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How to Read Between the Lines With Greater Comprehension

Egonomics 101: Affirmation and self-affirmation operate by supply and demand.

Key points

  • Human imagination floods our minds with disaffirming thoughts—but also ways to give ourselves reassuring pep talks.
  • Affirmationomics is the dynamics of supply of and demand for affirmation.
  • There are many ways to meet our demand for affirmation, including self-affirmation—positive self-talk.
  • If we can't admit to our need for self-affirmation, we're likely to manage it poorly.

Economics has proven a productive system for modeling the dynamics of value—changes in the “goods” we supply and demand. Behavioral economics applies economic modeling principles to goods not measured in money. For example, attentionomics—the supply of and demand for attention.

People value affirmation. We seek or demand it because life is rough, especially for us humans. We’re an anxious species trudging through a sandstorm of potentially disaffirming possibilities.

Why us? Because language enables us to imagine anything. It floods us with dreadful thoughts and wishful ways to cheer ourselves up. We’re more visionary and delusional than other organisms.

Just compare what you and a dog can worry about. A dog’s life might be hard but it’s highly unlikely that a dog can imagine doing something embarrassing at work tomorrow, an old lover finding a new partner, it’s own death in a few short dog years, or a meteor destroying all life on earth. We can imagine all that dreadful stuff and more thanks to language. It enables us to envision a bottomless list of ways we might bottom out.

Language also provides us with the power of reassurance: flattery, complements, likes, pandering, pep-talks, and romantic interpretations of all sorts.

A romantic perspective, broadly defined, is one of self-reassurance, self-affirmation, confidence that there’s some kind of happily-ever-after in store for us no matter how bad things get. Romantic partnership can feel like that but so can a belief that we’re fated to rise like a phoenix or reside in a heavenly hereafter.

Egonomics or affirmationomics would be the behavioral-economics study of changes in the supply of and demand for reassurance. Self-affirmationomics would be the study of changes in our own capacity to give ourselves romantic reassurances. “I’m fine, great, exceptional, exempt, wonderful, high-status, valuable, etc.”

The supply of outside affirmation is unevenly distributed. Popular people get lots of external affirmation. Some people get almost none.

The demand for affirmation is unevenly distributed too. Some people don’t expect much. Some people can’t get enough. Some people have suffered horribly abused lives. Some are hypersensitive—a trivial failure can punch a big hole in their confidence leaving them desperate for affirmation. Some people get plenty of affirmation which is never enough because they’re supposed to get more today than yesterday.

There are cultural changes in affirmationomics. Through social media, it has become much easier to supply affirmations—“likes” with a click of button—and easier to seek them with posts and selfies.

When, for whatever reason, we aren’t getting enough affirmations, we can supply them to ourselves. Long before social media there was a song about it: “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter, and make believe it came from you.” From roughly the same era, there’s the Groucho Marx line that teases at the edge between affirmationomics and self-affirmationomics. “But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think of me?”

Talking about ourselves is one way to supply self-affirmations. You probably know what it’s like to try to have a conversation with someone who keeps interrupting the train of thought with self-advertising. Maybe you also know what it’s like to be that someone.

Self-love is a human necessity. Again, we are an anxious species. Trudging through this sandstorm of mojo-depleting possibilities that only we humans can imagine, it’s understandable that we would need frequent mojo-replenishing pit stops in self-love.

Still, to fulfill our need for self-love it’s often best to get a room. Public crowing, boasting, name-dropping, humble bragging, virtue signaling, and gossiping about the evil idiocy of others are distractions, annoying to people trying to carry on a conversation about other things (e.g. “It’s not all about you.”).

Though our self-talk will feel like affirmation to us, it may have the opposite effect on others, giving them the impression that we’re “thirsty,” needy, trying desperately to convince ourselves that we’re OK when we’re not.

Though perhaps not if we join a mutual admiration society, where we wait our turn to say what we need to hear for mojo-replenishment. There are plenty of those. At the extreme, they become self-affirmation, echo-chamber cults, people just talking themselves up in the company of other like-minded cult members.

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Such groups can become hate groups since affirmation is comparative. The narcissistic appetite in any of us can be fed by self-flattery or condemnation of others. There are sado-narcissistic, cru-sadist cults that feed their egos on snobbish disdain of outsiders. Such sado-narcissistic cults are a form of public collective self-pleasuring.

Again, the best way to self-affirm is often in private: Love yourself? Get a room. It could be in meditation, though that’s tricky because the mojo-eroding doubts can flood in. It could be in prayer, which can become a kind of mojo-replenishing virtue signaling.

We can also get self-affirmation from watching TV—for example, laughing at fools in comedies, identifying with badasses in action films. Masturbation (in private) can also be a healthy form of self-affirmation.

Self-affirmation is a skill we all need, but one that we can’t face if we assume that everyone should overcome it. Don’t get a room, banish it from all houses! Disgust at other people’s need for self-affirmation is also a way that people self-affirm. We can get on our high horse about people getting on their high horse, snobby about snobs. That’s a popular form of self-affirmation too.

Stevie Wonder sings, “Everybody’s got a thing, but some don’t know how to handle it,” which could also be sung as “Everybody needs a thing, but some don’t know how to handle it.”

The key to handling it well is knowing that we all need this thing to some degree or other. We can’t manage it in ourselves if we’re disgusted by it. If you can’t accept that, like all people, you too need those self-flattering mojo-refill pitstops, you’ll be tone-deaf to this fundamental subtext of human life.

References

Sherman, Jeremy (2021). What's Up With A**holes: How to spot and stop them without becoming one. Berkeley, CA: Evolving Press.

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