Life is a white-knuckle ride for us knucklehead genius humans, who can foresee the future like no other creature can, but so ambiguously that we can never tell whether we’re doing the right thing.
We humans depend upon affirmation. It’s a staple like air, water, food and sleep. We may not notice that we depend on it anymore than we notice our dependence on water until the pipes freeze and the water stops flowing.
Affirmation is a currency that flows much as money does. Like anything of value but in somewhat limited supply, affirmation is susceptible to economic analysis. There’s affirmation supply, demand, and negotiated affirmation transactions. There’s debts and surpluses and currency exchange rates between affirmation and other currencies. Indeed watching money-hoarders at work accumulating more billions than they can ever spend, we’re inclined to guess that the money is being translated into affirmation.
I’ll call it egonomics, but with two caveats. First, “ego” in some circles has come to mean a disease of the soul. I don’t buy that definition but rather think of it as the inescapable self-sustenance all creatures do, but we knucklehead geniuses do even more because with language we can sustain ourselves with stories of our worth, purposes, goals, and intentions. Other animals, lacking language can’t sing their own self-sustaining praises the way we do.
Second “egonomics” was coined and first used by my decision-theory hero Thomas Schelling to mean our inner negotiations between immediate and long-term desires (e.g. “why do I keep doing things for my future self? What has he ever done for me?” which I recently address in articles on “fuss-budgeting”). Egonomics is just too good a term to be limited to his definition, so I’m borrowing it here.
Egonomics is about markets for affirmation in a world where disaffirmations lurk behind every piece of discouraging news. Affirmation is evidence, real or imagined that we’re on track, doing the right thing, in a groove not a rut, going places not going in circles or going down the drain. Affirmations are the scaffolding that support as we build ourselves into the future. They’re the walls that make up much of our grooves’ sidewalls. Affirmation includes the love and appreciation, we experience but also the expectations we meet, confirming that what we do works.
An economic theory that says people only live for money doesn’t tell the whole story. Egonomics doesn’t either. Still, if you want a more encompassing theory of human behavior, don’t follow the money, follow the honey, the sweet affirmations we supply to and demand from each other. Here I’ll sketch out a little egonomics 101, as I see it.
Fungibility (functional equivalency): In economics, we assume that for most goods there’s more than one supplier. If you can’t get a McDonald’s burger, then you’ll have a Wendy’s burger. If you can’t get a hamburger, maybe a hot dog will do. In other words we can generalize about functionally-equivalent kinds of goods, Wendy’s and McDonalds are to some extent functionally equivalent burgers; hot dogs and hamburgers are to some extent functionally equivalent main courses.
So too with affirmations—to some extent, the affirmation you get from one person can be had from another, and the affirmation you get in one domain can serve as well as affirmation in another domain. You lose your partner? Maybe you rely more on your job to affirm you at least until you find another partner.
Currency exchange rates: A mutual admiration society is people supplying affirmation to, and demanding affirmation from each other. A trophy wife supplies affirmation to her wealthy husband in exchange for money. Jobs can be affirming and moneymaking both. Some jobs are more affirming than moneymaking. Ask an intern (“will work for occasional compliments”).
Virtual affirmation: Affirmation is an intangible good, something in demand though not easily measured or quantified. It is, to some extent like credit, the ability to bank today on a promise of good things coming tomorrow, a promissory note, or accounts payable to you. We can cook the books on our affirmation credit the way Enron did on its credit, experiencing affirmation from sources that don’t actively supply it. We can assume ourselves affirmed by a god that doesn’t exist, by a pet hamster that doesn’t care about us, by a spouse just going through the motions, by an employer who merely gives lip service to appreciating our work. We can overgeneralize affirmation. If we’re good at one thing, assuming we’re good at everything.
How much affirmation does a person seek? That depends on several factors:
Marginal utility: A dollar means less to a rich than a poor person. Likewise, a fan letter means less to a popular than an unpopular person.
Affirmation efficiency: By temperament some people seem affirmation-frugal, able to make a little affirmation go a long way. Others need a lot of affirmation. Like hummingbirds, which have to find nectar every 15 minutes, these people are always worried about where their next affirmation is coming from. And it better be soon.
Chip on shoulder: Just as people who have been through hard economics times often become hoarders, so too do people who went through hard egonomic times, times when for example they either did something horribly wrong or were treated as though they did by chronically shaming parents, sibs, and peers. They seek more affirmation to compensate for the lack of it in their past.
Strategic gullibility: Some people are better at self-deception and are better at milking virtual affirmation. Maybe they’re “legends in their own minds,” so inherently proud of themselves that they can go without genuine affirmation for a long time. Or maybe they just have good imaginations, for example feeling as though the affirmation they provide their dog, god, favorite pop star, or favorite sports team is reciprocated in kind.
Conviction impairment: Affirmations round us up from doubt to confidence, from confusion about what to do, to conviction about what to do. If you’re surrounded by people who share your confidence and conviction, it’s often affirmation enough. In a pinch and out on a limb, even knowing one or two people you admire who share your convictions, their presence can be sufficiently affirming. We have role models but also goal models—people who model your goals thereby affirming them.
Societies used to be much more homogenous, tribes of people steeped in the same convictions. These days we often live in lifestyle melting pots, our neighbors often from entirely different tribes. Offsetting this, we have newfound mobility, freedom of association, especially online where we can gather and consort with likeminded people living anywhere. Still, since roughly around the time of the Enlightenment, in the West at least, we’re exposed to more convictions at odds with ours, and therefore somewhat disaffirming. We may suffer more conviction impairment; less certainty that we’re on the right path and so may seek a little more affirmation.
The manner to which you are accustomed: We get used to the affirmation we reliably receive. If we have gotten a lot affirmation, we expect to continue to get a lot; affirmation in the manner to which we are accustomed. The Tao says, “success is as dangerous as failure,” in other words, the higher you rise, the farther you can fall. We see this frustration sometimes as people age, frustrated ex-beauties and ex-power brokers and broke ex-millionaires who can’t get used to losing the affirmation they had come to think was their birthright. And we see the opposite too, the poor, downtrodden and long-oppressed who seem to somehow get used to expecting very little affirmation.
Life stage: The supply of, and demand for affirmation changes over the course of our lives. The curve wouldn’t be easy to draw, nor would it be the same for each of us, in part because over time we seek affirmation from different sources: our parents, our friends, our boyfriends and girlfriends, our work colleagues and bosses; for some people, ultimately, our maker, anticipating meeting him at death.
When we’re young we don’t know what we’re good for. Your life package didn’t come with a packing slip, inventorying your gifts and gaps. You scrounge around like a scavenger, getting what affirmation you can where you can. To some extent what affirms you becomes your packing slip, your way of knowing what you’re good for and where you’ll most reliably get affirmed. This is why we worry for our beautiful daughters at risk of over-affirmation for beauty, that perishable gift, inattentive to cultivating other gifts and thereby other sources of affirmation.
In sum, egonomics is an interesting perspective on what gets us through the day, not just the macro-egonomics I’ve discussed here but the micro-egonomics of little subtle transactions, the strokes by which we paddle forward through the sometimes choppy seas of our lives.