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Know Your Audience: The Desires and Insecurities of the 21st Century

I’ve wanted to write this article for a long time, but it took me finding a brilliant essay called “The Rise of the Caring Industry,” by Ronald W. Dworkin, to fill in the last piece of the puzzle.

Our whole culture and self-image shifted in the 60's. Is it still shifting, and where is it going?

I’m a great fan of the show Mad Men, in part because they portray the seismic societal shifts in the late fifties and early sixties – the rise of the aggressive individualism that ushered in our modern culture. The protagonist of the show, Don Draper, is a very flawed individual but has an excellent sense of where 60’s society is trending, and what people will want as a result.

So I wonder, what conclusions would someone of his excellent understanding of people and culture draw about the self-concept of the 21st century man or woman? How can we lesser observers cultivate a clear vision of society’s dreams and desires, so as to better inform our literature, plays, and messaging?

After reading the essay I mentioned above, I got a handle on a concept that had been eluding me for a while:

Dr. Mark Leary of Duke University has established that our concept of self-esteem is actually a self-perception system, feeding us back an idea of our own value to others. I believe this is one of the chief psychological insights of our time, because it pinpoints the true source of our waxing mass insecurity. We cannot feel secure about our own identity without receiving feedback from others acknowledging our social value.

Enter Dr. Ronald W. Dworkin, an M.D. and Ph.D. who writes on the dangers of society’s over-reliance on psychological care, and psychoactive drugs. He sees the uncontrolled rise in professional psychological care-taking as a result of the “mass loneliness and mass unhappiness” resulting from the societal changes in the Mad Men era.

Here’s an excerpt from “The Rise of the Caring Industry”:

Today’s caring professionals offer the same service to lonely, unhappy people that friends and relatives once did. They do so because so many Americans are lonely and unhappy.

Recent scholarship confirms the sad state of affairs. In 1985, 10 percent of Americans had no discussion partner of any kind; by 2004, that number had increased to 25 percent. In 1985, 15 percent of Americans had only one person to talk to about a life problem, which even optimists call inadequate social support, since it makes a person very vulnerable to losing that lone relationship. By 2004, that number had increased to 20 percent.

Half of all Americans today are lonely. Not only lonely but also unhappy. An estimated 20 percent of the population exhibits symptoms of anxiety and depression, and in some states the prevalence of symptoms is closer to 30 percent. An estimated 95 percent of Americans have low self-esteem. Consistent with these trends, at least 15 percent of Americans are now on a psychoactive drug at any given moment.

People want to be able to go about their daily lives with the knowledge that someone is there for them. This basic truth led to the rise of the caring industry. Millions of unhappy people use professional counselors to compensate for having no one to talk to about their everyday problems. Separated and divorced women use psychotherapy most of all. Because the caring industry arose so swiftly, and because the caring relationship approximates the experience of real friendship, and because the “caring solution” to mass loneliness and mass unhappiness seems to work, it doesn’t bother people very much.

Dworkin traces the first signs of mass anxiety back to the 1950’s, when alcoholism, juvenile delinquency and institutionalization were on the rise. In “Defining Deviancy Down,” the late Senator (and sociologist) Daniel Patrick Moynihan talks about the massive building of mental institutions at that time to accommodate the flood of new institutional patients. Dworkin cites that, “In Manhattan alone, 82 percent of the population showed evidence of anxiety or depression.”

Shortly after that came an era of “mass loneliness” that has never receded. Dworkin cites several stresses traditional communities prevalent by 1970:

  • One in five Americans live somewhere other than their hometown, and moved there by themselves.
  • Urban renewal projects of the 60’s had torn down “impoverished but vibrant” neighborhoods.
  • In the suburbs, sprawling distances made “urban villages” impossible.
  • The number of Americans attending church or synagogue dropped by 40% from the previous decade.
  • The sixties had bred disdain for authority figures, who used to be part of one’s peer group.
  • The rise in family breakdown resulted in drifting apart from relatives.
  • The dynamics of the workforce gave rise to working women, and hectic hours.
  • The “aggressive individualism” of the 60’s brought heavy anti-conformist pressure on a generation.

Dworkin tells us that these external manifestations of mass loneliness stemmed from an internal loneliness that had already begun in the 50’s, and implied that this is the root of mass unhappiness. He doesn’t explain why, but with Leary’s Sociometer Theory, we can see why.

Dr. Mark Leary, Duke University

According to Leary’s theory, our minds are wired to take in social feedback, and bring that feedback to bear on our psyche. It looks for any evidence that our behaviors are in need of adjustment. Back in the days of early man, when survival was dependent on staying close with a couple hundred fellow tribesmen, this mental warning system must have been invaluable.

In close-knit communities or peer groups, we tend to have a lot of social contact, and we are exposed to a lot of social feedback. Having a lot of feedback is generally healthier than having a little, because with a greater sample of information, our minds can take feedback in stride and make smaller, more even-keel adjustments. With less feedback available, we tend to over-invest in individual outcomes, like the singer who bets his entire career on winning American Idol. If the feedback is good, we may make unnecessarily grandiose assumptions about our own value. When the feedback is disappointing, as is more often the case, we will beat the hell out of ourselves with it.

