamental ways that human brains judge how we're doing in the world, judge how can a happy and satisfied we should be with our lives is by comparing ourselves to the people around us.
[00:16:08] We've evolved to live in tribes of around 150 people. Those are the brains we've got. So that would've been kind of controlled and contained and limited back in the day. But these days you're on Instagram, you're flicking through Instagram and there's Kim Kardashian, and there's Jennifer Lawrence luck, and there's me. And there's a sense that we know that I could never be like these film stars and TV stars. But I think our consciously, it still hits us. We still feel that pressure. We still feel, I'm like, we're not kind of measuring up in some fundamental way.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:36] Yeah, it seems impossible though, right? We're always going to have that. It's just that now it's in our face all the time, and you can't just go home from school or from work and ignore it. It’s on your phone. It's literally ringing in your face, right?
Will Storr: [00:16:50] Yeah, and we’re bombarded with it, but humans and chimpanzees, we've got this weird thing that we're groupish and then we fight other groups. We've got this horrible in building that when our group sees another group and the other group are behaving in a way that our group thinks is wrong. We don't just sort of watch it dispassionately, we want to attack them or we want to ostracize the members of those or those groups. And again, we probably wouldn't have come across other groups very often back when we were evolving. This wouldn't have happened very much, and we would have relatively rarely been thrown into states of moral outrage. And moral outrage is that kind of powerful emotion, where you see someone behaving in a way that kind of breaks the rules of your kind of psychological tribe and it motivates you to want to either voluntary tell them or ostracize.
[00:17:30] And it had been relatively rare occurrences, but now on social media, it's kind of weaponized these instincts in us. It's kind of enabled us to form groups bigger and more powerful than ever before, like we do on Twitter and Facebook. And it's kind of weaponized that moral outrage too, we don't just get angry. There's that drive to punish them or ostracize them in some way. And I think this is really new thing, and I think you say, oh, another really dangerous thing. And it also has to that level of perfectionism too. There's a huge pressure, I think the people must have the perfect opinions, the perfect views. They must perfectly mirror the beliefs, the values of their tribe, and if they don't, they are pounced upon on social media. And especially if young people I think, but not just for young people, this grace an enormous pressure that just wasn't really there before.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:09] So if it's true that we all hold within us the power we need to succeed, right? It's all about you. It's all about the individual. And I like that it's empowering in some way, right? And that's why they developed, they the ubiquitous they, develop this in a way, because it is empowering. But the problem is that if we hold within us all the power we need to succeed, then what does it mean if we fail? Does it mean that it’s our faults alone as well?
Will Storr: [00:20:35] That's the lie, really. I mean all cultures tell stories and they tell kind of hero stories. And the heroes of the stories of any culture tends to take the form of the kind of individual that is best equipped to get along and get ahead in that particular environment and the kind of neoliberal hero is this person who believes they can do anything, be anyone. They kind of young during the 20s, they could look in, they've got a thin waist, they're friendly, they're entrepreneurial, they've got loads of mates, you know the person. You see them everywhere in advertising, on television, and in movies. But that persons at lie, that person doesn't really exist. It's this kind of cultural tribal propaganda. It's our tribe telling stories in order to kind of push us into being this perfect in [indiscernible] [00:21:18].
And what people always do whether you're on the left wing or you're right wing, when you kind of drift too far into these kind of utopian ideas.
[00:21:27] People always forget that we are biological creatures. People always think that we are infinitely malleable, that we don't have genes and wiring and biology. That is a really important part of who we are is not all of who we are. It’s not all of who we are by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a big part of who we are. And what our genes do is they set our limits. They mean that we are a certain kind of person, with a certain kind of personality, and there's not much that you can do to radically shift out of those limitations. And so this idea that we have all within us that we need to succeed is a lie. It's a really powerful lie because it pushes people to kind of shoot for the stars. But it's a long way down from the stars and we need to reach the stars and you fall, that is going to break your back and that is what I believe is happening a lot. And that is what is I believe is responsible for a lot of these rises in these very unfortunate and unpleasant mental health issues.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:20] So how did you get interested in this stuff in the first place? I know you had kind of a rough childhood, that sort of play into your interest in this area?
