The Narcissus in All of Us

Reflections on the self, personality, and what makes you, "you."

Hysteria of the World: Part I

Why do people believe society is getting worse?

Try to figure out which famous person said this:

"What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?"

a) Ben Franklin

b) Plato

c) Bill Cosby

d) Winston Churchill

e) Richard Nixon

Would it surprise you to learn that this quote is attributed to the second person? Okay, we threw in some decoys in order to make a point, which is this:

"Virtually every culture past or present has believed that men and women are not up to the standards of their parents and forebears" (~Arthur Herman). Adults have always considered the younger generations to be inferior, spoiled, disrespectful, and out of control. As we grow older, we become convinced that society itself is deteriorating. We get nostalgic for the good old days, when young people were responsible and had real values, when the world was simple and made sense.

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So now a question for you (especially those of you over 25): Do you find yourself having these kinds of thoughts with greater and greater frequency? If so, then how do you explain them?

And why do these negative perceptions increase as we get older? After all, if these assessments were accurate, society would have crumbled to pieces a long time ago. Fortunately for us, psychologists Richard Eibach, Lisa Libby, and Tom Gilovich came up with an elegant theory to address these questions.

For the moment, though, let's assume that your goal is to convince a non-believer that civilization is really in its last throes. There are many compelling issues you could bring up to make your case: worldwide food shortages, global warming, uncontrollable oil prices, rising income inequalities, the state of public education, violence in schools, children exposed to excessive sex and violence, the hypersexualization of young teenagers, [insert pet issue here], etc. Your listener would be converted within minutes and then you would both have time to go warn someone else!

If the perception of societal decline exists in every generation, however, then surely it is independent of social conditions, which can be invoked to rationalize almost any argument. The perception of societal decline also flies in the face of research showing that people tend to get slightly happier as they get older. If happiness rises over the course of our lives, how is it that our judgments of the world become increasingly negative?

We assume that this occurs because people draw a sharp distinction between their own life and the rest of society. For example, research consistently finds that more than 80% of Americans report being at least somewhat happy, with many saying they are "very happy." At the same time, 70-80% of Americans are currently dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. These findings may seem incompatible, but keep in mind that these are asking people to evaluate very different things (the self versus society).

Eibach and his colleagues propose that the reason we believe society is declining can be traced to changes each one of us experiences over the course of our life. In other words, changes in the self are (mis)interpreted as changes in the world. This happens because we are more attentive to changes in our environment than changes in ourselves. Furthermore, they identify three different types of self-change that bring about a more negative assessment of the world.

First, having and raising children make us more sensitive to dangers in the world, causing us to view formerly benign things as newly treacherous.

Second, the inevitable decline in physical health and mental vitality leads us to believe that the world was simply more vibrant back when we were younger and healthier.

Third, harsh realities that we were once sheltered from in childhood are slowly revealed to us as we mature and experience new things, making the world seem that much crueler.

In each of these cases, we underestimate changes in the self and assume that the world must have changed. Unfortunately, even when we're perfectly accurate about how the self has changed, we still may have a distorted view of the world. The problem is that we fail to appreciate how our personal transformations affect our interpretation of the world. For instance, a middle-aged woman may know precisely how much her physical health has declined over the previous thirty years, but she may nevertheless fail to recognize how this caused her to see the world differently.

Despite all these the inaccuracies, we suspect that this bias is usually adaptive. Believing that the vitality of the world has eroded is probably less traumatic than continually being reminded of our own physical and mental declines. If it's a choice between viewing ourselves or the world negatively, it's usually a no-brainer - at least for people living in Western cultures who tend to place a premium on the self.

Although maintaining positive illusions about the self is important, it is also pleasant to hold a positive view of human nature and unpleasant to regard the world as bleak and hostile. How then can we find a middle ground between illusions and the ability to see the world as it really is?

To start, we can be more mindful of all these processes and how they affect our day-to-day thoughts and behaviors. By understanding this bias and developing strategies to correct for it, perhaps we can reduce any fear, cynicism, and contempt we might have toward the world and the upcoming generations.

We'll discuss one more reason for perceived societal decline in a forthcoming post, one that will speak to the so-called "moral decay" of humanity.

(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)

Ilan Shrira is a social psychologist at the Loyola University in Chicago.

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