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Self Esteem is on the rise, says David Brooks

13th September 2011

David Brooks, author of The Social Animal and New York Times columnist, says that there has been a significant shift in the way many people see themselves.

“In short, the self is in the ascendant - in particular, self-importance and self-obsession. For example, in 1950 Gallup asked US high school students whether each of them was a very important person: 12% said yes. Asked again in 2006 and the figure had jumped to 80%. In 1962 there were no articles about individual self-esteem in academic journals. By 1993, there were 2,500.

“Overall, psychologists in the US estimate there has been a 30% rise in narcissism among teens since 1990. In other words, there has been a major shift from a culture of modesty and self-effacement to one of self-expansion and self-advancement. On the one hand, this can fuel an optimistic and industrious can-do mentality. On the other hand, people with very high self-esteem tend to take more dangerous risks and are less likely to listen to the opinions of others or help other individuals in need. Furthermore, teaching children with a very high opinion of themselves can be difficult because they think they already know everything.

“Why is this happening? One suspects that media, especially the internet, encourages narcissism. For example, it is now free and easy to create your own identity online without having to worry about reality. Similarly, if information (or friends) can be personalised, it becomes easier to only hang out with opinions (and clusters of people) with the same views as your own. This rise in psychology counselling has fuelled this because it also encourages a focus on the needs of the individual.

“In the short term, this will lead to increasing polarisation between opposing viewpoints. In the longer term, negative impacts could include conflict and social stability. It will also create long-term unhappiness because narcissists can never be pleased. They believe the world rotates around them and get a nasty shock when they find out it doesn't.

“Here is something you might not know. At the end of 2009, Google began to personalise your search results, according to what you were already doing. This means your search results are different from somebody else’s! This move heralded the personalised internet and it turns your computer into a kind of mirror reflecting you. The internet is no longer anonymous. The Wall Street Journal said the top 50 internet sites install about 64 data cookies and personal tracking beacons each time you search. If you search for “depression” on one site, you’re likely to be targeted with an antidepressant ad on another. The cost of a free service like Gmail or Facebook is that companies know a lot more intimate details about you and they want to use that information to sell you stuff.

“At the same time, the internet becomes a unique universe of your own. Eli Pariser calls this the “filter bubble” and it’s a new experience. There are three elements to it. First, we are alone in it so the bubble separates us from others. Second, it is invisible, so you don’t know what they know or don’t know about you – or why. Third, you didn’t choose to go into your bubble but you’re in it. This is the bargain that we make with companies providing us with personalisation and a free service.

“There are more wide ranging consequences for the filter bubble. Rather than bring people together, as social networking is supposed to do, the internet potentially tears us apart and breaks down social capital, both bonding (meeting college friends) and bridging capital (attending a council meeting). Yet the idea of the internet was to turn the world into a giant village. The challenge then is to create a more relevant internet without losing its mammoth abilities to bring us together.

“Here’s an interesting trend in a society of tweets, blogs and information overload: the rebirth of the essay. An essay is a sustained, personal view of big issues, such as race, or politics, where the writer offers urgent ideas that aren’t suited to a novel. Virginia Woolf wrote essays as “a relief from fiction and a means of making money”. Mark Tredinnick, Australian writer succinctly says: “Essays are a literature of fact”.

“I think it’s interesting to ask, why now? It may simply be that a few progressive imprints have decided to publish collections of essays. But more likely, there is a growing demand, on the fringes, for writing that is more immediate, analytical, educated, and literary. Good writers are being drowned out by bloggers and Twitters; business writing is full of bullet points and jargon. It’s a kind of writing terrorism. Essays are a return to the kind of writing you were encouraged to do at school, without the spelling mistakes.

“Another possibility is that it’s hard to find the truth in the multiplicity of sources, all so fragmented and instantaneous. Essay writers can still respond quickly to world events, as Ian McEwan did to the terrorist attacks, but they choose their words more wisely and add a uniquely personal voice. Let Tredinnick have the last word on that: “Compulsive truth-tellers write essays; bad liars write essays”.”


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