Our generation feels less at-ease than previous generations because we have a less-grounded idea of a) the people to whom we’re supposed to be valuable, b) the value we have to those people, and c) their expectations for us. Our psyches are adrift in perpetual uncertainty of who we should compare ourselves to. And we have a harder time knowing what’s expected of us, since the social institutions that impose expectations are breaking down.

We need evidence that we have social value. Without it, we freak out.  And today more than ever it’s less obvious how we are to get that reassurance. This is the overriding social force of our time.

It’s interesting to me that people from other countries stereotype Americans as arrogant and brash. Yes, we definitely have that capability, but that’s only the defense mechanism that they’re seeing. Under that surface, we are increasingly isolated, nervous, and unsure of how to feel content.

This is also why we see more anxiety in our political messaging now than ever before. The political divide in this country falls between those of us who are becoming increasingly isolated and individualist, and those who are desperately circling the wagons against that trend, afraid it will lead to crime and over-entitlement.

It’s gotten to the point where even those of us who have big, supportive families or close-knit friends can still feel lonely right in the middle of all that. Sometimes something from earlier on has scarred us (say, a broken home experience), and we’re still working out how to cope. Sometimes your role in the relationship prevents you from connecting in the way you need. Sometimes showing anything other than aggressive individualism may get taken for weakness, and it’s better to be lonely than weak. Whatever the case, it feels harder in modern society to even connect to those immediately around us.

We also glorify lone characters in fiction and culture. Most modern fictional heroes are lone characters. We project a notion of strength onto those who act alone.

We see people using technology more and more to try and create social connections, and where they are successful they have exchanged a few deep connections for hundreds of fleeting ones. If we think about the implications of Sociometer Theory, we understand that technological connections cannot truly substitute for in-person peer groups:

  1. Most online connections are one-on-one, and therefore have little to no group dynamic.
  2. Most online connections cannot communicate the tonal and body language subtlety needed to interpret social feedback.
  3. Most online connections tend to be more self-focused (e.g. posting about oneself) than in-person peer group connections.
  4. Most online connections are isolated to certain similar age groups, with no older role models.

This isolation dynamic and resulting insecurity is why the Reality TV shows featuring elimination rounds have become so popular. Our increasingly insecure society has developed a rejection fetish.

Simon Cowell

Simon Cowell, former panel judge for American Idol

Keith Johnstone tells us in Impro exactly why we react to Greek tragedies with catharsis: when a high-status member of society gets rejected, we all move up a notch. We have come to value Elimination TV for exactly the same reason. We do not empathize with the artists on American Idol, we empathize with Simon Cowell. He stands for us as he berates those of lower value. And as they get successively thrown overboard, we all keep moving up.

Interestingly, Elimination Shows were preceded in the 90’s and early 00’s by shows that all fostered a sense of re-connecting with families and colleagues for greater fulfillment (Friends, The West Wing, Ed, Providence, etc.). The shift from one to the other accelerated after September 11th, as our sense of mass insecurity skyrocketed.

In the future, one of two things will happen with this trend: either a) it will move further and further towards isolation, leaving us less anchored and less content, or b) people will get so desperate for connection that they will invent new (in-person) social groups to take the place of churches and extended families. If this were to happen, it would probably happen in the cities first, where close proximity helps the “urban village” effect.

What do we learn from this?

  • The major American theme of our time is coping with loneliness and unhappiness in the midst of abundance. (think about shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men, and even comedies like Two and a Half Men).
  • In a certain sense, there has never been a time for marketing to be more effective. As I wrote in a previous article, people are desperate to feel just a little bit better. Some may be reminded of Draper’s Mad Men monologue, “Advertising is About Happiness,” where he talks about seeing something on a billboard or in a magazine that screams that “whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.” People need that okay now more than ever.
  • Social status will become increasingly important to people, not as a result of narcissism, but rather an insufficient amount of in-person social connections which makes them obsess over every tiny piece of feedback they get. Status-consciousness will tend to reinforce isolationism, as people will tend to push relations away in order to climb further.
  • As people lose in-person social connections, they will increasingly over-adjust their self-concept based on smaller amounts of feedback, probably leading to higher rates of depression and bipolar disorder.
  • Entertainment will feature increasing amounts of “falling heroes” and cast-aways, for the same reason the Romans threw people to the lions: the need to “move up a peg.”
  • Since people are fundamentally after reassurance, there will eventually come a time when we experience a new trend towards personal connection in popular culture. This will not be a conservative trend back to the 90’s. It will look like whatever new communities and families look like (I think the show Modern Family is an early harbinger of this kind of trend).
  • Those people who learned to incorporate social feedback in a healthy way (usually through lots of experience with it) will have an easier time in a modern isolated society than those who have not adjusted well. The less well-adjusted will have issues later in life, and those issues can really only be addressed through finding a sense of belonging and value-to-the-group.

This is a longer article that usual, but I think the subject matter is very important. I especially invite comments on this one, as these ideas could use refining.

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