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The Costs of Vanity

The downsides of vanity reach further than its unappealing reputation

From comb overs to muscle flexing, high heels to waxing, vanity is part of what makes us human. And as trifling as each vain act may be, their cumulative effects on everyday life are immeasurable. If it were not for our vanity, the Billion dollar cosmetics industry would be incomprehensible. Would fashion ever be in fashion?

Psychologists who study vanity emphasize that it entails an excessive concern over physical appearance and achievements, along with an inflated self view.

Doesn’t sound very appealing, does it?

We dislike vanity in others and abhor admitting our own vain behaviors. Coming across as vain on a dating website is a sure turn off.

The personal costs of vanity go beyond the attribution of shallowness and narcissism that it earns us in social life. Recent research findings suggest that in our efforts to maintain a desired public image through vain behaviors, we often end up harming ourselves other ways. Think of the many people who visit tanning salons, even though they know of the cancer risks. The presumed social benefits of a tan seems worth more than its likely peril to health. Salon tanning may amount to a double jeopardy, however, because sometimes unnatural looking tans reveal the vanity behind their origins, undermining the goal of an enhanced public image and risking health in the bargain.

Research also shows that this willingness to incur personal costs in service of a desired public image is often seen as the distinguishing feature of vanity, separating it from garden variety pride and general self-presentational concerns.

It is this aspect of vanity that reveals why some marketing researchers worry about the societal effect of “vanity appeals” in which impressionable adolescents can be influenced to make costly purchases of clothing and cosmetics. Also, any number of risky sexual behaviors (e.g., failure to use condoms because it seems “uncool”), and other behaviors aimed at enhancing one’s one public appearance (e.g., dieting, steroid use), may be partially motivated by vanity.

And yet it is probably difficult for most people to squarely confront their own vanity. We see it in others not ourselves. Inflated views of the self are the rule not the exception. I learned long ago never to reveal how much an acquaintance reminds me of particular movie star. The guy who looks like Bill Murray may think he is closer to Harrison Ford. Recognizing our own vanity, fessing up to it, is rare. Doing so wounds our pride. Furthermore, the importance of our public image is hard to trivialize. As much as others may hardly notice the blemish on our forehead, we will magnify its social meaning and thus shell out the bucks for the prescription acne medicine, soft pedaling its side effects.

But there is a counterpoint to the downsides of vanity.

Ben Franklin recognized the unappealing reputation of vanity. Even so he came to a favorable view of this common human vice. When justifying in a letter to his son why he agreed to write his life story, he admitted the task might “gratify” his vanity. However, he was untroubled by this motive, and this is how he put it:

“Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life.”

What did Franklin mean by this fascinating statement? Perhaps, he is suggesting that vanity, however unappealing it is in exaggerated forms, may stimulate some of the remarkable things that we create -- even though we may be appear vain when we reflect on them. Yes, vanity can come with social and personal costs, but, all in all, its something to be thankful for. Without this powerful motive ever driving us, would human achievements be quite as remarkable and resplendent?

References

Netemeyer, R. G., Burton, S., & Lichtenstein, D. R. (1995). Trait aspects of vanity: Measurement and relevance to consumer behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 21, 612–626.

Webster, J.M., Hoogland, C.E., Schurtz, D.R., & Smith, R.H. (2014). Excessive image concern and willingness to incur personal cost in the experience and perception of vanity. Self and Identity, 13, 613-637.

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