Will Storr: [00:22:28] Yeah, it did. Yeah, I guess. I brought up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was the self-esteem era. So I wasn't particularly happy kid. I wasn't good at school. I would act out, I would drink, and I would take drugs. I got in trouble the police, all of that stuff. And at 18, I started going to therapists, trying to work out what the hell was wrong me. And at therapy, I've got the same message that we'll get from sort of well-meaning teachers and other people at school or around me, and trying to help me.
[00:22:55] And that was like, you've got your problem is that you've got low self-esteem. I come from a very good at old fashioned, traditional British family, not a lot of love and affection there, or almost none to be honest. And so that was the kind of cause and effect. It was like, well, you had this fairly loveless childhood and that's given you low self-esteem. So what you need to do to fix yourself is to start loving yourself and appreciating yourself and all that stuff. So is that kind of a big self-esteem story. And you know I believe that for most of my life. And then in my kind of working in journalism, I started writing this profile of this guy called Roy Baumeister, this American, really brilliant American professor of psychology.
[00:23:36] And Roy Baumeister was a guy who was one of the main people in the ‘80s that was studying self-esteem. He was a complete believer in this idea that self-esteem was this magic bullet. If everybody loved themselves, they will become the best versions of themselves. He's perfect ideal humans, but then he got a book deal to write a book about evil. So he started sort of looking into kind of the science of evil and he realized that there was a problem with that theory. Because one of the big parts of that theory was the thing, there's nothing wrong with you if you're evil per se. It’s because you've got low self-esteem, and what you need to do is get high self-esteem. But he noted a lot of these really evil people actually have really high self-esteem.
[00:24:14] And you know Roy Baumeister’s dad was a proper Nazi, like an actual German Nazi fought in Second World War. And he said, you know like he sounds flippant, but Hitler didn't have much of a self-esteem problem did he? He has a pretty good self-esteem.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:24] I don't know. I don’t know him very well, but it doesn't seem like it.
Will Storr: [00:24:29] You feel like it. And then he started realizing that the people that he knew from his research who had low self-esteem, they're kind of like a little mouse like the figures that sat in the corner and didn't really want to sort of put the hands on and get any attention, at least didn't feel like the evil people who was meeting in these prisons. So we started sort of looking into the research, and he started trying to track this idea that high self-esteem was this social bullet. And he found that there really wasn't much evidence for it at all, and he was really instrumental in kind of blowing this idea apart.
[00:24:55] And when I found this out and found the story it was a real, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe that this self-esteem thing that I bought completely, was actually just not true. But the whole of the culture believes when I was growing up. And lots of people in the UK still do, I think you're a bit further ahead in the US, but certainly the UK and the school was a lot of them are still buying his idea that self-esteem, this magic bullet. And it's just not true, it just doesn't have all these amazing effects. And actually a lot of it is down to your genetics. So do you have a personality type which is high in neuroticism that goes hand in hand with having low self-esteem. The thing about personalities is its pretty stable. I mean, it changes as you go through life. You get less neurotic as you get older, which is lovely. You tend to, but there's not much you can do about it. It's this idea that you can just go to therapy and just change your trait, neuroticism is just a loaded rubbish. You just can't do it.
[00:25:44] So discovering all this, initially for me, it was pretty horrible because it was like, well, I've got this high neuroticism. You can do a test, you can go online. There's something called the Newcastle Personality Assessor, if anyone wants to do it. I think it takes like 10 minutes. It's done by guys up at the University of Newcastle over here. And it gives you a very rough thumbnail sketch of where you sit on the, on the personality scale, the big five traits they call them. And I did that, and it came out that I was high neuroticism. And I was interviewing these guys that were saying, “Oh, you know that's basically, it goes hand in hand with misery forever.” This is like, “Oh no.”
[00:26:17] So initially, I was pretty horrified about that, but actually I ended up finding it really liberating because part of this idea that you are this genius, late ingenious, you can do whatever you want. It kind of takes away your individuality and your kind of difference. What I realized was actually I wasn't broken in my low self-esteem. It wasn't like I was malfunctioning. It was just I'm a certain kind of human with a certain kind of brain in a certain kind of hormonal system, and that's just that. And actually that leads to a kind of form of self-acceptance, which is still very different from the high self-esteem version. But it’s actually, is that a really amazing effect on my kind of sense of well-being, because I've stopped trying to fix myself now, because I've realized that I'm not broken. So I really recommend that people sort of do this basic test because I think it's really useful to just to find out who you are.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:06] Can you outline what that test is? And we can try to find it and link to it in the show notes, because I think a lot of people are, I hate to say suffering from, but are really, we always compare our blooper reel to other people's highlight reel. And to get us to stop doing that, I mean we've done entire episodes on how to stop comparing ourselves to other people and things like that. But comparing ourselves to ourselves or our potential selves, that's a tough one.
