In the dying years of the twentieth century, and the first few decades of the twenty-first, a remarkable shift occured in the American psyche. This has been described by numerous scholars as the transition from a general concern with character, to a preoccupation with personality°. The somewhat simplified story goes like this: People used to be concerned about what kind of person they really were, deep down. Some scholars claim this was to do with a worry over how god would judge them, others refute that. Either way, what mattered was inside, what kind of person one knew oneself to be. As one century gave way to another, your (great) grandparents became more and more concerned with what other people thought of them, or, in other words, who they seemed to be.
This shift is reflected in the self-help literature of the time. Prounouncements about thinking kind thoughts gave way to instructions on how to appear kind. Injunctions to become a more patient person turned into discussions about the outward appearance associated with patience. As one writer put it, character is good or bad, whilst personality is famous or infamous°.
It would be easy to summarise this shift, from character to personality, as something cynical. There’s no point in trying to make yourself a better person, just fake it and the suckers will never know. Perhaps there’s some truth in that, but I think it’s part of a more worrying and wider trend that has continued in American culture, and western culture in general, to this day. It seems to me that people are increasingly concerned about what other people think in the particular. I emphasise that last phrase for a good reason. It’s important. We’re an especially social sort of ape. We were able to build the pyramids and space craft and the internet precisely because we’re very social. Sociability is important to us, and caring about what others think is part of that. If there was a cultural trend simply to care more about what others think, there’s a good chance we’d be living in a more caring empathic world. I’m not talking merely about caring about cultural standards.
I don’t want to write a long post, so I’ll just give a couple of examples, and see if you can see where I’m going with this…
Most of us want to be fit and healthy, to look good to people we find sexy, and to be able to do practical things like moving heavy things and opening jars. In other words, we want to be able to make our way in the world effectively, and to have sex. We are, as I said, just a special knd of ape. What do most people do in order to feel healthier, to feel better about their bodies, to be happier about their looks and their sex-appeal? Most of us buy clothes. Flattering cuts, shimmering fabrics, loose cloth to cover sagging flesh. British and American men spend about $900 a year on clothes. How much time does this take? Figures vary wildly, but a decent estimate might be around 150 hours a year. (See this link, but do your own search to see how variable the estimates are.) That’s roughly three hours a week, on average.
It’s easy to see why this might happen. Dealing only with the most surface appearance of fitness and sexiness is in many ways easier. Rarely do I break a sweat whilst shopping for jeans. But how effective is this strategy, especially in the long run? Do flattering clothes help you run to catch a bus? Very often they do quite the opposite. Do they help you catch the attention of your new crush? Well, maybe, but as a psychologist I’ve heard the heartbreaking stories from people who were terrified to take off their clothes on that first magical night, for fear of being revealed … and reviled.
Prioritising the surface level, the appearance, doesn’t really address the issue. We pay more attention to what others will say about our new get-up on a Friday night than on how we feel in our own bodies. The latter is so much more important. Are you comfortable when you sit? Do you feel energised or like you’ll be sick when you run up stairs? Now I said that we’re concerned about what people think in the particular. Imagine that you ask a good friend what you should focus on. Should you learn to enjoy moving your body, perhaps getting toned up, becoming stronger and fitter, or should you spend a good many hours trying to find the dress that fits juuuuuust right to cover over the bits you don’t like? Many friends would lean toward the first option. Yet in the day-to-day, we come to the conclusion that most of our friends and loved ones are more interested in our fashion choices than in whether we’re fat or fit. It’s partly because we have a slight taboo about commenting on each other’s bodies. But it’s mostly because the new cothes happen suddenly, and the increased fitness happens gradually. If we phrase the question in the particular, “I think I look fat in these jeans. What should I change?” we’re more likely to get a response about clothes. If we phrase the question in the abstract, “Do you think it’s more important to go clothes shopping or take care of your health?” we are likely to get a different answer.
The natural contingencies of our social environment tend to make us focus on the surface, on appearances, and that’s a problem because in the long run in doesn’t bring us what we really want.
I’m a university lecturer. For seventeen years, I’ve spent most of my week on university campuses. [Adopts Grampa Simpson voice.] Back in my day, we students knew we had no money. We were proud about shopping in thrift stores and living in draughty rooms.
Well that’s not quite true, by the time I did my undergraduate studies, the change was already happening. Nowadays, students in the UK (and, I’m told in the USA) expect to live a middle class, even upper middle class lifestyle whilst studying. They buy the latest tech, clad themselves in designer clothes, and splash out on rounds of drinks with gold leaf floating ostentatiously round the glass. (I’m not making that last bit up.) They turn up to lectures clutching paper mugs of Starbucks coffee, a luxury most salary-earning lecturers don’t permit themselves. The appearance is one of considerable affluence, but what’s the real effect? They leave university with even higher debts than they need to, and about half of them go back to living with mummy and daddy for a while because they can’t afford rent. Again, a focus on appearances leads to a dark place, further away from where we really want to be.
Through cultural shifts in the last hundred and twenty years, we seem to have become more sensitive to appearance over substance. We are more concerned with what other people might think, in the particular (not in the abstract). This leads us fairly reliably away from what we really want. An hour spent shopping for flattering clothes is an hour not spent getting fitter. A credit card purchase now gives the temporary appearance of wealth, though it makes us twice as poor in the long run after we’ve been gouged for interest payments.
Focusing instead on the ‘deep-down’ and ‘authentic’ and ‘real’ is counter-cultural but only in a certain sense. Living modestly but having a hundred thousand in the bank makes you actually wealthy, which in fact could afford more status than buying a car you can’t really afford, on credit. The problem is, we often don’t know that the millionaire next door is a millionaire†. If we are mostly concerned with appearances, we’ll probably never become actually wealthy.
All of this requires a profound and difficult mental shift. In order to be guided by the authentic, we have to be satisfied with our own assessment of our lives. We know we’re fit, healthy, wealthy, generous, happy, or patient, and that’s the most important thing. When we’re guided by the authentic, rather than by appearances, there will often be times when nobody else notices. Your neighbours will notice if you buy a fancy car, and assume you are rich. They will never see the statement from the loan company that’s milking you for interest payments. If you buy a cheap used car, and put a copy of your bank statement in its window to show you could have afforded a more luxurious one, your neighbours will think you are deeply weird.
Society has some pretty messed up rules about what outward appearances we can affect in order to demonstrate our status.
Try to be satisfied in your own assessment of how your life is going.
° For a nice treatment of this issue, I would suggest the chapter “Personality” and twentieth-century culture in Warren Susman’s book Culture as History.
† In The Millionaire Next Door, Dr Thomas Stanley describes how most millionaires are in fact living modest lifestyles, which is precisely how they managed to become millionaires.