What Kanye West Teaches Us About The Psychology of Ego

Larger than Life Personalities Provides a Rare Window into Human Nature

Posted Jul 28, 2020

“My greatest pain in life is that I will never see myself perform live.”

“I’m dope and I do dope sh*t.”

“Every time I say something that's extremely truthful out loud, it literally breaks the internet.”

The list of memorable Kanye quotes is as long and as brash as the man’s discography. Many, like these, speak directly to his world-renowned ego. But here’s one which defies such an easy interpretation: 

“I have driven my Truman Show boat into the painting.”

This one is more elusive. It hints at the idea of a creative glass ceiling, at being misunderstood, and of the angst of being restricted to a single creative motif. 

Reputation precedes, and naturally, many interpreted this as an allusion to Kanye’s sense of self-importance. In this view, he believes, as Truman came to, that the entire world centered on him. This was, after all, the same interview in which Kanye claimed that he was a God.

Only Kanye can know whether or not a Truman Show level of self-focus was behind this utterance or not. It turns out, however, that there is a group of people who do feel this way, very literally. This is the strange world of The Truman Show Delusion. The experience of people with this delusion reveals an important lesson about how we make sense of the social world.

The Truman Show Delusion

As the name indicates, the disorder is characterized by the persistent belief that you are a character in a Truman Show-style existence. You are the only ‘real’ person, and everyone you encounter is an actor in an elaborate, entertaining scheme. 

 Sensei Minimal/Unsplash
The Truman Show Delusion is thought of us a modern paranoid delusion.
Source: Sensei Minimal/Unsplash

Psychiatrist Joel Gold coined the phrase, after reporting several of his patients with a similar set of reported experiences. He describes it as “… a novel delusion, primarily persecutory in form, in which the patient believes that he is being filmed and that the films are being broadcast for the entertainment of others.” 

While the condition is not officially recognized by a major medical body, similar symptoms have been documented in at least hundreds of patients. It’s not recognized as a distinct disorder, but rather a new variation of age-old paranoid delusion. 

The level of self-centeredness reflected in The Truman Show Delusion seems bizarre and extreme. However, it reveals something true about all of us. We’re all struggling to understand what others think of us and to keep in check what we think others think of us. The struggle is in trying to calibrate these perspectives; what psychologists call The Perception Gap.

The Perception Gap and Egocentricity

Professor Nick Epley of The University of Chicago has pioneered work in this area, and describes this in the following way, “You’ve got all this information about yourself that other people just don’t have of you, and that creates an important perspective gap that makes it hard for us to know what others think of us. You’re an expert about yourself, you know all this stuff that other people don’t, and when you have experts and novices looking at the same thing sometimes they’re going to see different things.”

 Kyle Glenn/Unsplash
The Perception Gap: The difference between what we know of ourselves, and what we believe others know about us.
Source: Kyle Glenn/Unsplash

When it comes to bridging the Perception Gap, we tend to overestimate how much others are paying attention to us. We’ve all had the experience of suddenly feeling self-conscious about something. Consider the following scenario: You find yourself in a large meeting at work on a regular Tuesday afternoon. But when you look down, you discover that you have a huge food stain on your shirt. How long has that been there for? Instantly, you feel that everyone in the room is staring at it.  

This is what psychologists call the Egocentric Bias: We naturally assume that because we're paying a lot of attention to something, that everyone else must be as well. 

But do people actually notice us as much as we think they do?  

In a set of experiments, Nick Epley and colleagues set out to formally test this. They had people walk around their local malls wearing a T-shirt designed to make them feel embarrassed and self-conscious. The T-shirt was covered in a big, blown-up picture of Barry Manilow. If you don’t know who Barry Manilow is, consider yourself lucky. Suffice to say, you would not want to walk around a mall with his face on your shirt. 

 Richard Ciraulo/Unsplash
The Spotlight Effect stipulates that we overestimate the amount of attention we receive from others.
Source: Richard Ciraulo/Unsplash

At every turn, participants felt that the passersby were staring at their shirt. However, when people at the mall were systematically polled, very few noticed at all. These findings have since been replicated with numerous stimuli in different environments, and the evidence is clear: We grossly overestimate the amount of attention we get. This is known as the Spotlight Effect, and it’s a direct consequence of our natural egocentricity. 

Truman reflected on this idea as he began to question his reality, “Maybe I’m losing my mind ... But it feels like the whole world revolves around me somehow”. To a lesser extent, we all feel this way from time to time. But in actuality, people don’t pay attention to us nearly as much as we think we do.

***

So where does that leave us? On one extreme, there are individuals with Truman Show Delusion. But on the other end of the extreme, there’s extreme selflessness. This was typified by the late great critic Christopher Hitchens during the last months of his life. 

Here, Hitchens reflected on egoism, self-centeredness, and mortality, concluding that we helplessly overrate our importance. Remarking on his own impending death, “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: 'Why not?'” Difficult to imagine a more ego-deflating phrase than that. 

Somewhere between the extremes of Truman Show Delusion on the one hand, and Christopher Hitchens on the other, is the rest of us: Struggling with our own natural egocentricity to gauge the level of attention we’re receiving. Striving for the right balance between feeling self-conscious and feeling insignificant. All the while, doing our best to navigate the complex social world

In that sense, we’re all sailing along until our boat hits the painting. 

The post originally appeared on the consumer behavior blog PopNeuro.

References

Epley, N., Whitchurch, E. (2008). Mirror, mirror on the wall: Enhancement in self-recognition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1159–1170.

Epley, N., and Keysar, B., and Gilovich, T., and Van Boven, L. (2004) Perspective Taking as Egocentric Anchoring and Adjustment (2004). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 87, pp. 327-339, 2004.

Gilovich, T., Medvec, V., and Savitsky, K. (2000). The Spotlight Effect in Social Judgment: An Egocentric Bias in Estimates of the Salience of One's Own Actions and Appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000, Vol. 78, No. 2, 211-222. 

Gold, J. & Gold, I. (2012). The “Truman Show” delusion: Psychosis in the global village. Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 17(6), 455-472. Re, D. E., Wang, S. A., He, J. C., & Rule, N. O. (2016). Selfie Indulgence: Self-Favoring Biases in Perceptions of Selfies. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(6), 588–596.

Savitsky, K., Epley, N., & Gilovich, T. (2001). Do others judge us as harshly as we think? Overestimating the impact of our failures, shortcomings, and mishaps. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 44–56. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.81.1.44

Sollinger, M. (March, 2015) Why you don't understand people as well as you think, InnovationHub 

Wright, Suzanne "The Truman Delusion" on WebMD