Will Storr: [00:27:30] Yeah, it definitely. So if you Google Newcastle Personality Assessor, you'll find this test, and it's a really simple test. But it asks you a bunch of questions, and it gives you, as I say, a rough thumbnail sketch of your personality on five traits.
[00:27:42] So those five traits are, everybody knows introversion and extroversion. So to think about these traits, they're not switches, either one or another, it's like a volume knob. You're you know, you got more or less—
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:52] Spectrum.
Will Storr: [00:27:53] More or less.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:54] Spectrum.
Will Storr: [00:27:55] Yeah, spectrum, that's the word I was looking for, yeah, yeah. There's introversion, there's openness to experience. This is a generality, but generally the more open you are, the more kind of left wing you are. So it's about openness to culture, opening to experience. There's agreeableness, which is kind of how roughly speaking is how much you value getting along with other people. Conscientiousness is going to have a neat, tidy, punctual you are. Openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and you're [indiscernible] [00:28:20] of course, when we've been talking about, that's kind of how anxious and how sensitive you are to signals of kind of panicking chaos in your environment.
[00:28:28] So it's really useful to kind of find out who you are, because you can save you a lot of time in AA and in therapy bills. But also there's a really interesting guy, Professor Brian Little. He's a US psychologist, teaches personality, teaches these ideas at Harvard and over here at Cambridge University. And he talks about this self-esteem lie. The way he talks about it is this myth of ultimate control. This myth that we have complete control over who we are. And he talks about this idea of personal projects, the idea that everybody has various personal projects that they are undergoing at any one time. And his work suggests, we all have about 15 going at any one time. And that can be anything, that can be completely mundane like teaching a doctor to sit or that can be just hugely meaningful, a massive like trying to read the world of racism.
[00:29:12] So you have this kind of spectrum of personal projects. He says, it’s really important to understand the science of psychology of these projects, because it tends to be the ones that you're going to be good at, the ones you're going to excel. A lot of that comes down to your kind of personality and also your abilities. What they found in their work is that there are two qualities, elements that mean a personal project is going to make you happy and more satisfied with your life. And one is meaning, it's got to mean something to you. I mean that's kind of obvious. But the other one is efficacy. You've got to have some kind of, you've got to feel like you're getting better at whatever that personal project is. So it's great. So it's great if you wanted to decide you want to be the fastest runner in the world, right? So go and do that.
[00:29:54] But if you're 68, and living under a bridge by river, and you've only got kind of one leg, it's not going to be a good personal project. You need to choose a personal project that is suitable to who you are, that’s suitable to your personality, that suitable to your kind of skill set. And it's by doing that, that I think we can really find happiness. I think the big lie of the near liberal age is, and even going before that, back from the kind of ‘60s, ‘70s, and into what's known as the human potential movement. This idea that humans were just full of this amazing latent potential, and we only used kind of 10 percent of our brains. I think that sort of the big, again, the big lie that is, is they kept telling us that we are like gods, that we can do anything and be anyone, and we all had to try and be the next president of the United States. But actually I think happiness lies in us finding our own tiny, weird corner of the world in which we could be quite good at something. That should be the goal.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:51] It's funny when you describe the human potential movement of the ‘60s. But you don't say it's the human potential movement of the ‘60s you think, is this guy talking about like Scientology right now. Or well, so it's funny the context because now if you brought that up now, people would be like, “You're smoking some weird stuff, where's the BMT?” But when you say, “Oh, it's this thing that happened at a [indiscernible][00:31:11] or whatever in Silicon Valley in the ‘60s,” everyone's like, “Oh yeah, that hippies stuff.” But it's sort of equally damaging except for that's been around for so long, it's become a part of the culture.
