Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Self-Evaluation via the Internet

How Am I Doing? Um, I’ll Check the Internet!

I was out taking a casual bicycle ride around the local lake this morning, and I passed hundreds of joggers preparing for a New Year’s Day marathon.  As they sprint (or stagger) past the finish line tomorrow, they’ll all get an official number to tell them exactly how they are doing with their training regimen. 

Seeing the joggers reminded me how a few years back, I was tickled when I crossed the line of a 10K race, and discovered that I had averaged 7 minutes and 38 seconds per mile (turtle-speed for an Olympic athlete, but sufficiently hare-like for me).  These days, though, I just casually ride my bike, without neurotically checking my numbers. 

When I arrived home however, I felt a strong need to check some objective index to inform me how I’m actually doing in life as we enter 2012.  Fortunately, when I turned on my computer, I discovered a wonderland of numbers at my disposal. 

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I first tried to check my health at “realage.com,” a site where you enter your various health ailments, cholesterol counts, smoking and drinking histories, and receive an output informing you whether your body’s condition is older or younger than your calendar age.  It was awfully long, and when I starting getting incessant repetitions of the same page asking whether or not I had frequent screenings for prostate or colon cancer, I gave up.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find out whether my body is a (desirable) -10.0 years below its calendar age, or an about-to-expire +10. 

So I switched to easier-to-measure indices of career success.  Academics (at least those prone to neurotic comparisons) can use the WebofScience to check out their annual citations.  So far in 2011, I have been cited 397 times in scientific journals.  Because the journals don’t all get logged immediately, there are still a few weeks for me to break 400 for the first time in this year’s count.  I first hit 100 in 1995, broke 200 for the first time in 2008, and then 300 in 2009, so I seem to be on a stunning upward trajectory.  That could make me feel good about myself.  But the down side of internet social comparison is that I can compare myself to colleagues like John Cacioppo.  John is about my age, broke 400 fifteen years ago, and has been cited over 1500 times during each of the last 3 years.  In fact, I quickly discovered that within my own department, there are people like Bob Cialdini and Nancy Eisenberg, whose citation counts leave me obscurely buried in the dust.  No one likes to feel bad about oneself, so I switched over to Google Scholar, which includes book citations as well as journal citations, and boosts my total number of citations up to 7452 (more comforting than Web of Science’s 3456, which puts my 30 year total below Cacioppo’s last 3 years).  Of course, I’m not even going to bother checking Cacioppo, Cialdini or Eisenberg on Google Scholar.  Instead, for mental health reasons, I’ll return to my earlier tactic of comparing the current Kenrick to the earlier downtrodden Kenrick.

Of course, money is the kind of number that has real consequences.  So, I went to check my salary against those of my colleagues in ASU’s psychology department.  I could only find numbers for 2008, and discovered that at that time, Cialdini and Eisenberg were making a bit more than me.  No concerns there, given their higher numbers of science citations.  But wait, there are a couple of folks making more than me who have been cited less, and one is my own junior collaborator Steve Neuberg!  And then if I look to see what people with even less seniority are making over in the business school, I suddenly feel like I’m taking home a pauper’s wages.  Let us pause for a second while I put on my Zaphod Beeblebrox style Peril - Sensitive Sunglasses.  If you’ve forgotten your Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, those are glasses created by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation – which turn everything completely dark when there is any threat nearby.  Let’s move to another galaxy of comparison.

As author of a couple of books, I can log on to amazon.com’s author central website, and see how my books have been doing.  Amazon lists a book’s sales’ rank, in comparison to “over 8,000,000 books.”  On its best average day for 2011, my popular press book reached 2,376.  Should I be heartened or discouraged?  Again, it depends on how much social comparison I want to do.  If I compare myself to Amazon’s 8 million other books, and consider the fact that there are tens of thousands of new titles every year, I could feel that, in the larger scheme of things, I’m doing alright.  And if I compare to a couple of books by some other social and evolutionary psychologists that came out last year, my rank’s not bad.  But then there is Daniel Kahneman’s book, and Robert Trivers, both of which opened to rankings under 100!   I quickly switch the point of comparison to the percent of 5 star ratings, in which category I’m doing better than either Kahneman or Trivers! (bear with me while I ignore the absolute number of reviews in question, and re-don my Peril-Sensitive Sunglasses).  

Maybe I should check my count of blog hits on Psychology Today.  By midnight tonight, I should just pass the half million mark (it's 499,909 right now).  Actually, wait, it’s already 538,412 if I count the blogs I coauthored with my son Dave Kenrick, so yeah, let’s count them.  Muchas gracias to those of you have had been doing the hitting!  But is that bad or good?  Are you hitting other bloggers more faithfully?  I can’t tell, because mercifully, Psych Today only lets bloggers check their own numbers.  And Kahneman, Cacioppo, Eisenberg, Cialdini, Diener and those other successful academics are too busy publishing journal articles to write blogs. (a few days after I posted this, Psych Today published a list of the top 50 blog postings for 2012, none by Kenrick, alas, I'll have to try harder there too). 

So, maybe I should stop worrying about these annoyingly “objective” measures of success, and move right to the bottom line – how Happy am I?  To find the answer, I was able to travel (at light speeds) to the University of Pennsylvania, which hosts Martin Seligman’s website authentichappiness.com.  I started clicking answers into their overall happiness scale, which includes items asking about the extent to which I feel accomplished, feel flow in my work, feel positive mood, meaning in life..... all that warm touchy feely malarkey.  I discovered that I am a 3.42 on a 5 point scale.   Of course, that doesn’t mean anything in itself, but Seligman’s site informs me that I’m at the 67th percentile of all web users.  Okay, but I’m only 57th percentile in comparison with people my age, and merely 54th percentile of all professors.  I guess slightly above average ain’t bad, but like everyone else, I like to be in the top 10 percent, so I’d better start being happier.  

Mark Schaller wrote a lovely paper on the “psychological consequences of fame.”  He analyzed the number of self-references in the writings of several famous novelists and songwriters (including Kurt Cobain, John Cheever, and Hoagie Carmichael).  Schaller found that increasing fame was associated with increasing use of words like “me,” and “I” in their writings, along with increases in alcohol and drug consumption.  Schaller’s finding counsels that I should stop counting, stop worrying about my Self (and start feeling sorry for Daniel Kahneman and Bob Cialdini).  I reckon I should also stop fretting about my Facebook friends (412, some of whom I’ve never even met), and instead spend some time with my (2) wonderful sons and (1) wonderful wife.*

*Wait, the web informs me that Maharajah Bhupinder Singh the Magnificent had 365 wives, and that the Moroccan Sultan Ismail Ibn Sharif had 867 children!  Ah, but neither of them had a single paper cited in the web of science. Whew!  

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

more...

Subscribe to Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?