Will Storr: [00:31:24] Yeah, it has.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:25] And so it's really easy to look at the culture that we're in now, or the economics of what we're in now, and just be like, you know what? This is narcissistic and just sort of write it off as that. But it's not really that simple because a lot of us, we do have these illusory beliefs, and a lot of our actions are designed to reinforce a concept of ourselves that we've constructed. I mean, I think you said in one of your earlier talks that this is why Trump watches Fox news.
[00:30:54] One of the big reasons is because it makes him sound good and he wants to feel that way. And you can't really blame the guy for that, right? I mean, we all want to read the press that makes us sound or feel good. And if we don't have any press, well, we all do, because we're all on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and things like that. So we kind of created our own in that way. And it becomes this problem that is outside of just narcissism. It's not that we're all clinically narcissistic people now and we've all ruined ourselves, right? We've actually created this in a way and it's like a double edged sword, right? It's created all this drive and momentum and motivation among us. So it's not like we want to get rid of it entirely, but it can just so easily get out of control.
Will Storr: [00:32:36] Yeah, yeah. That I think that's absolutely right. But day are the same as people who've always been in the sense that we are helpless products almost, I mean puppies is going a bit too far, but when a culture inserts itself into the physical structure of our brains, you can't remove yourself and separate yourself from the culture. So it's not that anyone's made a decision to become a narcissist. It's that this is the way our culture drives us. And interestingly, personality becomes part of that story too because actually no, everybody becomes narcissistic and all that stuff under these circumstances. These mostly people who grew up high in extroversion and low in agreeableness, that particularly vulnerable to all this. But the other thing about the social media, you know, you're right. It’s another way that rural celebrities, I love the way you put it. You said, “We all create our own press now, we will have our own press now.” And I'd never thought of it like that, but it's absolutely true. That's another way that we're all sort of celebrities. We can all check our social media feeds and see how many likes we've got. We're going to sort of put out some comment and see what the reaction is amongst people. So we all are have become these kind of mini celebrities.
[00:33:39] I think one of the things is that the Silicon Valley age is still relatively new and they're fighting viciously against the idea of ever being regulated. But I think that's going to happen at some point. And I think it kind of has to happen at some point, because my background is in print journalism and there are just an [indiscernible] [00:33:56] this huge amount of rules that you have to abide by if you're a print journalist and rightly so. You're not allowed to lie about people. You're not allowed to slander people. If you damage people's lives, there are ramifications. And social media companies aren't held to these levels of responsibility.
[00:34:11] I imagine that that will start being talked about more and more now, especially after the all these kind of Facebook revelations. I think people are, no honeymoon period is wearing off a bit with the social media companies. For so long, we just thought there were these cool kids that were on our side, and they realized that they're just Ayn Rand in hoodies really, that's how it feels sometimes. There's a bit flippant, but that's certainly how it feels.
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[00:36:55] You're right, it started with kind of like, “Oh, the kids these days,” and it's really easy to get all, “Get off my lawn about this whole thing, right?” Well, it's all about parental overpraise. You know, you're telling your damn kids, they can do anything they want. But it's not really like that, it's not just narcissism levels rising and rising, because your mom said that you're smart and you believed her. There's some of that, but you're right, that only effects people with certain personality types. And I'm not going to try to guess what those are, but you right. You said something like high extroversion, something, something.
Will Storr: [00:37:24] High extroversion. So it’s high extroversion, they value this kind of dopamine hits of novelty in a tension and risk taking and all that stuff, they like attention. And low in agreeableness are very competitive and they'll do anything to kind of push their way to the top. So that's the going to toxic mix. So these narcissism rights coming up, you might ask you to culture. So such a simple, why isn't everybody more narcissistic? There's a lot of that because down to personality, if your high neuroticism, you're just not going to be that narcissistic, because you hate yourself. That is simple as that. So yeah, it's not going to be everyone.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:56] So it's not exactly the epidemic people are talking about because it's only epidemic in that certain people are getting it more. But it's not exactly smallpox kind of thing with in the new world, because a huge number of people, maybe immunity's not the right word, but they're not as effected by it because they don't have the right personality types. And that's thankful because otherwise we might actually be in quite a bit of trouble, but in the same way, and we talked with James Fallon who studies psychopathy about this. Psychopathy is rampant in a lot of war torn places, not because there are more psychopaths, but because those triggers are present in society that bring out those personality traits.
[00:38:36] So maybe it's not epidemic in that way. The latent stuff, the hard wiring is still there, but it's being triggered more than it was before. But it's not just because your mom told you too many times that you are great in everything. It's because certain people's moms did that.
Will Storr: [00:38:50] But it’s much more to do with the economy. The economy is much more kind of fundamental. I mean, now I think the self-esteem movement in the ‘80s is a part of, it is a big part of the story. But the self-esteem movement, the ‘80s wouldn't have happened, I don't think without the change in the economy because self-esteem, which is very kind of neoliberal idea that in order to become better workers in the economy, more competitive, more successful, less of a burden on the state. That was the argument for the self-esteem movement really that then we had to raise everybody's self-esteem.
[00:39:17] So it was a very neoliberal product, and it changed the way that we raised our children. It changed the way that we taught our children. And again, it goes back to this very sort of basic idea from psychology about how we work out what we like, and how that describe it is that they say that we are what we think other people think we are. So we look out of our [indiscernible] [00:39:36] and we look at people's responses to us all the time in monitoring them. And we use the kind of some of those responses, we work out who we are or how they're responding to us, is a basic way that, that we do that. And, of course, if you're a child and you're brought into an environment where your parents, your teachers are just constantly telling you that you're amazing and you're special, then that's going to have an effect, that's going to have an effect on that generation of children.
[00:39:59] And I think it did have an effect. I think you're right there. I think an epidemic is pushing it for me. I think epidemic is an exaggeration and also, I think that what we're finding is that things tailed off, started to tail off, the rise in narcissism began to tail off around the time of the global financial crisis. And so the researchers aren't quite sure whether it's going to start sort of rapidly falling or whether actually there's an idea that it's a movement into a different form of narcissism, which is this kind of quite vulnerable narcissist, sort of more neurotic form of narcissism. All that stuff's yet to shake out as far as I'm aware.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:30] Tell us about the fish tank test because this kind of really does contrast the American belief that we can do anything we want because we believe in ourselves. This lie that you think is very toxic. Maybe it's not an American believe, Western belief.
Will Storr: [00:40:43] It’s Western, yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:44] And that most of our potential is genetic, but this sort of fish tank test says, “Hey, not everybody's like this.”
Will Storr: [00:40:50] Yeah, because that's the things that when you start coming across this study is that individualism is all about the individual and people want glory and success and money and those have attention. As a Westerner raised in that environment, you just think, well that's not culture, that's just everyone is new. Surely that's just what people are like. And it turns out that it's not that they don't like that at all. And it all goes back to ancient Greece, so two and a half thousand years ago, the birth of the Western self really was in Ancient Greece. And that was a really particular weird kind of place because it’s not like a country like a big landmass.
[00:41:19] It's a thousand individual little communities on little islands on Rocky Coasts. And to get along and get at Ancient Greece, you had to be a bit of a hustler because you can do farming. There was no land for big farming projects. So it was all these individual little islands of profit and motive. And then from that landscape evolves this individual self. People push themselves forward hustling, debating, starting the Olympics. And then over in East Asia, in China, you've got completely the opposite landscape, low planes, low hills, lots of massive farming projects. Wheat rites, huge irrigation projects that were all team intensive. So to just get along and get ahead in Ancient China. You get a privilege the group, it was the group first, the group that comes before the individual and everything tends towards the group. And people that were stood out and tried to get all the attention with seniors, terrible people, not good people. It was the opposite of Ancient Greece.
[00:42:09] If you're like me, you're thinking of two and a half thousand years ago, who cares? But the amazing thing is that when you put people today in a laboratory, as you say, and test their responses to their environment. They still mirror these changes that happened two and a half thousand years ago. That were really interesting, wants to do with these fish tanks. So if you put the average sort of Westerner in front of a video of a fish tank. And in the fish tank there's a big show of flashy fish at the front of the fish tank and around that fish, there's loads of other fish and some other bits and pieces. The Western is, I will generally stay mostly on that front fish. You will only still relatively rarely go out to the context.
[00:42:48] And then if you put somebody from East Asia, from sort of China, Vietnam, Japan in front of that same fish tank, that I will be constantly moving between the fish and everything else. And then you say to them, you said to the Westerner, “What did you see?” And the Westerner guy saw a fish. And you say to the East Asian person, “What'd you say this?” Say, “A fish tank.” And then you say to the Westerner, “What did you think about the fish you saw?” And the Westerner go well, that was obviously the leader. And the stadium person will go, “Oh well, I felt sorry for that fish because it obviously been thrown out of the group and it must've been very lonely.” So you see how these differences in the physical environment for two and a half thousand years ago, they affect and change and influence the very way that we scan and process and experience the world.
[00:43:30] They reflect our value judgements on people. And in China, China is seen as a leadership promising. I mean that's completely antithetical to how it is in the West, in the Britain, in America, in Canada at where big loud charismatic presence is as seen as natural leaders. So it's really quite extraordinary. You think culture is -- you think of culture as being like things is the operas and books and stuff, surface level. But culture really goes deep down to the level of how we are unconsciously moving our eyes. We go into any environment. And there's a guy called Professor Richard Nisbett. He's the big kind of genius at the center of a lot of this work. And I interviewed him for the book and he said, “You just got to think about the average street scene in East Asia.” You know you're going to a city, big city in China or Japan, and it's just this dizzying array of information. There's just stuff everywhere and it's just overwhelming if you noticed it before. You get this massive endorphin rush, it's like, “Oh my God.” And an again that just shows that the kind of East Asia brain is used to a different thing, is much used to experiencing reality, it has lots of things in context rather than a kind of a world made up of big individual pieces and parts.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:41] This is even represented in the selfies that people take. Sort of calling back the title, obligatory title callback, right of the book. And East Asian selfies, you've said, and I don't know if this is just anecdotal over you actually did a study or if there was a study, but you said that there's more group photos with East Asians when they take selfies versus Western. I mean now, the definition in American English of selfie is a picture that only you are in, right?
Will Storr: [00:45:08] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I did an event last summer with a German academic, whose name escapes me. And she said this, I couldn't find a reference for it, which is why it's not in the book, but you know, she studies selfie, so I trust her. She said that that's one of the differences they find. They find that Chinese selfie university commerce is much more likely to be of a group compared to a Western selfie who would just much more likely just to be a big face in the middle of it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:35] I mean, it just seems so interesting that our entire culture has been programmed by this, and it kind of nobody really noticed at the time.
Will Storr: [00:45:44] Yeah, I know. That's the thing. I'd heard this word, neoliberalism banded around a bit and you used to sort of usually go, “What's that?” Lots of people would sort of don't really know what is, there isn't a general kind of popular awareness of this idea. And yet this has been the controlling idea that we have been living under for all of our lives. If you’re under 50, it's been the idea that has shaped who we are, our society, our values, our beliefs since the early 1980s, and there's very little conversation about it. It's unbelievable. It's really is an extraordinary thing. This word, this idea of neoliberalism isn't more known. I mean I remember growing up and there's much more conversation about this now amongst millennials, certainly in the UK, looking back on the baby boomers and thinking, well the baby boomers, “How did that work?”
[00:46:32] And it was certainly true in the States that 50s, 60s, 70s, you could be a working class family. Dad’s working in a factory, mom's at home, you can have a car in the front, nice backyard, but living a perfectly comfortable lifestyle. And I remember growing up thinking what changed? Because that was my parent's life. And now we're living in a world where both people have got a work, man and woman have both got to work to have anything like a decent lifestyle. Nobody can afford to live anywhere. Life since has got much harder. What happened? I don't know knew what happened and this is the answer. Neoliberalism happened. We created an insanely intense competition of the world. And again, I'm not railing against the neoliberalism. There's lots of reasons why neoliberalism is really good.
[00:47:17] In the 1970s, we were in a state of economic chaos. Things were going terribly wrong in the UK and the US. We were very much in this together and the policies were madly looking for a new idea to kind of save us. And, of course, you could argue about it forever, but neoliberals and did it stabilize things. And it wasn't a linear story of success by any means, but we were doing pretty well in the 1980s largely speaking. And also -- and this is the real problem for people on the left like me who kind of feel instinctively want to attack the economic policy of Reagan and Thatcher. Neoliberalism has lifted millions of people out of poverty in the developing world, like millions. It's been an unbelievable force for good outside of the West, because part of the neoliberal project is -- the big neoliberal wet dream is that we want the whole world to be one glorious, perfect God like market with no barriers to people, to goods, it just flows perfectly.
[00:48:09] So that's globalization. So want me to talk about globalization? That's what we're talking about. This neoliberal kind of wet dream, and that's meant getting our iPhones put together in China, for example, and call centers and all that stuff that, that we complain about. But that's been a massive force for good if you were willing to take a global perspective, and as I say, lifting millions of people out of poverty. And, of course, there's been a kickback in the West in which it's kind of gutted the middle classes. And then we end up with a conversation that ends up very in short order with Donald Trump.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:37] Okay, last but not least, what can we do about this? Because doesn't it harm us to stop believing this type of Western lie that we can do anything we want because we believe in ourselves? Doesn't it harm us in some way? I feel like a lot of us won't really go for it if we think we're just likely to fail because not everyone's special. So just settle for where you are in your life.
Will Storr: [00:48:57] Yeah, settle for mediocrity. No, I completely agree. It's a problem. I would like to see in schools, young people being told and taught a much more realistic model of what a human being actually is. That you're not a God that you can't do anything, but you can in your own way be amazing. So teach them about personalities, work much more focus on the individual in the sense of who is this particular individual and where is that weird little corner of the world in which they're going to find that they're going to be quite really quite good at something. Because I think that's the magic for me is that little corner of the world do something even if it's something weird like making shoes out of knitting or whatever it might be, that you just really passionate about and they were actually quite good in something, that you can A, think about making something of living from it, and B, get some sort of sense of status from it. There's so much talk about diversity these days, but you didn't ever hear people talking about diverse in terms of personality type that we are all very, very different forms, color, gender, whatever. Personalities, to me it's a really big thing. People are very, very different in terms of their personality.
[00:50:04] And the other thing I think that we should focus on that we can be kind of think practically about is, part of the idea that we are blank slates and we are gods and we were amazing is that we always focus on the self. If I'm not happy and if I'm feeling stressed and anxious and miserable and lacking in status, I go to myself, I need to be better. I need to become a better person, and I think that's wrong. I think actually we need to start thinking about changing our environment. When you just start thinking about changing the things around us. Do I think about it is this is if you take a lizard and put the lizard on the iceberg, that is a really unhappy lizard. When we say that the same lizard and put it in the Sahara desert, suddenly the lizard is delighted. It's like all its Christmases had come at once, so nothing about that lizard has changed whatsoever. You haven't touched an iota of its personality if it has one or character or behavior, but we've done it changes environment, and I think that really should be our model.
[00:50:55] If you're an introvert and you're working in a store with people, try and get a job out of the pack of the office would have to talk to people. There's this very obvious example. If there are people in your life that are making you unhappy, stop telling yourself, “Oh, it's your fault that you need to change.” Get rid of them. We need to have much more focus on finding happiness and comfort and a cure to our miseries by changing the life around us rather than trying to fit ourselves into that life.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:26] Well, thank you very much. Really interesting insight into a mindset that many of us have that we don't even notice. And that's I think what makes the book and your time today that much more educational because I think this kind of sneaks up on us or snuck up on us as a country and as a culture. And I think the more aware of it that we are the better off we're going to be.
Will Storr: [00:51:45] Fantastic. It was really, really good fun talking to you. Thank you so much Jordan.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:51] Great. Big thank you to Will Storr. The book title is Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It's Doing to Us. If you enjoyed this one, don't forget to thank Will on Twitter. That'll be linked up in the show notes for this episode which can as always be found at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. Tweet at me your number one takeaway here from Will Storr. I'm @jordanharbinger on both Twitter and Instagram. And don't forget if you want to apply everything you've learned today from Will, just make sure that you go grab the worksheets in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast.
[00:52:23] This episode was produced and edited by Jason DeFillippo, show notes are by Robert Fogarty, booking back office and last minute miracles by Jen Harbinger. And I'm your host, Jordan Harbinger. Throw us an iTunes review and make sure you subscribe to the show if you're not already, and make sure if you do post a review, you have a unique nickname, throw some numbers after it or you throw your street you grew up on in there somewhere. Otherwise, it's not going to post and it won't tell you why. Thanks iTunes. Instructions on how to leave reviews at jordanharbinger.com/subscribe. And, of course, there's instructions on how to subscribe there as well. Share the show with those you love and even those you don't. We've got a lot more in the pipeline and we're excited to bring it to you. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show so you can live what you listen and we'll see you next time.
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